Shalini Randeria and Renata Uitz Discuss Soft Authoritarianism at YISARES Opening Event

On October 27, Central European University (CEU) President and Rector Shalini Randeria chaired the discussion “Soft Authoritarianism between Geopolitical Complexities and Everyday Practice” at the opening event of the 2022 Young International Scholars Research School (YISARES) at University of Bremen. In addition to her leadership of CEU, Randeria is the University of Bremen Excellence Chair.

She was joined by CEU Professor in the Department of Legal Studies and Co-Director of the CEU Democracy Institute Renata Uitz. Additional panelists were Evren Balta (Özyeğin University) and
Ranabir Samaddar (Calcutta Research Group). The panel discussion took the dynamics of new governance styles in countries such as India, Hungary and Turkey, where democratically elected governments use political rhetoric and practices that gradually but systematically blur the lines between democratic and authoritarian rule, as the starting point for discussing soft authoritarian forms of governance.

Among Randeria’s provocations were questions such as: “In which way has the war affected the strategic position of India, Hungary or Turkey? Do the new geopolitical complexities offer further opportunities for the tacit introduction of authoritarian legislation? Do increased tensions and risks on an international level rather slow down soft authoritarian transformations? And which transnational networks and relations between authoritarian and soft authoritarian governments can we observe?”

“I think systemic and stable uncertainty has become the defining feature of our era, not just a systemic feature of the regimes in which we are living,” said Balta. She emphasized how emerging hybrid regimes, like Turkey and Hungary, “Absorb the institutionalized uncertainties of democracies, but destroy the stable components: rule of law and institutions, leading to systemic uncertainty.” Balta further pointed to authoritarian tactics from emergency suspensions of rights to flexible alliances in foreign affairs as avenues for mitigating certain geopolitical risks.

Sammadar’s remarks followed: “What does a European war mean for non-Europeans?” he asked, as he discussed politics of transnational military alliances. Sammadar also questioned the relationships between the local and global during peacekeeping and conflict, posing the question, “Is anything Western necessarily global?” Here, he suggested that there is a new meaning to being non-aligned, additionally entailing the complexities and politics of sanctions.

Uitz maintained that it is important “To study contextually situated patterns of action and inaction on the ground and on the international level because ultimately its not only the various actions and measures various actors took, but also the delays the trepidations and the paths not taken that speak to how soft authoritarianism operates and how it settles in.” She discussed how shifting bounds of acceptable risk and normalizing deviance undermine democracy and human rights through a gradual retrogression. “Illiberal practices normalize illiberal democracy or soft authoritarianism into an everyday experience,” she said.

Following an interactive discussion, in closing, Randeria summarized how the shapeshifting characteristics of soft authoritarianism were captured and illuminated during the panel. She noted, “Soft authoritarian regimes are chameleon-like. They change shape and form, oscillating from democratic tools to authoritarian tools. Then they employing a rhetoric that obfuscates the tactics being used, thus taking on a permanently unstable form, which paradoxically gives it stability.”

YISARIES is organized by the Research Group Soft Authoritarianisms, the University of Bremen Research Project “Datenpolitiken und Autoritarismus: Digitale Verflechtungen und demokratische (Un-)Möglichkeiten”, the Research Training Group “Contradiction Studies” and the Collaborative Research Platform “Worlds of Contradiction” (WoC). YISARIES is funded by the University of Bremen and WoC.

Watch the panel discussion here.