Washington International Law Journal


Although contemporary populist authoritarians have not entirely abandoned the aims and methods of their ancestors, authoritarianism has been undergoing a reinvention in recent years. Behind a façade of constitutionalism, new authoritarianism claims to abide by democratic principles. Populist authoritarians legitimize themselves through popular elections and maintain the entire set of formal institutions associated with constitutional democracy, using them as both an appearance of representation and a tool of authoritarian imposition. The article focuses on the concepts of trust and distrust of representative government to afford a better understanding of populist authoritarianism. The paper describes two rival theoretical conceptions of government, known as Hobbesian (sovereign government) and Lockean (limited government). The Hobbesian conception rests on the idea of an effective and efficient executive that is able to protect the safety of the people and avoid anarchy. In contrast, the Lockean tradition requires checks and balances in the constitutional design in order to prevent the rise of a tyrannical executive. In the former conception, trust in the authority is a substitute for constitutional constraints, whereas in the latter, constitutional limitations presuppose that public officials and institutions should be distrusted. The article argues that constitutionalism is better served when the characterizing traits of the two theories are balanced. A comparison of some of the elements of modern constitutionalism supports the idea that under certain circumstances, a relatively stable equilibrium between trustful constitutional cooperation and constitutional mechanisms of distrust can be achieved. However, the executive may gain unrestrained power when a constitutional system loses this balance. The article shows how a divergence from equilibrium can be a marker of populist authoritarianism.

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