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The Legitimation of Repression in Autocracies  

Maria Josua

In research on authoritarianism, both legitimation and repression have received growing attention since the late 2000s. However, these two strategies of political rule do not form separate pillars of power; they are interlinked and affect each other. Autocrats not only rule with an iron fist, but they also seek to legitimize their use of repression vis-à-vis at least some of their citizens and the outside world. These legitimizing discourses are part of political communication in autocracies and can be studied using the approach of framing. So far, few researchers of the protest–repression nexus have studied how protesters are being framed by officials in autocracies. The communication of repression varies widely across autocracies. Authoritarian incumbents differ in their degree of openness vs. opacity, impacting also on how they publicize, admit to, or conceal certain forms of repression. When choosing to justify acts of repression, multiple factors influence which types of justification are used. One decisive factor is against which targets repression is employed. In framing the targets of repression in a certain way, autocratic elites pursue a twin strategy in that they seek to attain the approval of certain audiences and to deter potential or actual dissidents. Furthermore, justifications diverge regarding which actors use them and towards which audiences. Past experiences and regime characteristics also impact on how repression is justified. This research program offers great potential for studying state–society relations in autocracies. It cuts across research on political violence, authoritarian legitimation, and political communication. For understanding the persistence of autocracies in times of contention, it is an important piece in the puzzle of authoritarian survival strategies illuminating the “dark side” of legitimation.