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Public Opinion and Authoritarian Regimes

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Is public opinion a force for good government or not? If recent events in Burma, Pakistan and Georgia show anything at all it is that public opinion is ultimately  the basis of power and legitimacy. Which is something several political philosophers have told us for over 200 years, but it is fascinating to watch these struggles unfold.

And it explains why authoritarian regimes are always keen to control public opinion by:

Is public opinion a force for good government or not? If recent events in Burma, Pakistan and Georgia show anything at all it is that public opinion is ultimately  the basis of power and legitimacy. Which is something several political philosophers have told us for over 200 years, but it is fascinating to watch these struggles unfold.

And it explains why authoritarian regimes are always keen to control public opinion by:

  • Controlling broadcasting and the press
  • Pumping propaganda at the population
  • Restricting means of open debate and discussion about public issues.


But they also know, to their frustration that public opinion about the regime is forming all the time. Because there is always everyday talk. No matter how draconian the controls on information flows imposed by the regime people will meet in the normal traffic and business of life. And they will talk about public concerns. Opinion leaders will shape the views of those around them. Debate and discussion in bars, pubs, homes, workplaces, schools and so on will go on all the time. The mass media do not always mediate reality. The regime is being discussed and assessed all the time. Public opinion is forming all the time.

Authoritarian regimes know that life is easiest for them when public opinion supports their rule, then they do not need to rely on force. For brute force is an unpredictable tool. The police and soldiers that a regime relies on to impose rule by force can turn suddenly and refuse to continue to brutalize the same population from which they themselves have emerged. Authoritarian regimes know that majority opinion in any country is also likely to be majority opinion within the police force and the armed forces. It makes for a fragile basis on which to base any form of rule.

But, again, as recent events in Burma, Pakistan and Georgia demonstrate one must not romanticize the power of public opinion. This is for a number of important reasons. First, it is not easy to get majority opinion to form and solidify in complex, divided societies where ethnic or other cleavages are sharp. It is all too easy for authoritarian regimes to divide and rule. Secondly, structural factors can delay the impact of public opinion.  Each context differs and delayers are many.

Nonetheless, what is clear is that the fear of public opinion by authoritarian regimes is eloquent testimony to the potential of public opinion as a force for good, responsive and accountable government. Public opinion is a force that change agents in all societies need to study and understand and deploy skillfully and well. I trust that you get my meaning. If you don't or if you disagree, please let me know. I am willing to discuss and debate this for as long as you like. And that's a promise!


Submitted by rushda on
First of all Mr. Sina, let me wish you all the very best for this effort. It is interesting that you should bring up the issue of public opinions in non-democratic regimes. While you are in the debating mode, it would be nice if you could tell me the use of public opinion in democratic regimes. For as long as I know, for a democracy to be successful, you need a dictator who will totally disregard all forms of public opinion. I'll give you the example of two of the world'd most successful democracies -- USA and Israel. The US had a public according to whose opinion Iraq should never have been invaded. They had rallies, demonstrations, opinion polls, petitions and all forms of public opinion expression forums that opposed the war. Yet the occuptional war took place. Till date, the government is so deeply entrenched in the war that the US will not be able to pull out of it, despite popular public opinions. Israel is the second example. That Israel has used the tool of its own democracy to violate all the peace talks is another story. BUT, in 2006, Israel went right ahead and fought the Hezbollah in Lebanon, despite the popular opinon against it. The issue I am tring to raise here is that whether it is an authoritarian regime or it is a democracy, what is the role of public opinion going to be in a polity??

I just want to add to your comment that: in fact there has arisen a new clique of rulers or governments which ruthlessly crush all the public opinion that goes against their agenda. An obvious example is US, UK and European rulers or say their governments which support a dictatorial regime in Pakistan. A regime that killed the judiciary, media and is intent upon killing all opposition against itself. Where is all that education that US, UK and Europe got through the last hundreds of years. Have they forgotten all the principles of personal freedom, constitutionalism,rule of law, independent judiciary, independent media, and vibrant civil society! I pity their support to a dictatorial regime in Pakistan!

Submitted by Ayo Adene on
Nigerians love to talk, and whether the government allows them to or not, they will. They will sing 'yabis' against bad rulers like afrobeat maestro Fela, they will debate on the pages of newspapers,and they will talk in their offices, on the bus, at football matches or at the mama-put restaurant on their local street corner. They will spend countless hours on their mobile phones talking about everything and nothing. The phone companies smile to the bank. In Nigeria, talk is cheap. And telecoms is very good business. Governments that want good ideas glean them from the market place of public opinion. Even smart businesses do the same to remain in competition. We dont know who Gallup is, but all of us use his poll to reflect the importance of public opinion. Public opinion is fundamental to good government. Which is why the Romans said 'vox populi, vox Deo...the voice of the people is the voice of God'. Every regime that has resisted public opinion has collapsed. Witness former USSR, nazi Germany to old East/West Germany, and here in Nigeria, recent military dictatorships. In contrast, regimes that have respected public opinion have flourished: the typical example is the USA, but it is true for most Western democracies. Even China is moving away from its traditional conservative communist ideology in tandem with its emerging dominance in the capitalist economy. Here in Nigeria, a government that was controversial at the polls is thriving today because it has assumed a reputation for 'respect for the rule of law' and public opinion.In contrast, Kenya, where public opinion about election results is being brutally suppresed, is sinking into despair. Therefore public opinion is fundamental to freedom and progress. It is a tenet of true democracy.

Submitted by kachollom on
I do believe that public opinion in its entirety is a force for good governance. If a society already has entrenched in it the belief in public opinion then ultimately the government must listen to the voice of the people, but in the event that arbitrariness is the order of the day like in most third world countries, i would say no matter how the people talk the leaders would not listen. The people must lend a voice to governance if they are to ensure accountablity from the leaders and not outright authoritarian rule. Authoritarian rule only works presently if the people have been totally intimidated by the government however in the case of Pakistan,the people lent a voice and the result is what we are seeing today. Every government must ensure that all social amenities are put in place, there must be probity and the rule of law must be followed to a reasonable extent. reasonable extent because whether or not you believe it, there are those called "sacred cows" whom the rule of law will not apply to.Hopefully,there shall be governments around the world that public opinion shall definitely define the shape of governance in time to come. This is my take

Submitted by Hayatuddeen Tanimu on
Let me start by answering your question; is public opinion a force for good governance or not? Absolutely it is, but if the good wishes and opinion of people is effectively captured and aired by the media in such a way it can be valued by the government. It is very true the media plays a very significant role in setting most of Government agendas. However, it is important to appreciate that the public can not effectively voice out their opinion if they don’t clearly understand the government policies. Is the Nigerian media fulfilling the task of effectively informing and educating the people on what, where and how the government policies are going to affect their lives and that of the future generations? The broadcast media (radio) has the wide coverage of Nigerian populace, most of which are owned and controlled by the government. Therefore, the issue of ownership and control plays a great role in the media activities. There is little or no reflection of public opinion in the media programmes. I keep on asking myself do we really have a free press in Nigeria and the world in general. In other words, a press that is free from influence of its owners? The Nigerian media critically contribute in propagating and imposing government ideologies to the governed. There is no balance reporting in most of its activities. Critics of most government policies are not aired or published in government owned media outfits. This terribly contributes in making government decisions more favorable to those in power other than the general public. Media is a weapon that can be used in fighting all social vices. The issue of corruption in Nigeria can be addressed through media. Media Programmes should be centered towards sensitizing and mobilizing people to be patriotic other than engage in entertainment programmes. The idea of behavioral change should be the media’s primary goal/target. The media should also conduct an investigative reporting on any body related to corrupt practices, in order to get to the root of events. This will definitely assist in substituting the idea of corruption with that of patriotism in the minds of Nigerians.

Submitted by Hayatuddeen Tanimu on
Hello Adene, Please can you explain more on what reputation has a government that assumed into office through election malpractice have in the eye of the public? The former president was quoted in the 2007 campaign rally saying; “2007 election is a Do or Die affairs”. Reports given by home and international observers testified that 2007 was the worst election Nigeria has ever witnessed in its political history. I think the present government should focus on how to totally reform the electoral processes in the country. Constituting electoral reform committee is not enough. Public awareness on electoral ethics should be given emphasis. Media outfits should be engage in this crusade. Then I can agree that this government has begun to gain reputation in the eyes of the public and as well internationally.

Submitted by clementine usman-wamba on
May i by way of information let us konow that The National Broadcasting Commission, the agency charged with regulation of broadcasting in Nigeria is in the process of licensing a new private radio and television network. the bidding process will end by Dec 2009, when the successful bidder will be announced. This will help in widening the public sphere in Nigeria. Govt owned FRCN and NTA will cease to have monopoly of network broadcasting. while programming which promotes national unity and peace is expected from the new networks, we can also expect public opinion to thrive better. while we can not rule out ownership as an influential factor in media content; the public must awaken to its responsibility and challenge the existing and new networks to objectivity and staight dealing in programming.

Submitted by Mojisola on
What are the effects of public opinion on policy decision in nigeria and any other country.

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