Le’ Notes #34: In search of political legitimacy

This post discusses Weber’s and Alagappa’s theories of political legitimacy.

The centrepiece of any political system is legitimacy. Political leaders who do not possess legitimacy, well, are deemed unworthy of assuming any political authority. At the surface, it is simple to relate the two. A legitimate leader has authority; an illegitimate leader has no authority. However, what exactly is “legitimacy”? Where does it come from? What does it consist of? How can it be lost?

Weber’s treatise on legitimacy

Max Weber’s treatise on the “Theory of Social and Economic Organizations” outlined the different forms of organizations based on their basis of legitimacy. Legitimacy is understood as the means by which power can be legitimately exercised over a group or subject. Weber identified three forms of authority depending on the source of legitimacy:

  1. Legal authority: when legitimacy is sourced from normative rules and legality
  2. Traditional authority: when legitimacy is sourced from grounded traditions or customs
  3. Charismatic authority: when legitimacy is based on perceived notions of chivalry, heroism, or exemplary character.

Legal authority

This type of legitimacy comes from rules that are either agreed upon or imposed. Say, in a proper liberal democracy, a ruler’s legitimacy not only comes from the people’s choice but also by the legal power of the political institutions that back up the ruler such as the judiciary and legislature. The ruler loses legitimacy when they start breaking rules or is deemed to not be fit to rule. In this case, obedience is not towards the ruler themselves, but rather to the rule of law.

In our current situation, this type of authority is most common.

Traditional authority

Often, a ruler gains legitimacy not from rules, but rather tradition. Obedience towards the leader comes from their position (as mandated by tradition) rather than the rule of law. I would take the example of the Balinese adat system, which incorporates elements of traditional authority. The authority to rule the adat system usually stems from tradition, where a council of elders are often viewed as having the legitimacy to rule. Here, authority stems more from age.

Other forms of traditional authority include the patriarchalism and patrimonialism. A classic example of patriarchalism is practised in monarchies. The monarch is usually provided with the authority which stems from the legitimacy of royal birthright, rather than rules. The Thai and British monarchy are examples. Or Kim Jong-Un.


Patrimonialism can be understood as a system where all political power is sourced from the leader. Obedience to the leader is by virtue of their position. To understand patrimonialism, it is best to understand Suharto’s New Order regime. As the “super-oligarch” of Indonesia, if anyone wanted to get business done, they would have to go through Suharto first. That would mean they would need to be on really good terms with Suharto. This is a form of neo-patrimonialism, however, where the leader’s political authority comes hand-in-hand with the cooperation of technocrats and military personnel.

A more traditional form of patrimonialism can be seen in less developed societies, where a war chief leads the tribe because they acquired the position through tradition. If one seeks to oppose the war chief, they would need to do so through approved customs, such as by declaring a challenge by combat, where, if the opposing candidate wins, they would gain leadership by default according to tradition.


Sukarno once ruled based on charisma.


Charismatic authority

A leader who claims legitimacy based on charisma would usually possess a revolutionary character that appeals to a certain ideology. Their authority would be based on the extent of their followers’ willingness to follow through with the leader’s ambitions, as opposed to tradition or rules.

This type of authority is usually seen during periods of anti-colonial struggle in Southeast Asia. During the deconstruction of colonial power, when previous sources of legitimacy have come under attack, charisma acts as an interim/transitional source of legitimacy that the people can hold on to. Figures such as Sukarno, Lee Kuan Yew, and Ferdinand Marcos are examples of leaders who claimed legitimacy based on the sheer power of their personality. Sukarno’s charisma still holds as of today, with several political parties and politicians revering Sukarno’s leadership and contributions to the nation.

Combining authority

It should be noted that it is rare for a single organisation to rely solely on one source of legitimacy. Sure, for the sake of analytical clarity, the sources of authority should be separated. But in practice, we often see an overlap between the different sources of authority. In a constitutional monarchy, for example, the monarch’s authority may be sourced from traditional and legal sources. Weber cautions:

“It should be kept clearly in mind that the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige. The composition of that belief is seldom altogether simple.” (p. 382)

Alagappa’s anatomy of legitimacy

The issue of legitimacy was revisited by Muthiah Alagappa. In the edited volume, Political Legitimacy in Southeast Asia, Alagappa builds upon Weber’s earlier thesis to formulate a thesis on political legitimacy in Southeast Asia.

Alagappa defines political legitimacy as “The belief by the governed in the ruler’s moral right to issue commands.” It is an “interactive and … dynamic process” between the government, public, and the elites. Legitimacy may be constructed or deconstructed through discourse, coercion, negotiation, and suppression.

While Weberian legitimacy focuses on on notions of belief and acknowledgement by the governed (see quote above), Alagappa adds two factors which influence legitimacy i.e. (1) proper and effective use of power and (2) legal validity.

Elements of legitimacy

What constitutes political legitimacy? There are four elements of political legitimacy: common norms and beliefs, conformity with established rules, proper use of power, and consent of the governed.

1) Common norms and beliefs (or ideological unity)

In societies torn by colonialism or even its inherent differences, it is often difficult to find a common, shared system of norms and beliefs — they have to be constructed. Who gets to determine the common norms?

Alagappa argues that Gramscian hegemony explains how plural societies achieve ideological unity. A dominant group — usually emerging dominant after clashing with other equally powerful groups — usually sets up norms that mirror their interests but are projected as being a belief shared by everyone. To get the inferior groups on their side, you may want to impose your dominant ideology on these other groups and silence them, preventing the inclusion of any of their ideas into your dominant ideology. Or, you can transform the entire ideology altogether by appropriating elements from minor ideologies and inserting them into your dominant ideology. This creates the illusion of “collective unity”: as a minor group, you think the dominant ideology benefits you because it has elements of your preferred ideology, hence you follow the hegemon.

This is also where the nation-building history comes in. It is important for the hegemon to contextualise history and culture to fit the dominant ideology. It’s an effective way of convincing people.

2) Conformity with established rules

Once norms are established, what usually follows is the formulation of rules, especially pertaining to the acquisition and continuation of power. A government that assumes power based on the existing rules will be viewed as legitimate and vice-versa.

We can refer back to Weberian legitimacy: if the leader is perceived to not have gained legitimacy from the preferred source of authority, the leader then lacks authority and is considered illegitimate. Of course, there are extraordinary situations where the government may not have to abide by rules, such as during a revolution. An appeal to charisma would be an adequate source of legitimacy in this case.

However, when a government continuously flaunts established rules, they are more likely to lose legitimacy, as they are viewed as not abiding by a common agreement. Taking it to extremes, when both the people and the government choose not to observe shared beliefs, it can be said the norms themselves have lost legitimacy and a new set of norms needs to be established.

3) Proper use of power

Alagappa argues there are 2 aspects to the proper use of power. Firstly, the government acting within the accepted procedures (law enforcement, etc.) and secondly, the use of power to achieve common interests.

Simply put, a government that routinely abuses power will be more likely to face legitimacy challenges. An abusive authoritarian government may wake up one day to find the people burning buses and throwing Molotov cocktails through the Supreme Leader’s window, calling for a change of government. While a benevolent authoritarian government that performs economically well may have the full support of their citizens, even though the government may be abusing their power here and there.

4) Consent of the governed

“Consent is crucial, for without public recognition there can be no authority”. (p. 23)

Consent can be understood as the extent to which the governed recognises the government’s right to issue commands. The nature of it, though, depends on the type of government. In a democracy, consent is usually active-participative. Consent can be shown by voting for a particular presidential candidate and believing in the power of political institutions, for example. In an authoritarian regime, people’s consent may be relevant, but most important is the consent of the strategic group. For example, authoritarian Suharto relied on the consent of technocrats and the military to legitimise his ruler. When the military thought Suharto’s government had become too personalised (see Terence Lee’s personalistic rule thesis), Suharto lost the consent of the military. The military then decided to side with the student protestors to bring about a regime change.

A word of caution

Again, for analytical clarity, the elements of legitimacy are intentionally split into clear-cut sections. However, in practice, it is rarely the case. Determining the extent of political legitimacy is not an easy task, as it is heavily influenced by variable factors or “critical elements”, such as pressure groups in society and the strategic groups in the political elite.

Bases of legitimacy


Onwards to Communism!


To support a claim for legitimacy, leaders often have to resort to several bases of legitimacy. These can include normative goals, performance, charisma, a politically defining moment, or international support.

Goal-rational ideologies. A government may seek to legitimise its rule by saying that there’s a rational relationship between their functions and an “ideal goal”, such as a Communist state. For example, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) legitimised its rule by saying they were the more capable ones of creating a socialist Burmese state.

Popular sovereignty may be used as a basis to claim legitimacy. Vox populi vox dei. However, this is also prone to manipulation, such as rigged elections in authoritarian regimes. It could also be used to silence dissent, by claiming that the leader has the support of the people, even though that may not be the case.

Religion is an effective basis for legitimacy, especially in theocracies.

Performance is understood as the proper and effective use of power to promote collective will. As Alagappa argues, performance is a limited basis for legitimacy as it is often contingent (you always need to perform better than last year to appeal) and is short-lived (Suharto’s regime again provides an apt example).

Charisma is only useful when used in the context of a politically-defining moment. After that, charisma tends to lose utility quickly, especially when the leader has no idea on how to consolidate power.

International support refers to claims of legitimacy based on the prevailing international norms. Simply put, if the international trend is liberal democracy, the government may lose legitimacy if they don’t follow that trend due to pressure from inside and outside.

A legitimacy crisis

When is legitimacy contested? How do leaders lose legitimacy? A legitimacy crisis occurs when the existing authority is perceived or acknowledged to be under threat of destruction of transformation. It is rather difficult to discern, especially when there are multiple factors at play. It could also be a temporary strain, not a full-blown crisis.

How a leader may lose legitimacy

Alagappa proposes 3 theories that may help explain how leaders may lose legitimacy.

Capitalist development is assumed to promote democratic values, which affects the balance of power in society as development brings about a more educated middle class. More vocal groups with new ideals challenge the status quo and create pressure for political change. The government has two options: accommodate or refuse. If the government chooses to accommodate these new demands, a legitimacy crisis may be averted. But when they refuse, a crisis may be at hand.

The crisis of the capitalist state refers to a crisis that occurs when the state cannot solve contradictions between major stakeholders. For example, the state’s intervention in the economy irritates capitalists who want minimum state intervention. On the other hand, the capitalists have to cope with the demands of the population. With these dilemmas at hand, if the state cannot reconcile between them, it leads to a strain on legitimacy.

The overloaded state refers to a crisis that happens when a state is faced with intersecting demands from a plural society. In a newly democratising state, the state will face more and more demands from new groups, such as the socialists, right-wing religious groups, and liberal groups. If the state is deemed incapable of accommodating all of these interests, a strain on legitimacy may be imminent. Unlike the crisis of the capitalist state, this view takes into account broader demands, not merely economic demands.

In addition to these theories, there are also two other things that may lead to a loss of legitimacy, i.e. the failure to deliver on promises and the failure to anticipate new ideologies and values brought by globalisation.

Why does a leader lose legitimacy?

There is no easy answer to this. We would need to refer back to Alagappa’s elements of legitimacy and Weber’s sources of authority, and also consider unique socio-cultural-political contexts in the country that we’re looking at.

If I were to take Suharto as an example for the umpteenth time, he lost his legitimacy due to a variety of factors.

The notion of “divine inspiration” (wahyu) is central to the Javanese concept of leadership. As a Javanese king, Suharto’s authority lies as much in the patrimonial system as it does in his ability to keep his wahyu. A king maintains his wahyu by not engaging in pamrih, or self-benefitting practices, and by providing welfare for his subjects. However, as Suharto grew old, he started to engage in pamrih, such as through corruption and nepotism, which led to an erosion of his traditional authority marked by a loss of trust from his once-trusted institutions (military and technocrats) as well as the people.

This is putting it rather simply, of course. In reality, the process of losing legitimacy does not happen overnight nor through singular means.


Political legitimacy and its constituents is an inherently complex concept as it is linked with many factors and variables. However, it is a crucial concept to understand when studying governments and political systems, especially in complex environments such as Southeast Asia where there are many intersecting interests and dynamics. Alagappa and Weber’s theses provide a helpful foundation for understanding the complexities of Southeast Asian governments; it is likely that as the democratisation process matures, political legitimacy may be conceived differently.

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