Research page
Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy

Governance through Disorder: Illiberalism and the politics of unpredictability

  • Project Lead: Rebecca Tapscott
  • Timeline: 2019-2023
  • Keywords: Disorder, illiberal governance, state formation, civil society, Uganda
  • Funding Organisation: Gerda Henkel Foundation’s Special Programme on Security, Society and the State



How do authoritarian rulers of fragile or weak states sustain power with a limited state apparatus? Through a focus on Uganda’s security sector, this project proposes and tests a novel explanation for the puzzle of long-lasting regimes in fragile states: that rulers maintain control by institutionalizing uncertainty. In this approach, rulers strategically cultivate plural governing systems and foster unpredictable and potentially violent state intervention. In turn, this fragments civic organization, preventing individual people and organizations from organizing to make claims on governing authorities.

Governance through disorder is an understudied form of contemporary illiberalism. While many scholars focus on anti-pluralism as denotative of the difference between liberalism and illiberalism, strategies of governance through disorder take a different approach. Rather than limiting plural political institutions or patching them together to produce an illiberal whole, they instead leverage pluralism, using it to produce and justify an environment of ad hoc intervention, unpredictable violence, and inconsistent governance—that is, an illiberalism based on the politics of disorder rather than the politics of anti-pluralism. When successful, such an approach can have the appearance of a fragile or nascent liberal order while in practice undermining alternatives to authoritarian rule.

The project runs from 2019 to 2021, and uses qualitative interviews as well as an innovative survey design. It seeks to contribute to scholarly understanding of illiberal governance and regime longevity, state consolidation, and processes of violence and political order.