Update > Definition



When political scientists study legitimacy, they try to explain why some governments are accepted by their people and others are not. The basic question that political scientists ask about legitimacy is “why do the people obey the government?” Legitimacy refers to the level of acceptance that people have for the authority of a leader, institution or government.

Muthiah Alagappa’s view of Legitimacy

Legitimacy is important for a government because it helps it to rule a country peacefully and effectively. The political scientist Muthiah Alagappa says that four features make a government more legitimate to its people:

  1. Governments get their power in ways that are accepted by the people (e.g. elections).
  2. Governments use their power in ways that are accepted by the people (e.g. policies are in the interest of all the people, government workers are not corrupt, and laws are not unfair).
  3. Governments provide goods and services that meet the needs of the people (e.g. making sure that there is enough food, jobs and health care services).
  4. Governments have the consent of the people (people accept the government’s authority and agree to accept the rules designed by them because of this).

Larry Diamond’s View of Legitimacy

On the other hand, the academic and researcher of democracy Larry Diamond suggests 6 factors that are related to a government’s legitimacy:

  1. Performance: Governments are often seen as legitimate if citizens think that they are doing a good job (i.e. ruling parties are the achieving the aims and outputs they specified in their manifesto or is the regime leading to economic and social development).
  2. Norms and values: Governments can be seen as legitimate if the values of the government and the constitution resonate with values of the people.
  3. Social structure: The future of society may contribute to political legitimacy (i.e. an authoritarian government may be seen as legitimate in an society that values strong and decisive leadership and vice versa.
  4. Political institutions: If political institutions are stable, representative, effective and efficient this can promote the legitimacy of a government.
  5. Leadership: charismatic leadership can increase the legitimacy of the government if that government is connected to that leader in the minds of citizens.
  6. The International environment: Political systems don’t exist in isolation, there is always the capacity to compare and contrast with those around (works both ways a relatively democratic state surrounded by authoritarian states might be considered very legitimate and vice versa).