Democratic Backsliding and Elected Authoritarianism

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Aavishkar Gautam 15 June 2022

Aavishkar was a participant in the Blog-Writing Competition on Democracy, Geopolitics, and Foreign Affairs organized by Accountability Lab Nepal, and she was selected as one of the winners from over 50 submissions.

Let’s travel back in time around the 1990s. In 1989, one and a half million people protested against communist east Germany. The Berlin Wall, the sign of division between east and west, among the ideas of capitalism and communism and an epitome of cold war fell as millions of east Berliners entered the west. The fall of the wall, as much as it signalled the crumbling and failing policies of communism also announced democracy as the sole winner in governance. It was further strengthened when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. It seemed that democracy was the sole winner. It endured the fascist rise of nazi Germany, Soviet communism, and the second world war. The rapid economic development of western Europe in the 1950s and the victory of democratic countries in the cold war proved effective to uphold democracy. Democracy seems tempting, thanks to its inherent appeal that preserved and promoted rule of law, individual freedom, and accountability. It seemed the only way to rescue people from extreme poverty and provide quality of life. This was proved by the rapid development in infrastructure and quality of life in countries like India, Brazil, and Indonesia that adopted democracy and practised the rule of law.

Yet, fast forward to the 21st century, and democracy seems to linger. Some long-established democracies, such as the United States, are witnessing a violation of governmental norms once thought secure, and this has culminated in the recent insurrection at the US Capitol. The rise of far-right populists such as Donald Trump in the U.S, Marie Le Pen in France, and Mateo Salvini in Italy is evident that the current Liberal International Order is in danger. It then seems plausible that as democracy and its popularity are in decline, people are favouring an alternate form of governance. The recent rise in the authoritarian government is a result of the failing democratic values and the promises it wanted to provide. In this essay, I provide an analysis of the causes of the decline in democratic popularity and the rise of authoritarian regimes as a cause and effect phenomenon. I argue that such criticisms of democracy are a small bump in the path for better governance that will be eventually overcome just like it endure the fascist rise, Soviet communism and the cold war of the 20th century.

 

The Fall in Democracy

The decline in economic output in democratic countries as compared to non-democratic countries has played a key role to undermine the value of democracy. Among the list of top 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita, 6 of the countries can be termed as non-democratic, that do not host elections and have separate judicial systems (“GDP per capita”). In addition to it, the economic output of authoritarian countries now accounts for almost 33 % of the world’s GDP, a number similar to the early 1930s, during the rise of fascism in Europe(Mounk and Foa). In addition to it, the share of global GDP contribution by countries such as China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Russia will surpass those of the western liberal democracies (Mounk and Foa). It is also estimated that China, an authoritarian government, will surpass the United States as the global economic powerhouse in the next 5 years (Jennings). As the number suggests, the decline in economic growth is seen as one of the most important criticisms of modern democracy. As much as the quality of life has increased and prospered in non-democratic countries, the growth is slow, sometimes declining, in democratic countries. China alone has eradicated extreme poverty and raised almost 770 million people from poverty (“How China Lifted 800m people out of poverty”). The quality of life had drastically increased in a short period. Other nations in the middle east such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have been able to amass huge wealth and provide a standard of living that could not have been perceived 20 years ago. Such numbers have got people thinking about whether democracy is the only pathway to better life and development.

The Populist rise in democratic countries has given rise to a nationalist sentiment all around the globe. The rise of far-right populist candidates and subsequent rise in nationalist sentiment all around the world have undermined democratic values at home for the pioneers of democracy. Slogans such as “Make America Great Again” and “Taking back control from Brussels” set a clear example of waves of nationalism surrounding western democracies. Once such populists rise to power, they might try to undermine the very foundations of democracy and liberalism. It was evident in the capital insurrection of the 2020 presidential election when protestors attempted to overturn the election: the very back blood of functioning modern democracy. Stanford political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse argues, “When populist leaders discredit formal institutions and functions, democracy is being undermined and hollowed out.”(White) She believes while criticizing the institutions as corrupt and unworthy, populists tend to undermine certain core values of democracy risking the entire political system. And when such populist movements gain control of mainstream politics, they might turn into authoritarian governments. As a case in point, Venezuela is a prime example. The new york times article writes Hugo Chavez rose as a leftist populist rallying for saving democracy and instead transformed the country into an authoritarian regime (Fisher and Taub). Hence, the rising populism in countries around the world might undermine the values of democracy and can go as far as to entirely transform the governance of the country.

 

Elected Authoritarianism

It seems as if democracy is in serious question right now. Given that alternate forms of governance give better economic quality and a better quality of life, it is normal for an average citizen to rethink the ideologies of the political systems they are being governed. Indeed, ideologies must change given the time and moment. The United States remained a global superpower since the fall of the Soviet Union. Presently, it is being challenged by China, an authoritarian regime. Democracy and its co-relation with prosperity, growth, and freedom need to be thought over again given that alternate forms of governance can reach the same height, and in some places better. Yet, I still believe the core values of democracy that are its very foundation are exemplary of its continuation and existence. Democracy is “of, by and for the people “. The foundations of democracy that preserve the rule of law, freedom of speech, a delegation of power to the people, and the process of the election seem tempting.

In Authoritarian rule, the fear of a man taking your property and using all his power to favour himself seems to linger every day. The fact that such government lacks political institutions for check and balance is another fear to live by every day. Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary political philosopher and author of Leviathan, expresses his view on authoritarianism in the book-, “ [W]herein men live without other security, than what their strength and their invention shall furnish them …, the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”(Hobbes et al). Similarly, Aristotle writes, “Still democracy appears to be safer and less liable to revolution than oligarchy. For in oligarchies there is the double danger of the oligarchs falling out among themselves and also with the people” (Aristotle). I think that this is a small hiccup in the road for democracy and that some changes to the system might be necessary. What we think of authoritarian governments amassing massive wealth is the fact that they have been naturally and demographically favoured. Thanks to oil, the middle east can amass such massive wealth and rule peacefully and so is Russia. China’s recent growth is the result of favourable demographics and a soaring debt bubble (Mounk and Foa). The future is still in question given the ageing population at home. As democracy endured the devastation of the first world war and the rise of fascism and communism, it will surely endure this cycle of authoritarian popularity. One way or the other, for better or worse, the century-long domination of western liberal democracy has ended. It is now a question of whether democracy will be a global phenomenon or a lingering form of government in a corner of the globe.

 

References

  1. Mounk, Yascha, and Roberto Stefan Foa. “The End of the Democratic Century.” Foreign Affairs, 19 Apr. 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-04-16/end-democratic-century.
  2. “How China Has Lifted Nearly 800 Mln People out of Poverty.” Xinhua, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-04/06/c_139862741.htm#:~:text=BEIJING%2C%20April%206%20(Xinhua),opening%20up%20in%20late%201970s.
  3. White, Melissa De. “Populism Jeopardizes Democracies around the World.” Stanford News, 12 Mar. 2020, https://news.stanford.edu/2020/03/11/populism-jeopardizes-democracies-around-world/.
  4. Fisher, Max, and Amanda Taub. “How Does Populism Turn Authoritarian? Venezuela Is a Case in Point.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Apr. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/world/americas/venezuela-populism-authoritarianism.html?searchResultPosition=1.
  5. Hobbes, Thomas, et al. Leviathan. W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.
  6. Aristotle. Politics (Aristotle). Beta script Publishing, 2011.
  7. Jennings, Ralph. “China’s Economy Could Overtake US Economy by 2030.” VOA, China’s Economy Could Overtake US Economy by 2030, 4 Jan. 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/chinas-economy-could-overtake-us-economy-by-2030/6380892.html#:~:text=Its%20forecast%20says%20that%20China,ranked%20U.S.%20economy%20by%202030.
  8. “GDP per Capita.” Worldometer, https://www.worldometers.info/gdp/gdp-per-capita/.
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