The democratic recession that started about 15 years ago is worsening and clearing the way for authoritarian populist leaders in several countries around the world. To prevent rulers with authoritarian tendencies from getting reelected and deepening their democracy-eroding projects, the democratic opposition needs to “transcend polarization, not reinforce it” and unify under one “big political tent” to win elections and rescue democracy.
“As we saw last year in the elections for mayor of Istanbul (Turkey) and Budapest (Hungary), forming a broad coalition in defense of democracy can work,” said American political scientist Larry Diamond (Stanford), in the webinar held by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation and the Political Action Network for Sustainability (RAPS, the Portuguese acronym for Rede de Ação Política pela Sustentabilidade). “If we insist on branding those who previously voted for populists as bad people or idiots, we will not be able to form the necessary coalition (to defeat the autocrats at the polls),” said the speaker, who for decades has researched democratic trends and conditions around the world.
In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered his biggest setback since he came into power in 2003 when he saw his candidate for mayor of Turkey’s main city lose to Ekrem Imamoglu by a difference of just 15,000 votes (after the first election was annulled). In Budapest, Hungary’s capital, the opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had been in office since 2010, launched a unique candidacy and elected sociologist Gergely Karácsony by a narrow margin.
Erdogan and Orbán are examples of democratically elected illiberal rulers, alongside Donald Trump (USA), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Andrzej Duda (Poland), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), and Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), who remain in power in their countries but, for the first time, were defeated by the democratic opposition in nationally relevant local elections.
“As long as leaders with no commitment to democracy are in power, civil society, independent media, and institutions that support democracy cannot let their guard down and need to be vigilant at all times,” warned the former director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford. “Despite the reactions to the rise of authoritarianism, we must not believe that the worst is over and that, in the end, democracy will win. We have a lot of work to do to prevent authoritarian ambitions from becoming authoritarian realities.”
‘If we lose our freedom, authoritarianism can last for many years’
“In the democratic regime, there will be opportunities for every party (left, center, or right) to dispute the vote and exercise power and opposition. But suppose we lose our democracy and our freedom. In that case, authoritarianism can last for many years, the country can remain politically unstable for a long time and have its potential for social and economic development seriously compromised. For this reason, loyalty to the Constitution and democratic institutions must always be above personal or party goals,” he concluded.
For the first time in 25 years, a minority of countries live under democracy
During his initial presentation, the political scientist presented graphs and statistics that showed that since 2005 the world has been going through a period he calls ‘democratic recession,’ in contrast to the period of democratic expansion that began in 1974. Latin America, for example, experienced a democratic wave in the 1970s and 1980s, with the end of military regimes in the region.
“From the beginning of the 1990s (after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the dismantling of the Soviet Union), most countries in the world with more than 1 million inhabitants started to elect their governments with a reasonable degree of transparency. It was the first time in history that this happened,” said the co-editor and founder of the world-renowned Journal of Democracy, whose Portuguese version is published twice a year by Plataforma Democrática (Portuguese for ‘Democratic Platform’ — a project by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation and the Edelstein Center for Social Research).
The peak of that democratic expansion took place in 2005, when 57% of countries lived under democracies. “Since then, this percentage has been falling and, in 2019, it sank to 48%. For the first time in 25 years, today we have a minority of democratic countries in the world,” he explained (this percentage includes countries with more than 1 million inhabitants). But, unlike in the past, when democracies generally ended with military coups, today they deteriorate slowly and progressively driven by populist autocrats, who can be either left (like the late Hugo Chávez) or right (like Orbán).
In his speech, Diamond presented three very useful lists to understand the complex, ongoing process. The first one cited 6 causes for the current democratic crisis. The second described the 7 key elements of illiberal populism—the third detailed 12 steps followed by autocrats around the world to undermine democracy.
How to fight authoritarian populism?
Larry Diamond, who has been researching what can be done to defend and promote democracy in the world, suggested a set of 7 measures to be put in place by those who oppose authoritarian leaders and governments:
- Transcend, not reinforce, the populist instinct to polarize;
- Create a ‘big tent’ that speaks to former supporters of populist leaders and welcomes the malcontented;
- Deal with ‘bread and butter’ issues that are part of citizens’ real-life, dismantling the farce that only populists are able to represent ordinary people;
- Expose the corruption that, sooner or later, contaminates populist governments;
- Identify reforms to improve democracy, but do not make it the main campaign topic;
- Embrace a ‘civic nationalism’ in which democracy and individual freedoms are part of what makes a nation great;
- Mobilize alliances that spread across all civil society.
“Faced with an increasingly globalized world, people feel the need to be proud of their country. For this reason, defenders of democracy, the rule of law, and individual freedoms must act to transform these ideas into something inseparable from the image of a prosperous nation that is proud of its history,” he concluded.
Russia, China, and COVID-19
In the question-and-answer phase, the speaker addressed different subjects, such as the perspectives of the next US election, Russia’s attempts to influence electoral processes in the West, and China putting itself as a viable alternative to liberal democracies. He also commented on proposals to regulate social media and the possible political impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch the full original English version of the video, or the version interpreted into Portuguese, on the Foundation’s YouTube channel.
Otávio Dias is a journalist specializing in politics and international affairs. A former correspondent for Folha in London and editor of the estadao.com.br website, he is currently the content editor at Fundação FHC.
Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations)