Democ­racy's re­treat

Af­ter decades of tri­umph, democ­racy is los­ing ground What is be­hind the re­ver­sal?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS -

Af­ter decades of tri­umph, democ­racy is los­ing ground. What is be­hind the re­ver­sal?

IN A glass case at the Di­yarbakir Bar As­so­ci­a­tion are a striped shirt, dark coat and coiled belt. They be­longed to the for­mer chair­man, Tahir Elci, a lawyer who was mur­dered in 2015 amid clashes be­tween the Turk­ish army and Kur­dish sep­a­ratists. He was stand­ing by the Four-Legged Minaret, a 500-year-old land­mark in the an­cient city, call­ing for peace. Some­one shot him in the head. No one knows who killed him. The govern­ment blames Kur­dish ter­ror­ists. Many Kurds blame the govern­ment. Af­ter Elci’s death, the army pounded the rebel-held part of Di­yarbakir to rub­ble. The de­bris, in­clud­ing body parts, was heaped onto trucks and dumped by a river. Lo­cals are scared to talk about any of this.

Barely a decade ago, Turkey was a bud­ding democ­racy and as­pired to join the Euro­pean Union. Now it is gal­lop­ing to­wards dic­ta­tor­ship. In 2016 army of­fi­cers tried to mount a coup, putting tanks in the streets, bomb­ing par­lia­ment and nearly as­sas­si­nat­ing the pres­i­dent, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. It was quickly scotched. Mr Er­do­gan launched a purge. Over 200,000 peo­ple, mostly sus­pected mem­bers of the Gulen move­ment — the Is­lamist sect said to have led the failed putsch — were jailed or sacked. Any­one could be ar­rested for hav­ing at­tended a Gu­lenist school, hold­ing an ac­count at a Gulen-owned bank, or even pos­sess­ing $1 bills, which the govern­ment says were a mark of Gu­lenism.

Mil­lions of Turks are now ter­ri­fied of their pres­i­dent. How­ever, plenty ad­mire him for pro­tect­ing them from the Gu­lenists. Adem, an es­tate agent in Is­tan­bul, con­grat­u­lates Mr Er­do­gan for “clean­ing away the en­e­mies within” — echo­ing a govern­ment slo­gan. He says, of the purge’s vic­tims: “They’ve been ar­rested be­cause they’ve done some­thing wrong.” He adds: “In Amer­ica if you steal state se­crets they put you in the elec­tric chair, don’t they?”

At an elec­tion on June 24th, Mr Er­do­gan is ex­pected to con­sol­i­date his power. De­spite dou­ble-digit in­fla­tion and a tot­ter­ing cur­rency (see ar­ti­cle), he is likely to win re-elec­tion (though his party may strug­gle). And his of­fice will be­come much more pow­er­ful, thanks to a con­sti­tu­tional change he pushed through last year. As “ex­ec­u­tive” pres­i­dent, he will be able to is­sue de­crees with the force of law and pack the ju­di­ciary with loy­al­ists.

Turkey ex­em­pli­fies a dis­mal trend. The world has grown far more demo­cratic since the sec­ond world war. In 1941 there were only a dozen democ­ra­cies; by 2000 only eight states had never held a se­ri­ous elec­tion. But since the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2007-08, democ­racy has re­gressed.

Most watch­dogs con­cur. The lat­est sur­vey by Free­dom House, an Amer­i­can think-tank, is called “Democ­racy in Cri­sis”. In 2017, for the 12th con­sec­u­tive year, coun­tries that suf­fered demo­cratic set­backs out­num­bered those that reg­is­tered gains, it says (see chart 1). Ac­cord­ing to the Democ­racy In­dex from The Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit, a sis­ter com­pany of The Econ­o­mist, 89 coun­tries re­gressed in 2017; only 27 im­proved. The lat­est “Trans­for­ma­tion In­dex” from the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion, an­other think-tank, which looks at emerg­ing economies, finds that the “qual­ity of democ­racy…has fallen to its low­est level in 12 years.” What these in­dices mea­sure is not sim­ply democ­racy (ie, rule by the peo­ple), but lib­eral democ­racy (ie, with

a freely elected govern­ment that also re­spects in­di­vid­ual and mi­nor­ity rights, the rule of law and in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions).

This dis­tinc­tion is im­por­tant. In “The Peo­ple vs. Democ­racy”, Yascha Mounk of Har­vard Univer­sity stresses that lib­er­al­ism and democ­racy are sep­a­ra­ble. Vot­ers of­ten want things that are demo­cratic but not lib­eral, in the most ba­sic sense, which has noth­ing to do with left- or right-wing poli­cies. For ex­am­ple, they may elect a govern­ment that prom­ises to cen­sor speech they dis­like, or back a ref­er­en­dum that would cur­tail the rights of an un­pop­u­lar mi­nor­ity.

At the same time, plenty of lib­eral in­sti­tu­tions are un­demo­cratic. Un­elected judges can of­ten over­rule elected politi­cians, for ex­am­ple. Lib­er­als see this as an es­sen­tial con­straint on the govern­ment’s power. Even the peo­ple’s cho­sen rep­re­sen­ta­tives must be sub­ject to the law. In a lib­eral democ­racy, power is dis­persed. Politi­cians are not only ac­count­able to vot­ers but also kept in line by feisty courts, jour­nal­ists and pres­sure groups. A loyal op­po­si­tion recog­nises the govern­ment as le­git­i­mate, but decries many of its ac­tions and seeks to re­place it at the next elec­tion. A clear bound­ary ex­ists be­tween the rul­ing party and the state.

This sys­tem is now un­der siege. In many coun­tries, vot­ers are pick­ing lead­ers who do not re­spect it, and grad­u­ally un­der­mine it, cre­at­ing what Vik­tor Or­ban, Hun­gary’s prime min­is­ter, proudly calls “il­lib­eral democ­racy”. Even­tu­ally, when enough checks and bal­ances have been re­moved, a would-be au­to­crat finds it eas­ier to neuter democ­racy it­self, by shut­ting down the op­po­si­tion (as in Turkey) or neu­ter­ing the leg­is­la­ture (as in Venezuela, where the govern­ment staged a sham elec­tion on May 20th).

The ma­ture democ­ra­cies of the West are not yet in se­ri­ous dan­ger. Don­ald Trump may scorn lib­eral norms, but Amer­ica’s checks and bal­ances are strong, and will out­last him. The real threat is to less ma­ture democ­ra­cies, where in­sti­tu­tions are weaker and demo­cratic habits less in­grained. Nonethe­less, what hap­pens in the West af­fects these places. Amer­ica once in­spired sub­ju­gated peo­ple and sought to pro­mote democ­racy. It now has a pres­i­dent who openly ad­mires Vladimir Putin and claims a “spe­cial bond” with Kim Jong Un.

Mean­while, China sup­plies an al­ter­na­tive model. Hav­ing grown much less dic­ta­to­rial af­ter the death of Mao Ze­dong, it is recon­cen­trat­ing power in one man, Xi Jin­ping, whose term lim­its as pres­i­dent have just been re­moved. Some would-be au­to­crats cite China as ev­i­dence that au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism pro­motes eco­nomic growth — though what they of­ten mean is that they too want to be pres­i­dents for life.

Glob­ally, pub­lic sup­port for democ­racy re­mains high. A Pew poll of 38 coun­tries found that a me­dian of 78% of peo­ple agreed that a sys­tem where elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives make laws was a good one. But hefty mi­nori­ties ap­proved of non-demo­cratic al­ter­na­tives. A wor­ry­ing 24% thought that mil­i­tary rule would be fine, and 26% liked the idea of “a strong leader” who “can make de­ci­sions with­out in­ter­fer­ence from par­lia­ment or the courts” (see chart 2). In gen­eral, au­toc­racy was more pop­u­lar among the less ed­u­cated.

With such large ma­jori­ties favour­ing it, lead­ers can­not openly ad­mit that they plan to abol­ish democ­racy. How­ever, many have grown adept at sub­vert­ing its essence while main­tain­ing its out­ward ap­pear­ance. The de­tails vary from coun­try to coun­try, but it is strik­ing how much the new au­to­crats have in com­mon and how at­ten­tively they learn from each other.

To over­sim­plify, a democ­racy typ­i­cally de­clines like this. First, a cri­sis oc­curs and vot­ers back a charis­matic leader who prom­ises to save them. Sec­ond, this leader finds en­e­mies. His aim, in the words of H.L. Mencken, a 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can wit, “is to keep the pop­u­lace alarmed (and hence clam­orous to be led to safety) by an end­less se­ries of hob­gob­lins, all of them imag­i­nary.” Third, he nob­bles in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions that might get in his way. Fi­nally, he changes the rules to make it harder for vot­ers to dis­lodge him. Dur­ing the first three stages, his coun­try is still a democ­racy. At some point in the fi­nal stage, it ceases to be one. All four stages are worth ex­am­in­ing.

In Hun­gary, two shocks un­der­mined faith in the old or­der. First came the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Be­fore it, many Hun­gar­i­ans took out ab­surdly risky for­eign-cur­rency mort­gages. When the Hun­gar­ian forint crashed against the Swiss franc and they lost their homes, they were fu­ri­ous. Fidesz, a party that was once quite lib­eral but has be­come dra­mat­i­cally less so, won an elec­tion in 2010 by blam­ing the pre­vi­ous govern­ment and vow­ing to make bor­row­ers whole.

The sec­ond shock was the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis of 2015-16. Hardly any Syr­i­ans set­tled in Hun­gary, but thou­sands passed through on the way to Ger­many, so Hun­gar­i­ans saw them on tele­vi­sion. They gave Fidesz’s leader, Mr Or­ban, two handy en­e­mies: the Mus­lim hordes and the lib­eral elite who wanted to let them in.

Ac­cord­ing to the Democ­racy In­dex from The Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit, a sis­ter com­pany of The Econ­o­mist, 89 coun­tries re­gressed in 2017; only 27 im­proved

Mr Or­ban built a fence that largely stopped the flow of refugees. But still, he con­tin­ued to play up the threat. His govern­ment or­dered a poll ask­ing vot­ers what they thought of a fic­ti­tious plan by George Soros, a Hun­gar­ian-Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire, to bring 1m Mid­dle Eastern and African mi­grants to Europe. A cam­paign poster showed Mr Soros grin­ning evilly and em­brac­ing op­po­si­tion lead­ers hold­ing wire cut­ters. “They would re­move the fence to­gether” ran the slo­gan. On April 8th Mr Or­ban’s party was re-elected with a thump­ing ma­jor­ity. In May Mr Soros’s foun­da­tion closed its of­fice in Bu­dapest. “Hun­gary dis­proves the no­tion that when you reach an in­come per head of $14,000 your democ­racy is safe,” says Mr Mounk of a the­ory pop­u­lar with po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists.

Pick­ing the right en­e­mies is cru­cial. Mi­grants are good, be­cause they can­not vote. Mr Soros is even bet­ter, be­cause he is rich, funds lib­eral causes and is, you know, Jewish. He can be painted as all-pow­er­ful; but be­cause he is not, he can­not harm the dem­a­gogues who de­monise him.

Stir­ring up eth­nic ha­tred is in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous. So rab­ble-rousers of­ten use dog-whis­tles. South Africa’s for­mer pres­i­dent, Ja­cob Zuma, de­nounced “white mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal” rather than whites in gen­eral. Many lead­ers pick on small, com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful mi­nori­ties. Zam­bia’s late pres­i­dent, Michael Sata, won power af­ter rail­ing against Chi­nese bosses.

Crim­i­nals make ideal en­e­mies, since no one likes them. Ro­drigo Duterte won the pres­i­dency of the Philip­pines in 2016 on a prom­ise to kill drug deal­ers. An es­ti­mated 12,000 ex­tra-ju­di­cial slay­ings later, the coun­try is no safer but his govern­ment has an ap­proval rat­ing of around 80%.

Would-be au­to­crats need a pos­i­tive agenda, too. Of­ten they pose as de­fend­ers of an iden­tity that vot­ers hold dear, such as their na­tion­al­ity, cul­ture or re­li­gion. Poland’s rul­ing party, for ex­am­ple, waxes lyri­cal about the coun­try’s Catholic way of life, and lav­ishes sub­si­dies on big fam­i­lies, who are likely to be ru­ral and reli­gious.

Par­ties of the na­tion­al­ist right have learned from the left how to ex­ploit iden­tity pol­i­tics. Both sides tend to favour “group rights” over those of in­di­vid­u­als. The “Hun­gar­ian na­tion is not a sim­ple sum of in­di­vid­u­als,” Mr Or­ban said in 2014, “but a com­mu­nity that needs to be or­gan­ised, strength­ened and de­vel­oped.” Steve Ban­non, Don­ald Trump’s na­tion­al­ist guru, calls him “a hero”.

To re­main in power, au­to­crats need to nob­ble in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions. They do this grad­u­ally and qui­etly. The first tar­get is of­ten the jus­tice sys­tem. Poland’s rul­ing party passed a law in De­cem­ber forc­ing two-fifths of judges into re­tire­ment. On May 11th Mr Duterte forced out the chief jus­tice of the Philip­pines, who had ob­jected to his abuse of mar­tial law.

The me­dia must be nob­bled, too. First, an au­to­crat in wait­ing puts his pals in charge of the pub­lic broad­caster and ac­cuses crit­i­cal out­lets of spread­ing lies. Rather than ban­ning in­de­pen­dent me­dia, as despots might have done a gen­er­a­tion ago, he slaps spu­ri­ous fines or tax bills on their own­ers, forc­ing them to sell their busi­nesses to loyal ty­coons. This tech­nique was per­fected by Mr Putin in Rus­sia, and is now widely copied. In Turkey, the last big in­de­pen­dent me­dia group was in March sold to a friend of Mr Er­do­gan.

Get­ting the se­cu­rity forces on side is es­sen­tial. Robert Mu­gabe, Zimbabwe’s for­mer pres­i­dent, took their loy­alty for granted and was thrown out. Other strong­men are less com­pla­cent. To keep the men with guns happy, Venezuela’s pres­i­dent, Ni­colás Maduro, lets them loot the na­tional food-dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem. Ab­del-Fat­tah al-Sisi, the pres­i­dent of Egypt, who won 92% of the vote in March, lets the po­lice top up their salaries by rob­bing civil­ians.

With the courts, press and armed forces in his pocket, a strong­man can set about neu­ter­ing ev­ery other in­sti­tu­tion that counts. He can side­line par­lia­ment, re­draw the elec­toral map and bar se­ri­ous op­po­nents from pol­i­tics.

What­ever ide­ol­ogy they pro­fess, au­to­crats are of­ten op­por­tunis­tic. Pres­i­dent Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua started as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist, seiz­ing power in 1979. He lost an elec­tion in 1990 partly be­cause he was anti-Catholic. So he re­branded him­self as a de­vout Catholic — push­ing a ban on abor­tion even if the mother’s life is at risk — and was re-elected in 2006 against a di­vided op­po­si­tion. Last year his wife, Rosario Murillo, be­came vice-pres­i­dent, thus es­tab­lish­ing a dy­nasty re­sem­bling the dic­ta­tor­ship he once over­threw.

Mr Ortega and his San­din­istas have com­man­deered the supreme court, which abol­ished pres­i­den­tial term lim­its, and cre­ated shell “op­po­si­tion” par­ties to sim­u­late choice while re­press­ing gen­uine op­po­nents. Crit­i­cal me­dia find them­selves un­der new own­er­ship, of­ten that of Mr Ortega’s fam­ily.

None of this chip­ping away at democ­racy sparked un­rest. It was only when Mr Ortega tried to grab Nicaraguans’ pen­sions that they ri­oted. The rul­ing San­din­istas’ mis­man­age­ment and graft has left the pub­licpen­sion pot all but empty. Mr Ortega told work­ers to top it up. In re­sponse, tens of thou­sands took to the streets in April and tore down hideous stat­ues erected in hon­our of Ms Murillo. The regime has clung to power only by shoot­ing peo­ple.

Au­to­crats who plan to stay in power for ever need to in­doc­tri­nate chil­dren. “Most coun­tries don’t have events from two years ago in their school his­tory books. We do,” says a Turk­ish lib­eral, aghast that Turks as young as four are taught that their pres­i­dent saved the na­tion from the Gu­lenists. Venezuela’s Bo­li­var­ian Univer­sity of­fers free tu­ition to stu­dents who sub­mit to lec­tures blam­ing Amer­ica for food short­ages. Lib­er­al­ism and its dis­con­tents

Much has been said about the fail­ures of lib­eral democ­ra­cies. Al­though they are typ­i­cally rich and peace­ful, many of their cit­i­zens are dis­grun­tled. Glob­al­i­sa­tion and tech­nol­ogy have made them fear for their jobs. The cul­ture wars en­sure that more or less ev­ery­one feels dis­re­spected by some­one. The rise of au­toc­racy is in part a re­ac­tion to these big his­tor­i­cal trends. But



it is also be­cause power-hun­gry lead­ers have learned how to ex­ploit them. You can­not have au­toc­racy with­out an au­to­crat.

Many peo­ple crave power. Some, be­cause they want to change the world. Some, for its own sake. Some, be­cause power brings adu­la­tion, money and sex. Many who at­tain power have all these mo­tives. Small won­der they cling to it.

Most au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes are filthy. Of the coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries in the dirt­i­est third of Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s cor­rup­tion per­cep­tions in­dex, not one is rated “free” by Free­dom House. Of those in the clean­est 20, only Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong fail to qual­ify as free.

Au­toc­racy and graft cre­ate a vi­cious cir­cle. Power with few con­straints en­ables those who wield it, or their friends, to get rich. The more they steal, the more in­cen­tive they have to rig the sys­tem to re­main in charge. If they lose power, they risk pros­e­cu­tion, as Mr Zuma is dis­cov­er­ing in South Africa. Thus, when­ever an au­to­crat makes a stir­ring speech about na­tional pride, his real aim may be to de­flect at­ten­tion from his own skul­dug­gery. Mr Or­ban’s op­po­nents would love to dis­cuss why his friends are now among the rich­est peo­ple in Hun­gary, or why there is a huge foot­ball sta­dium in his tiny home­town. But his friends con­trol the me­dia, and would rather talk about im­mi­grants.

Democrats can fight back. Five re­cent ex­am­ples stand out. In Sri Lanka, the op­po­si­tion united to beat a spend­thrift, vi­cious au­to­crat. In the Gam­bia, the threat of an in­va­sion by neigh­bour­ing coun­tries forced a strong­man to ac­cept that he had lost an elec­tion. In South Africa, an elected leader who sub­verted in­stitu- tions and let cronies loot with im­punity was tossed out by his own party in Jan­uary. In Ar­me­nia, an au­to­crat was ousted in April by mass protests.

And in Malaysia, the prime min­is­ter, Na­jib Razak, tried to steal an elec­tion in May but failed. De­spite ger­ry­man­der­ing, cen­sor­ship and racist ap­peals to the Malay ma­jor­ity, vot­ers dumped the rul­ing party of the past 61 years. Its sleaze had grown too bla­tant. Amer­ica’s jus­tice depart­ment has ac­cused Mr Na­jib of re­ceiv­ing $681m from 1MDB, a state fund from which $4.5bn dis­ap­peared. He says the money was a gift from an un­named Saudi royal. The op­po­si­tion glee­fully con­trasted the vast sums Mr Na­jib’s wife spends on jew­ellery with the dif­fi­culty or­di­nary folks have mak­ing ends meet. “Na­jib just makes up his own rules,” says a taxi-driver who switched sides to back the new govern­ment.

That strong­men make up their own rules is why lib­eral democ­racy is worth de­fend­ing. And in the long run, it seems to de­liver bet­ter ma­te­rial re­sults. A study by Daron Ace­moglu of the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy found that switch­ing from au­toc­racy to democ­racy adds 20% to in­come per head over 30 years, though some econ­o­mists dis­pute these find­ings. Guillermo Vuletin of the World Bank ar­gues that au­to­crats fall when economies slump, and the democrats who suc­ceed them take credit for the in­evitable re­cov­ery.

What is cer­tain, how­ever, is that freely elected gov­ern­ments bound by the rule of law have less power to abuse cit­i­zens. “Lit­tle by lit­tle they took away our rights,” says a jour­nal­ist in Di­yarbakir, who was re­cently ar­rested for five in­nocu­ous tweets. “Ev­ery day I check the news to see which of my friends has been de­tained.”

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