Democracy’s Retreat: a ‘how to’ guide

June 21, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

A beautifully written, if depressing, 3 page essay in this week’s Economist explores the mechanics of the democratic reversal in dozens of countries. Shades of Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas’ great book, How to Rig an Election. Some excerpts:

‘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.’

‘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%.’

‘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.’

And then, just in case you were thinking there is no hope:

‘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 institutions 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.’

Wonderful – the Economist is always great as long as it steers clear of, you know, economics……

June 21, 2018
Duncan Green