At the end of the Cold War, there was a presumption that the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia meant liberal democracy would triumph across the world. US academic Francis Fukuyama famously predicted the “end of history” and he set the tone for a belief that liberalism would win out over autocracy and dictatorship as the means of governance people would aspire to everywhere.
The al-Qaida attacks on America in 2001 were certainly a shocking reminder that not everyone was on the same track and that political and religious extremism were far from eliminated across the world. But few predicted that challenges to the basis of liberal, constitutional based democracy could happen in established democratic states. Yet in recent years populist leaders have come to power openly challenging the liberal consensus in countries with a history of democratic rule, like Hungary and Turkey. Such leaders appeal to the “popular will” to win elected power, but then act to undermine institutions that underpin democracy, like a free media and independent judiciary, and work to gradually centralise power and concentrate it in their hands.
Political scientists used to assume that all societies would in time develop into liberal democracies and that once established, democracy would prove resistant to authoritarian leaders. But Freedom House, the US-based NGO that monitors levels of political and social freedom, reports that democracy has been in retreat around the world for the last decade. And for the first time in over a century the cumulative GDP of countries living under oppressive political systems, like China, is outstripping that of Western liberal democracies. No wonder Russian President Putin felt able to declare, at the G20 summit meeting in June, that “liberalism” was “obsolete”.
Political scientists have now begun to reflect a creeping pessimism that so-called “competitive dictatorships” – led by men who have come to power through free and fair elections and base their right to rule on representing the true aspiration of “the people” - may be as resistant to internal change as outright dictatorships like China. But new research from US academic Yascha Mounk in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs argues these popular autocrats may be less stable than they look.
Not all authoritarian regimes are the same. Those that came to power in military coups in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, from Nasser’s Egypt to the Baathist of Iraq and Syria, made no appeal to democracy. They offered an implicit bargain to the people: accept us as your unchallenged rulers in return for stability, economic advancement, or the liberation of Palestine. As each one of these goals proved illusory, then the regimes relied increasingly on violence and oppression to stem popular discontent, behind a veil of gerrymandered elections or plebiscites. The ultimate endgame of this pitiless dictatorial rule is Syria today, where a regime whose popular claim to legitimacy has completely eroded relies on outside powers to provide the necessary level of violence to maintain it in power, causing the country to fragment and tearing apart the whole fabric of the society.
Populist leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey are different. They all came to power through genuine popular elections and they rely on this democratic mandate as the basis of their legitimacy. But it is clear from examining Erdoğan’s career, for instance, that his commitment to democracy masks autocratic tendencies that have now led to internal repression and an undermining of democratic institutions on no less a scale than the one-party state in China. Elected dictators, it seems, become no less oppressive than unelected ones. But, as Yascha Mounk points out, the Achilles heal for Erdoğan and his ilk is the very populism that brought them to power.
Erdoğan and his AKP party won election in 2002 taking 34 per cent of the vote. While appealing to pious Turks with its message of “conservative democracy”, the AKP widened its appeal by promising to challenge the small, corrupt, pro-military elite running the country and instead deepen democratisation and pluralism in politics. This anti-establishment message resonated well and helped Erdoğan and his party to win successive elections and enabled him to eventually win the presidency.
Two decades later, Erdoğan has shown his true anti-democratic character by consolidating power in his hands, dismissing his opponents as traitors standing against the “popular will,” represented by himself. As long as the economy was healthy, Erdoğan and his party could point to concrete improvements to maintain its electoral appeal, despite the growing internal repression, mass arrests and closure of media outlets following the failed coup of 2016. But once economic problems deepened, it was Erdoğan’s very appeal to the popular will that became his weakness. This year’s local elections were a turning point. After the Turkish economy went into recession in 2018, Erdoğan and the AKP’s popularity started to wane. The loss of control of the city of Istanbul, Erdoğan’s original power base, was a severe blow. And his insistence on rerunning the vote there only caused a heavier loss for the party.
Erdoğan now faces a downward spiral that Mounk argues faces all “populist dictators”. The more repression they use to back up their hold on power, the more they undermine their legitimacy, based on being democrats acting out the will of the people. Oppression cannot co-exist with the image of a leader of the people in countries that have known what democratic rule looks and feels like. And the day of reckoning will come sooner or later at the ballot box, unless they take the ultimate step of cancelling elections altogether – a step too far even for leaders like Erdoğan.
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