On the 24th of June, Turkey voted its democracy out. The result sent shockwaves all around the world signalling the end of the country’s once flourishing democracy. Ironically, it was also a day of jubilation for thousands of Erdogan’s supporters gathered in Ankara. For these people, the country would now enter an era of ‘stability’, a euphemism that many dictators use to justify their lust for power. The country had witnessed a bloody, yet unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016 after which Erdogan rose in popularity. Critics allege that this gave Erdogan the justification to clamp down on the opposition and consolidate power. After which he conducted a referendum which completed the transition of Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system of rule. Since then, Turkey has been in a state of emergency as thousands of officials and opposition members have been jailed after a purge conducted by Erdogan against these alleged Gulenists. In these times of turmoil and uncertainty, people were attracted by the nationalist and the conservative Islamic agenda offered by Erdogan; the perfect recipe to charm the disenchanted lower class. This is a textbook case of how democracies are increasingly being threatened by the rise of strongmen, who use nationalism mixed with religious conservatism to attack the ‘liberal elite’ in power. Democracies are definitely facing a crisis, but why is this happening?
The first thing that one needs to accept is that autocrats/strongmen/dictators do not rise by their own measure contrary to the popular opinion. The new breed of strongmen (a term that I prefer) have used democratic means of election to attain power, unlike the conventional way of a coup or a revolution. While they certainly do abuse power by bending procedures and jailing members of opposition once in office. What characterises the rise of these strongmen is that they have considerable domestic support. This is intensified by insecurity that the population posses regarding the future, for which reasons are multiple. It ends up creating a fertile ground for any populist to tap into the frustration of the masses and assure them a future filled with prosperity. In Russia, post-cold war break-up of the former Soviet Union coupled with the rise of oligarchs with immense power—provided a chance for Vladimir Putin to consolidate power quickly. Similarly, in the United States, the election of Trump was a result of the working class’ frustration with the establishment, who fancied the idea of America being great again. In India, Narendra Modi using his Hindutva credentials presented an alternative to the corruption-ridden previous governments. The list can be increased, but it’s important to note that all these macho figures elevate themselves above their party or the cabinet. They are one in all, and this is what is attractive about them.
Then how do strongmen threaten democracy? According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, less than 5% of the world’s population lives in a “full democracy.” Despite which one can argue that at present democracy is embedded throughout the world. Almost every country, barring a few exceptions, claims to conduct some measure of democratic means (the most important being elections) in some form or the other. So strongmen also use sham elections as a public relations tool to justify their hold on power. While rigging elections is the classic way corroding democracy, what strongmen threaten most is the institutions that are vital for its functioning. An independent judiciary is the first victim, then gradually other vital institutions such as the press are slowly shut down or made to fall in the government’s line. The situation may be better in the west, where the institutions of checks and balances are old compared to the newer and fragile democracies in the developing world. This stereotype too can be contradicted by taking the case of the United States, where the Supreme Court recently upheld Trump’s travel ban on Muslims. The decisive vote being cast by the recent Neil Gorsuch who was newly appointed to the Supreme Court by Trump. While this does not indicate an outright suppression of the judiciary but it is an excellent case of how a strongman can get away with a ‘victory’ over the system. The most severe implication of attacking independent institutions is mistrust that is created in the people’s minds regarding their credibility. This is a tactic that almost all strongmen employ to enhance their reputation by calling these institutions corrupt or worse, anti-national. In the end, without strong and independent institutions democracy fails explicitly. Conversely, autocrats are then in power implicitly.
A poll conducted by Pew Research in 38 countries indicates that 26% support a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts. While this is a minority opinion, the fact that a quarter of the surveyed felt okay with the idea of having an autocrat in their country is an alarming prospect. The poll also suggested that people with less education or those on the right were more likely to favour autocracy. Individually, a few Asian countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Russia showed around 50% support for autocracy. Incidentally, these are also the countries where strongmen like Duterte and Putin are in office. Even in the west, the situation is alarming as countries like the UK or the United States, considered the flag-bearers of democracy; had at least 20% of the respondents supporting the idea of having an autocrat. India, the world’s largest democracy had the highest 55% of respondents supporting autocracy. What polls like this indicate is that sentiment for strongmen in power is brewing all around the world, and this is not a good thing.
Many reasons could be attributed to the rise of these populists that threaten liberal democracies globally. The first is economic insecurity in the masses; as all around the world barring a few developing economies, growth has been slower than before. The uncertainty about the financial situation is aggravated by the recent flow of immigrants who become the scapegoat for all the problems in the country. Hence, xenophobia coupled with general frustration with the state of the country makes any strongman seem appealing. This is the reason that strongmen all around the world have tilted towards the right. In Hungary, hordes of migrants crossing the country created unrest among the people. This helped Victor Orban to exploit this sentiment by choosing to build a fence on its border to cement his position. Another critical factor is the sheer distrust in the political class around the world. It is then that an outsider who campaigns to get rid of the corrupt politicians in the establishment seem like a panacea to all the problems. When Donald Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’ crowds roared in his rallies as they were done with the usual politicians in power. These tactics are not a recent invention but have been used by populists throughout history to mobilise the masses during the time of distress. The consequence of this is something that the world is dangerously forgetting.
It is also important to realise that people, especially in the developing world, do not just look at western democracies as the ideal political system. There is China, which recently extended Xi Jinping’s term for life, making the country an absolute autocracy. People then (falsely) believe that authoritarianism can bring economic growth at a pace that a democracy cannot match. The west is slowly pulling itself out of multilateral forums, like Brexit or the United States’ pullout from the Paris Agreement; China is being given a vacuum of power that it is happy to fill. This has helped it expand its influence across Asia and Afric. In the end, liberal democracies are facing a crisis, and we are yet to come up with a solution.