Populism rises as democracy recedes
Those concerned about bringing democracy to the world will not remember this decade warmly. As leading democracy specialist Larry Diamond argues in “Facing up to the Democratic Recession” (2015), the global democratization trend has been in decline since 2006.
Although certain countries exhibit noteworthy democratic achievements (Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Croatia, Indonesia, Ghana and Serbia), many have experienced some form of democratic backsliding. The list of “backsliders” is a long one. It includes Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mali, Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, according to Freedom House’s Democracy Index.
Even the U.S. and some long-established Western democracies could arguably join this list, having recently lost some of their democratic motivation. Some of these “backsliders” have slipped from a more advanced form of democracy to a more shallow form. Others have moved from one form of hybrid regime to another. The negative trend is clear.
One easily observable pattern particularly stands out. This model entails the rise of a form of populism with a concurrent erosion of political rights and freedoms. Such a model is present in various parts of the world and is embraced by both left- and right-wing politicians.
A common factor is the rise of a charismatic political leader who gains power through democratic elections but subsequently expands executive power, eroding “checks and balances” and cracking down on individual rights and freedoms while retaining electoral support.
Continued public support allows populist, authoritarian leaders to claim democratic legitimacy. But their attempts to centralize political power by weakening independent state institutions, including the judiciary, the central bank, anti-corruption institutions and others, as well as limiting liberal rights (such as the right to free media or the right to express discontent), reduce the “quality” of democracy. If the fundamental aim of democracy is to limit the arbitrary use of power, the concentration of power contradicts the essence of democracy.
One of the more striking features of this populist model is the electoral support that voters continue to provide their leaders with, even as democracy declines. While some claim that election results often fail to be representative due to government pressure on media and opposition parties, the popularity of the leaders (despite massive discontent among the opposition) is undeniable. This strong public support allows the leaders to remain in power, despite the many obstacles thrown their way by opponents, from mass protests to corruption investigations and coup attempts. So the key question is: Why do people support leaders who restrict their political rights and freedoms?
A closer look at new populist governments shows that redistributive economic policies have played a key role in their success. Acquiring power in societies suffering from economic downturns, unemployment and rising inequality, politically successful leaders in Turkey, Hungary, Ecuador, Bolivia and others, have mobilized public support not only through populist discourse but also through economic redistribution.
Despite differing ideological discourses, these leaders share a tendency to increase government spending or enact other forms of redistribution that play to the economic interests of low-income citizens, their key constituency. This has allowed leaders to strike bargains with voters, who accept exchanging certain political freedoms for economic benefits.
What are the main implications of this global democracy recession? One key lesson is that democratic parties need to work harder to solve economic challenges faced by low-income groups, especially in developing countries. When societies are healthy, voters prefer more freedoms, but when people are struggling, economic concerns become the priority.