The slow death of democracies | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 14, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:09 AM, April 14, 2018

The slow death of democracies

Lately, democratic erosion in many countries has been less dramatic and more deceptive. There are no tanks in the streets. A formal or constitutional architecture of democracy remains in place, but the actual substance of it is enervated. Elections are held.

Democracies still die, only by different means.

In their book How Democracies Die published in 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors of government at Harvard University, tell us how. Most democratic failures these days are caused not by generals, but by politicians who are elected through free or somewhat free elections.

In fact, they argue, the primary way in which democracies have collapsed over the last thirty years or so, since the end of the Cold War, is at the hands of elected leaders who used and manipulated democratic institutions to weaken or kill democracy. 

They maintain a veneer of democracy while weakening its substance. Like Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Russia, China, Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia, to name a few.

Democracy's slow death today begins with the polls. With a classic coup d'état, the demise is instant and apparent to all. The presidential palace falls. The president is assassinated, imprisoned or sent into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped.

None of these things happen in the new formula which is carefully designed to be misleading. Many governments have successfully managed to elect legislatures that approve, and set up judiciaries that accept, government efforts to subvert democracy, thus making them “legal.” Sometimes they even claim to be improving democracy by combating corruption, reforming the judiciary or making the electoral process more transparent.

Newspapers still see the light of day but are coerced into silence aka self-censorship if they cannot be bought off. Conscientious citizens or groups who criticise the government often find themselves in legal limbos. Those who denounce government abuse are dismissed as unpatriotic.

Democratic backsliding thus takes many shapes, the hardest to see can be the ones right in front of our eyes. The abuses fail to trigger society's alarm bells because they are periodic and systematic—there is no single defining moment in which the government “crosses the line” into authoritarianism by declaring martial law or suspending the constitution.

These electoral authoritarians—as the authors call this new breed of politicians—enjoy democratic legitimacy because they were elected. It becomes harder and harder to remove them through democratic means because they tilt the playing field to their own advantage by gradually chipping away at democratic institutions. Elections are no longer fair.

It turns out that they often stay in power not just through elections and appealing to the public but by allying themselves with a populist demagogue. They strike a Faustian bargain with the demagogue whose popular appeal they think they can tap into all the while keeping him in control. But this is a dangerous miscalculation. They are not able to control the demagogue. The demagogue starts controlling them.

Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the Constitution, which is widely revered and praised, cannot fully guard us against such problems. The Constitution is a set of rules, they say, and a set of rules, however well-crafted, are not enough to ensure that democratic institutions prevail.

Our behaviour, therefore, needs to be guided by informal rules, by norms. And we must focus on two of them in particular. The first is mutual tolerance which is fundamental in a democracy. It is the acceptance among major political parties that their rivals are legitimate. They may disagree with the other side on several issues, they may dislike the other side but at the end of the day they recognise publicly that the other side is equally patriotic, and it can govern legitimately.

The other one is what they call forbearance, which is restraint in the exercise of power. To make it clear, they cite the example of the US system of government. Think about what a US president can do under the Constitution. He can pardon anyone he wants. He can pack the Supreme Court. He can, in many respects, rule by decree. He can bypass Congress through a series of executive orders if Congress is blocking his agenda. So, what it takes for these institutions to function properly is restraint on the part of politicians. They must underutilise their power.

Politicians on both sides are often confronted with the dilemma, which is, if one side seems to be breaking the rules, why shouldn't we? If we don't, can we go to power or stay in power? A party would do well to call on that forbearance when it is faced with this dilemma.

Building and defending democracy requires more than outrage. Political parties must not nominate and support candidates who have a questionable commitment to democratic norms, the professors suggest. And the citizens must be committed to democratic norms.

These unwritten rules are the guardrails of democracy that protect us, prevent the erosion of democratic norms, and keep us on track.

If unchecked, “Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy,” as Plato observed.

Amitava Kar is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

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