16 January 2019

How to Stop a Democratic Free Fall When Populists Are in Power

Joshua Kurlantzick

Since the mid-2000s, democracy has regressed in nearly every part of the world. The global monitoring organization Freedom House has recorded declines in global freedom for 12 years in a row. In Thailand, Bangladesh and Turkey, democracies have all but collapsed. Countries where democracy seemed to be making gains in the early 2010s, like Myanmar and Cambodia, have slid backwards, with Cambodia reverting to one-party rule. Some states where democracy was believed to be well-rooted, such as Poland and the Philippines, have regressed under populists with authoritarian tendencies. Their democracies have not fully collapsed but are in grave danger, as leaders pack courts, jettison judges and threaten the media.

In a recent article for The Washington Post, I outlined how hard it will be for these countries to rebuild free political systems. As a recent study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found, elected populists tend to hold office, on average, more than twice as long as elected non-populist leaders, giving them considerable time to undermine democracy. The same study found that some populist leaders often expand executive power dramatically and foster widespread corruption.

In fact, in states where autocratic-leaning populists are dismantling democratic foundations, democracy may be even harder to rebuild than in places in the past where old-school strongmen have simply crushed it. In part, this is because this new generation of elected populists, unlike junta leaders or other traditional autocrats, often continue to enjoy a degree of popular legitimacy, even if they eventually lose an election. Their corrosive impact on democratic institutions and norms can persist for years after they finally leave power. 

But all hope is not lost. The road back to free societies and open political systems is certainly arduous. There are, however, some ways that citizens in declining democracies can help preserve their political institutions, keep hopes of democracy alive, and possibly help their political systems rebound in the future.

For one, just because populists are elected doesn’t necessarily mean that democracy will completely collapse. According to the Blair Institute’s comprehensive survey, in 75 percent of the cases where populists came to power via the ballot box, their time in office ended without a full erosion of democracy, as they generally worked within the existing political system.

At other times, populist strongmen do much more damage. In those cases, it is imperative that the political opposition and civil society not embrace strategies that make it even harder to claw back democratic institutions and culture. By embracing coups or de facto coups—like those that ousted elected populists in Thailand and the Philippines, and threatened populists in Turkey and Venezuela—populism’s opponents do more harm than good. They empower actors like the military to play a bigger role in politics and further trample democracy. 

In Thailand, the most obvious example of this problem, opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party helped firmly reinstall the army at the center of Thai politics by supporting a military intervention. Under the grip of another junta since 2014, Thailand is less free than it was during the time of Thaksin, despite his own disdain for many democratic norms. 

Though no doubt difficult, opponents of traditional autocrats and autocratic-minded populists alike need to try to take power back through elections—even if that means building broad political alliances in which the parties have little else in common. They can worry about how to actually govern afterwards.

The road back to free societies is certainly arduous, but there are some ways that citizens in declining democracies can help preserve their institutions and keep hope alive.

Consider Malaysia. In the run-up to national elections last year, the opposition banded together around former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, even though he had once jailed another key opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, and had historically poor relations with other opposition figures. There was certainly no lack of animosity and division within the coalition. Still, with Mahathir at its head, it was able to win enough votes last May to oust Prime Minister Najib Razak, who had an authoritarian track record and faced major corruption allegations. Since then, Mahathir and the rest of the coalition have put Malaysia back on the road toward democracy, after years of growing autocracy under Najib. 

Malaysia, though, is the exception. Too often, opposition leaders fail to work together and undermine their own efforts. In Venezuela, opposition politicians have routinely fought among themselves, limiting their ability to defeat Hugo Chavez and then his successor, Nicolas Maduro. In Cambodia—admittedly a much harsher political climate than Malaysia—a once-united opposition that nearly won national elections in 2013 has fragmented, with former co-leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha battling against each other. To be sure, longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen’s brutal approach to politics is a major factor in tearing the opposition apart, but their continued infighting is only helping him.

There are other steps citizens in democracies under threat can take to limit the damage while a populist is in power. They can build up local support, making cities and other regions bulwarks against potentially autocratic presidents or prime ministers. Using city and state laws to empower local judges and challenge national-level laws can help restrain an overly powerful executive, as a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Democracy Fund notes.

Such cities and regions also act as models of how the opposition can govern and training grounds for future leaders. In Malaysia, the opposition coalition managed the wealthy state of Selangor well for a decade, demonstrating its governing ability before last year’s election breakthrough. In Argentina, Mauricio Macri gained prominence as the mayor of Buenos Aires, and then defeated populist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her Peronist party in an electoral upset in 2015. Macri has had a mixed record as president since then, but he has tried to strengthen courts and other institutions damaged by the 12-year rule of Fernandez and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. Similarly, in Poland, leaders of large cities, which generally have tilted to the opposition, have remained an important check on the power of the increasingly autocratic ruling party, Law and Justice.

In countries suffering democratic deterioration, support for free media, which is critical to exposing malfeasance, especially corruption, is also essential, even from abroad. After all, from Italy to Malaysia in recent years, revelations of corruption have mobilized popular will and helped bring down antidemocratic or autocratic-leaning leaders. In the Philippines, Rappler, a groundbreaking news organization threatened with closure by Rodrigo Duterte’s government, has relied on prominent backers like the philanthropic Omidyar Network. Rappler’s head, Maria Ressa, who faces a jail sentence, was also recently honored with a press freedom award by the Committee to Protest Journalists.

None of these steps are panaceas. In some of the countries where democracy has collapsed, political systems might never recover. Still, as Malaysia showed in 2018, stopping a political free fall is not impossible.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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