The global march of authoritarianism is off to a vigorous start this year. In Brazil, the world’s fifth-most populous country, a new president with well-documented far-right leanings, Jair Bolsonaro, immediately mobilized 300 members of the National Police Force to quell violence in a northeastern state, even as he vowed to increase security force powers and expand citizens’ gun rights. To the north in Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales booted out a United Nations anti-corruption commission that has been investigating some of his officials and others close to him. And in the United States, President Donald Trump is fanning fears over immigration and considering declaring a “national emergency” to construct a wall on the southern border.
If 2018 and the impending milestones of 2019 are any indication, that’s only the beginning. Across the globe, entrenched authoritarians tightened their grip last year – watch China, for instance. Relatively new authoritarians extended their crackdowns – Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines are a few examples. And troubling signs continued to arise in long-settled democracies like the United States and much of Europe.
“Autocratic nationalism had a banner year,” Maria Stephan, director of the program on nonviolent action at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Just Security. “We saw the rise of elected autocrats and far-right leaders who ran on anti-establishment and `law-and-order’ platforms, and then eroded democratic norms and institutions following their elections.”
Even in the United States and Europe, while it would be “both empirically incorrect and unhelpful” to describe them as sliding into authoritarianism, there are worrying signals, said Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, in an interview. She sees “increasing support for what would be considered at the very least illiberal, if not undemocratic, alternatives.”
And that matters far beyond their borders. The worse that democracies perform, the less attractive that model of governance becomes to their own citizens, and the easier it is for autocratic-leaning leaders elsewhere to claim democracy doesn’t work and that alternative models can do better for economic growth, Berman said. What’s more, weaker democracies are less inclined and less able to hold others to account on democratic and human rights standards.
“Troubles with democracy in already democratic countries feed, both directly and indirectly, trends towards authoritarianism” in other countries already well on the road, Berman said.
At home, there’s another danger: democracies that have derailed may not be able to restore their institutions once an authoritarian leader leaves them in the dust, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Contrary to much of the optimistic rhetoric on the potential for resurrecting flagging democracies, he observed in an interview with Just Security that Thailand, one of the first to plunge into autocratic populism in 2001, has regressed perhaps the farthest into “extremely repressive rule by a military junta.”
And in Italy, Kurlantzick notes in the Washington Post, Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition was tossed out of power, but has made one comeback already and continues to be a leading force in the nation’s politics. To its right is the anti-immigrant party The League, led by Matteo Salvini, which is strong enough that he is now interior minister. Salvini, who is seeking sharper far-right influence in the May elections for the European Union Parliament, recently suggested that Italy and Poland could build an alliance to challenge the dominance of Germany and France in the EU.
Kurlantzick cites his colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, Steven A. Cook, made a similar point about the potential for long-term harm by the authoritarians running Turkey, Hungary and Poland. Cook wrote in Foreign Policy that they have “established new institutions, manipulated existing ones, and hollowed out others.” The results will make it exceedingly difficult to undo the damage.
So where are these trends taking the world? First, a look back.
A Tightened Grip in 2018
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index in January 2018 showed declining scores for more than half the countries in 2017. The same month, Freedom House titled its latest annual report on freedom around the world “Democracy in Crisis,” concluding that freedom had declined for the 12th consecutive year, with 71 countries suffering “net declines in civil and political liberties.”
French President Emmanuel Macron in France had provided a glimmer of hope lasting into 2018 that his resounding 2017 election defeat of National Front leader Marine Le Pen might represent voter pushback against populism and authoritarianism, said William A. Galston, Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with Just Security. The opposite turned out to be the case, Galston said. Even Macron encountered stiff headwinds before the end of 2018, just one example of previously stalwart democratic countries in Europe, and across all regions for that matter, exhibiting disturbing signs of rising far-right tendencies.
Mid-2018 also marked the more high-profile presence of Steve Bannon in the European theater, as he put distance between himself and his troubled tenures in the United States to help unify far-right parties in the European Union, including Salvini’s in Italy. Bannon’s stated goal: for the far right to take over the EU Parliament with elections coming in May 2019. By the end of 2018, skepticism was arising about whether he’d make much headway as a foreigner in European politics, but the gains by some of the parties with which he was working illustrated meaningful public support for these movements, regardless of Bannon’s activities.
India, the world’s most populous democracy, is struggling with the tightening grip of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In December, the governor of the central bank resigned after months of power struggles with the Modi government, in echoes of Trump’s bashing of the Federal Reserve in the United States. It was the latest of many such political clashes since Modi came to power in 2014.
In addition to the rumblings in still relatively stable democracies, there’s the continued slide in already slippery countries like Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines. Russia merits barely a mention, so entrenched is Vladimir Putin’s reign. An ostensible election in March unsurprisingly returned Putin to the presidency for a second consecutive time (fourth overall).
The deterioration of democracy in Hungary gained some much-needed attention in 2018, after years of backsliding under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He roared to his third consecutive election win in April, and moved quickly to consolidate his already firm grip, which had included stealthy captures of formerly independent media by his cronies.
By year’s end, Orban had successfully forced out the Hungarian-American financier-philanthropist George Soros’s highly regarded Central European University, after a virulently anti-Semitic campaign against him. Orban’s parliament also yanked a major chunk of the court system – including authority over corruption cases — away from the country’s supreme court, to be overseen by his justice minister instead. And he has set his sights on greater influence in Europe. In a Jan. 10 news conference, Orban again challenged Macron as “leader of the pro-immigration forces” and insisted he must fight Macron as “a matter of our countries’ future.”
With Poland also heading in the same direction, the EU finally tried to take action against both member countries, with little effect. But Hungarians themselves finally rose up near the end of 2018. For a month now, thousands have turned out in the streets to protest, including outside the capital, mainly against a new law shoved through parliament that lets employers demand more overtime from workers and delay payment for the work for years. But the demonstrators also were rallying against the recent judicial restructuring and the decimation of accountability.
In Turkey, longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan swept to victory in a June presidential election that gave him formidable new powers under constitutional changes approved in a controversial referendum the previous year. His previous post of prime minister was abolished and its executive powers transferred to the office of the president. In any case, Turkey continued to be under a state of emergency that Erdogan declared two years earlier after a failed military coup that had given him cover to accelerate his purge of opponents from multiple institutions of Turkey’s government and society.
And in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s two-year-old presidency encountered rare resistance in the form of flagging opinion polls and opposition to his attempt to force the arrest of a political opponent in parliament. The pushback didn’t stop him from extending a 2017 declaration of martial law on the southern island of Mindanao, the country’s biggest, even though an Islamic insurgency that had prompted it has ended.
Even in entrenched authoritarian systems, the grip tightened in 2018. One stark example was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s power grab with the March legislative decision to erase presidential term limits from the constitution, effectively giving him an indefinite run. His regime also intensified its crackdown on the Uighur minority in the Xinjiang region. As many as 1.1 million people may be held in what effectively are concentration camps. The Washington Post, based on extensive credible reports, called it “a massive campaign of cultural extermination” with “genocidal intent.”
China’s Orwellian-sounding “social credit” system drew massive media coverage in 2018, though it had been announced in 2014 and apparently is still a work in progress. Some reports were alarming, while others cautioned that the government might be trying to come up with solutions to thwart widespread distrust and corruption in society, the economy and governance.
Cambodia regressed further in 2018, as the 33-year Prime Minister Hun Sen largely abandoned any pretense of allowing the kind of multi-party elections permitted in the past.
“It’s just turned into a complete one-party state, where the opposition party was not allowed to run for the elections,” Kurlantzick said.
Myanmar, too, slipped further from the democratic aspirations once embraced by its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In addition to the continuing atrocities against the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority, the high-profile detention of two Reuters journalists reflected – and partly masked – a broader pattern of media repression.
“Suu Kyi has overseen a massive crackdown on press freedom that doesn’t include just the two of them,” Kurlantzick said. “They’ve just gotten more attention than others.”
Even Hong Kong struggled to maintain its democracy, as China increasingly reached in to stir the pot. And Taiwan, too, felt a heightened threat from Xi after a defiant speech he gave in March and, early this month, what sounded like an admission to interference in Taiwan’s November elections.
Across the Pacific, dictatorship is most definitely on the march across Latin America. Venezuela re-elected leftist autocrat Nicolás Maduro for a second term as president in May, despite an economic crisis so severe that starvation is driving citizens across borders to Colombia and Brazil as refugees. Maduro achieved his victory with electoral manipulations including a crackdown on civil society, bans on major opposition parties, and an accelerated timeline for the election.
The elections of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador brought leaders with authoritarian or populist leanings, respectively, to power in the region’s two most-populous countries. López Obrador was sworn in on Dec. 1, and Bolsonaro took office Jan. 1.
Central America continued its democratic meltdown, with Nicaragua joining the deteriorating ranks of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in a devastating dynamic of violence and corruption that is driving so many of their citizens to flee in fear and hopelessness.
University of Chicago Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Albertus examined the return of authoritarianism in Latin America in an article for Slate after the Venezuelan election. He observed that democracy had seemed to prevail despite numerous setbacks over the past century, but that “nearly all of the region’s current democracies were founded by outgoing authoritarian regimes that set up institutions in ways that would favor them and restrict responsiveness to the majority of citizens.”
A Few Bright Spots
There were some positive signs in pivotal places around the world in 2018.
Perhaps the most prominent and startling bright spot was Ethiopia, Africa’s second most-populous country. It began 2018 with a declaration by its ruling coalition that it would answer increasing anti-government protests with actual reforms. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned the next month, and was replaced in April by Abiy Ahmed, a selection that a Freedom House official told a congressional subcommittee “seems to put the country on an unprecedented trajectory of political change and opening.” Abiy has gone on to release political prisoners, end two decades of conflict with neighboring Eritrea, loosen the tight reigns on the economy and welcome political opponents.
That Tunisia has managed to hang on as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring is remarkable. Its transition has been fraught, especially considering its otherwise-authoritarian neighborhood, terrorist influences in the region, political infighting, and a sluggish economic recovery that keeps 1 in 3 graduates unemployed. Tunisia in October extended the state of emergency imposed in 2015, the year of three major terrorist attacks. Two of those assaults targeted tourists and decimated the country’s vital tourism industry.
In Malaysia’s May elections, the former opposition remarkably toppled the ruling coalition that had been in place since independence six decades ago, and its two-term leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak. The new leader, Mahathir Mohamad, who is now 93, is overseeing government efforts to tackle high-level corruption, including his predecessor’s role in a scandal over $4.5 billion missing from a state development fund, as Kurlantzick outlined in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
Another country that boasts the largest population in its region, Uzbekistan, also undertook reforms toward more openness in 2018. Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took over after longtime autocrat Islam Karimov died in office in September 2016, Uzbekistan has been pursuing economic and political liberalization that could create a new model for Central Asia.
So while authoritarianism is digging in, it has been met with a resurgence of what Stephan calls “individual agency” in different parts of the world, including a rise in civic activism and protests.
“Corruption was a lightning rod for protests globally,” Stephan said. She cites the nonviolent popular uprising in Armenia that was dubbed a “democratic velvet revolution.” In that case, concerted civic action against corruption and abuse of power prompted the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and the formation of a new government led by Nikol Pashinian.
In the United States, Galston saw promising signs of pushback against Trump’s efforts to eliminate opposition. Trump “has been a real shock to the system,” said Galston, who compares the virulent rhetorical environment and accompanying actions to the McCarthy era, which he lived through. He sees signs now that “the antibodies have kicked in.”
“I’ve seen bad things like this before. And it would be really dangerous if this kind of presidential leadership had mobilized expanding support — then I’d be worried. That’s not what’s happening,” Galston said. In the midterm elections, “the American people delivered a substantial rebuke to the party that had previously enjoyed unified government power. The legal system appears to be intact. The press is bloodied, but completely unbowed.” Others are more pessimistic about trendlines in the United States when it comes to 2019 and beyond.
Milestones to Watch in 2019
Looking forward, 2019 will bring a number of milestones and likely more than a few surprises one way or another in the balance of democracy and authoritarianism around the world.
With Bolsonaro in Brazil and López Obrador in Mexico having just begun their terms, the two countries will become regional bellwethers for the prospects of populism, as Venezuela once was at the left end of the spectrum before it collapsed. Both countries will be trying to navigate their respective relationships with an equally volatile president in the United States.
It will be hard for Bolsonaro to concentrate power, said Robert R. Kaufman, distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University, in an interview with Just Security. Brazil’s party system is fragmented; parliament has multiple groups with varying – and competing — interests. The struggling economy will make it difficult for Bolsonaro to motivate potential supporters. And Brazil’s judiciary is fairly robust.
“That doesn’t mean that he won’t very likely do a lot of damage,” Kaufman said, citing possible environmental harms as Bolsonaro opens more of the Amazon to logging and other exploitation, and likely human rights abuses as he gives free rein to his military. “The good news is that I think it’s going to be hard to consolidate a dictatorship there.”
López Obrador in Mexico is more populist than authoritarian, and more pragmatic than Bolsonaro, Kaufman said. But he has an overwhelming majority in both houses of the Mexican Congress, and significant control over the federal system in the form of the governors. The country’s judicial system also is not as strong and independent as that of Brazil.
“The election has brought about an enormous concentration of power in his hands,” Kaufman said of López Obrador.
The Trump administration has sought to rally opposition to Maduro in Venezuela at the United Nations and the Organization of American States, and has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s cronies. Trump also is looking to Bolsonaro as an ally in pressing for change in Venezuela.
Pivotal Elections Coming Up
Around the world, key elections will influence the trajectory of democratic and authoritarian rule. Among them, Nigerians go to the polls on Feb. 16 in Africa’s most populous country to see if they can repeat the success of 2015, when they scored their first peaceful transfer of power between civilian political opponents. Escalating violence of various kinds across the country has become a top election issue and also threatens the peacefulness of the vote itself.
In North Africa, Tunisia is due to have elections later in the year, helping determine whether its democratic emergence can stay on a steady course. But they’ve already been postponed before, and might be again, reports Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst and member of the Carnegie Civic Research Network, for Project Syndicate.
“For a fragile democracy led by a nonagenarian, saddled by an endless state of emergency, and lacking a constitutional court, this delay may prove fatal,” Cherif wrote.
In Asia, February elections in Thailand will signal the odds of whether the country returns to some kind of democratic path, though the military junta may make it difficult for particular parties to win. April will bring a major election in Indonesia, a rare democratic success story among majority-Muslim nations. President Joko Widodo, running for a second five-year term, has pursued reforms and retained popularity, but he’s being challenged by a nationalist opponent with an authoritarian bent. India will have general elections between April and May that will strongly indicate whether Modi’s BJP party can retain its strength.
In Europe, Euroskeptic Belgian lawyer Mischaël Modrikamen, one of Bannon’s supporters and the original founder of his pan-European cause, called simply “The Movement,” is confident about the outcome of the elections for the EU Parliament. During an interview in a video produced by The Guardian, Modrikamen describes the contest as a battle between globalists and “sovereignists.”
“The future is ours,” Modrikamen declares. “The future is to the Trumps and to the Putins and to the Orbans of this world.”
Yet 2018 ended, as mentioned above, with some expressing doubts about Bannon’s potency on a continent where he is a foreigner. Restrictions on foreign involvement in elections are one barrier, and University of Pennsylvania visiting scholar Andrea Mammone says Bannon isn’t really the trailblazer he’s made out to be. Europe already has a history of fascists connecting across borders, and even such ties between Europe and the United States “have existed since the 1920s and 1930s,” with Americans generally the latecomers, Mammone wrote in the Washington Post.
In addition to the EU elections, Ukraine holds a presidential election on March 31 that will challenge President Petro Poroshenko’s bid for another five-year term. Although the country is struggling economically and still fighting Russian-backed forces on its eastern flank, none of the viable candidates advocate anything but a continued march toward a Western, democratic system. If Russia has achieved anything with its 2014 seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, it is to decimate what public support it had in a country so close to its cultural heart.
Across the globe, Stephan Haggard at the University of California, San Diego, will be watching the machinations of authoritarian trendsetters-cum-meddlers Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Russia long has drawn scrutiny for its covert interference in its former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, and more recently in Europe, the Balkans and, of course, the United States. But China, too, is broadening and intensifying the way it wields its levers of influence abroad, despite its claims of purely economic interests and a policy of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.
“I think we’ve underestimated the extent to which China is playing a Russian-style game,” Haggard, the university’s Lawrence and Sallye Krause Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy, told Just Security.
Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, cited a shocking case in an article for the July 2018 issue of Journal of Democracy. A Chinese-backed media conglomerate in 2014 managed to strike a deal with Australia’s public broadcaster that required the Australian outlet “to eliminate news and current-affairs content objectionable to Beijing from the respected ABC Mandarin-language service, both in Australia and overseas.”
Walker described such tactics as “sharp power” and “part of a pernicious global pattern.”
“In an era of globalization coupled with authoritarian resurgence, the institutions of a growing number of democracies are straining to comprehend and to deal with the projection of authoritarian influence through more diverse channels than ever before,” Walker wrote.
Haggard says Saudi Arabia and Iran, too, have long sought to export their brands of Islamic rule. Venezuela once tried to do the same in Latin America, promoting like-minded governance in its region.
“This question of powerful autocracies intervening more aggressively and unapologetically is maybe as much of the storyline as the targets,” Haggard said. “We talk about democracy promotion, but we don’t talk about authoritarian promotion.” Still, he noted, all of these regional powerhouses were far more influential when their economies were stronger.
Berman also noted the role of economic factors in many of the internal struggles between democracy and authoritarianism, though these influences operate in varying and sometimes contradictory ways.
“The healthier that economies are in Europe and the United States, the less the support for populism,” Berman said. But in more authoritarian-leaning countries, leaders have thrived on their healthy economies to stay in power. Severe economic stress in a country like China could undermine Xi’s strength.
In several ways, the elephant in the room in all these scenarios is the United States under Donald Trump. Many of these countries’ leaders and civic activists are watching carefully to see which direction the political winds blow in 2019, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller likely completes his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and Trump now confronts a new Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mueller’s conclusions in the Russia investigation will be pivotal, as will the reaction of Republicans, Galston said.
“Then the question is how will the president respond, and will there be broad-based support for letting the law take its course without interference?” Galston said. “The fundamental question is whether the rule of law will be maintained in the face of the president’s avowed skepticism about the institutions that are supposed to deliver and guarantee the rule of law.”
What happens in the United States “is critical to all of these things,” says Kurlantzick. “If the United States is going to go down the path of democratic backsliding and collapse, then that’s a serious problem. And I’m not convinced that that’s not going to happen.”
Contrary to Galston’s optimism, Kurlantzick already in 2013 authored the book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government. Despite the vigorous pushback demonstrated by the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, Kurlantzick sees “overall corrosive trends,” such as voter apathy and suppression, gerrymandering, campaign-finance problems, an undermining of expertise throughout government and society, and the breakdown of any ability to get things done in Congress.
If the future of democracy in the United States hinges on one election or one party, he said, “that suggests that democracy has already significantly regressed.”