The Rise of Elected Autocrats Threatens Democracy

Democracy is having a bad run as strong-arm leaders crush political freedoms and China’s state capitalist model gains admirers
Illustration by 731

In mid-January millions of Egyptians voted in a referendum on their constitution. The newly revised document won resoundingly, with 98.1 percent voting yes, according to the nation’s election commission. Egyptian leaders, and some outside observers, lauded the vote as a tremendous victory for the country’s democratic transition.

In reality it was scarcely an exercise in Jeffersonian democracy. Before the referendum, security forces rounded up—and in some cases beat up—hundreds of activists who had called for a no vote. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader Mohamed Mursi was deposed as Egypt’s president by the military last summer, boycotted the referendum. Less than 40 percent of Egyptians bothered to show up at polling stations, since they’d had no input in drafting the new constitution, which basically reestablishes military rule indefinitely.

Sadly, Egypt isn’t an outlier: Last year was perhaps the worst for democracy in nearly two decades. The research organization Freedom House, known for its analyses of democratic trends and human rights, recently concluded that 2013 was a year of “gains, to be sure, but unfortunately many more setbacks in global democracy.” Hopes for political liberalization also burned out in other parts of the Arab world, particularly Syria and Libya. And 2014 isn’t looking any better, what with turmoil in Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Brazil.

Ironically, one of the reasons strong-arm governments are making a comeback is that their leaders have proven adept tacticians in Western-style electoral politics. The rise of elected autocrats in recent years—Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, and Bangladesh’s Sheik Hasina, among others—has cast an unflattering light on predictions made by Western leaders and analysts in the early 1990s that a democratic era had dawned across the world.

Instead, some opportunistic leaders have used the political legitimacy of a popular vote to abuse power, enrich allies, and annihilate the opposition. They’ve won over rural and low-income voters with populist rhetoric and economic enticements. As a result, middle-class elites, who during the Cold War might have pushed back against their authoritarian rulers, are leading demonstrations to topple elected leaders who don’t always look out for their economic interests. Yes, urban voters are appalled by how autocrats have amassed personal power—but that concern is equaled by the less noble realization that the rural populace has become a rival threatening their political and economic clout.

Things certainly look fragile in Thailand, where business tycoon Thaksin (prime minister from 2001 until 2006, when he was deposed in a military coup) is still hugely popular with rural Thais. His sister, Yingluck, has been premier since 2011, when the ruling Thaksinite Puea Thai party won a landslide in national elections by promising new subsidies for rice farmers, among other populist policies.

While winning elections, and thus upholding electoral democracy in one sense, the Shinawatra family has also utilized its power and vast wealth to destroy democratic institutions and empty the bureaucracy of independent-minded civil servants. A recent attempt by the ruling party under Yingluck’s direction to push through an amnesty bill allowing Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile has set off antigovernment protests and a bloody political crisis in Bangkok.

Urban middle classes in Turkey and Ukraine, worried about losing political and economic power, have also struck back. But rather than trying to win elections, they’ve further sabotaged democracy with violent demonstrations. In Egypt, city dwellers in Cairo openly cheered the army’s takeover and Mursi’s ouster. In Syria, many Damascus residents have tacitly backed Bashar al-Assad’s brutal tactics, including chemical weapons attacks on citizens. Damascenes fear that if Assad falls, a successor government, even a freely elected one, could bring to power religious, Sunni-dominated groups that will treat religious minorities harshly.

Meanwhile, China’s mix of state capitalism and authoritarian politics looks, to some, far more inviting than the polarization, gridlock, and subpar economic growth that characterize the U.S., the European Union, and Japan. In part because of China’s economic success, “authoritarianism remains a fierce competitor of democracy in East Asia,” notes Yun-han Chu, a political scientist at National Taiwan University.

China’s stable, if repressive, politics and high-speed economic growth—the “Beijing Consensus”—have impressed elites in places such as Thailand, where democracy seems to have produced only graft, muddled economic planning, and political strife. China encourages this line of thinking by each year training more than 10,000 bureaucrats from other developing countries in economic management and various civil-service skills—in sessions at which China’s successes in improving living standards are promoted. Southeast Asian nations “have shifted their development strategy from one based on free markets and democracy to one based on semi-free markets and an illiberal political system,” argues Indonesian scholar Ignatius Wibowo in a recent study on China’s influence in Southeast Asia. “The Beijing Consensus clearly has gained ground in Southeast Asia.”

The democratic regression will be felt by global businesses. The young democracies now engulfed in turmoil are many of the same emerging markets—Brazil, India, Turkey, Thailand, the Philippines—that are driving global economic growth and whose trade is critical to developed economies. Even worse, the clampdown on change in the Middle East has brought back autocrats who also want to retain state control of economies such as Egypt’s, damping hope that the region will become another engine of global expansion.

The rollback of democracy could even lead to regional conflicts. “Authoritarian states, including China and Russia, show no hesitation in bullying their neighbors and increasing repression at home,” says Freedom House President David Kramer. Many of the same nations where democracy is floundering and instability is growing also sit astride the most dangerous political fault lines, in the Middle East, the South China Sea, and elsewhere. It turns out democracy has been a boon to autocratic leaders around the world.

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