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It’s not just Brazil: Democracy is being eroded around the globe

Demagogues – taking advantage of social unrest and polarization – are corroding the strength of democracies. Notwithstanding, institutions continue to show resilience in the face of authoritarianism

Asalto al Congreso en Brasil
A group of pro-Bolsonaro rioters attack government institutions in Brasília, on January 8, 2023.Marcelo Camargo (EFE)

The January 8 assault on Brazil’s capital – perpetrated by a mob of supporters of former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro – is yet another reminder about the growing global threat to democracy.

In the last few weeks alone, multiple signs of the democratic fabric fraying have materialized. There’s been a descent into violence in the south of Peru, following the impeachment of former president Pedro Castillo, who attempted to shutter his country’s Congress before being arrested. In Tunisia – once a great democratic hope in the Arab world – an election was just held before Christmas, which saw a disheartening turnout of only 11%, threatening the credibility of the process. Meanwhile, Turkey’s President Erdoğan is using the country’s court system to persecute potential opponents – including liberals, leftists and centrists – who have a good chance of defeating him in 2023, should they manage to stay out of jail.

These developments are just the latest in a phenomenon of democratic deterioration – something that scholars and civil society groups have been warning about for some time. However, many democracies have also shown notable signs of resilience. In the cases of former US president Donald Trump and Bolsonaro, both were defeated in democratic processes, while the security services and courts have managed to curtail the violence of their most radicalized supporters.

Experts still warn about being complacent. Freedom House – a DC-based organization funded by the US government – has recorded a decline in freedom around the world over the past 16 years. More countries have experienced democratic setbacks, rather than making progress. In 2021, 60 democratic countries were classified as being in regression, while 25 were deemed to be making progress.

Likewise, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) – an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Sweden and funded by 34 countries – detects that, among the hundred countries classified as democracies, there has been a sharp rise in the number of nations suffering from a curtailing of democratic norms. Of the 104 tracked by IDEA, 48 were regressing, with only 14 improving. The rest have remained stagnant. Meanwhile, a study from the University of Cambridge points to an especially high detachment from politics being observed within younger generations.

What are the causes of this phenomenon? Obviously, each country has its specific circumstances, but there are some common denominators.

“There is definitely a crisis of democracies,” affirms Paolo Gerbaudo, a sociologist at King’s College in London. “In my opinion, one of the main causes is the way in which globalization has turned the democratic national state – the fundamental framework in which the democracy we know has developed – into an extremely fragile structure. The effects of globalization impede the ability [of democratic governments] to do things, keep promises, this causes disappointment, a feeling of betrayal.”

Kevin Casas-Zamora, the secretary-general of IDEA and the former vice-president of Costa Rica, points to three main reasons. In the first place, “internal disintegration, with the rise of extreme polarization.” Then, “the loss of confidence in democratic institutions as instruments capable of providing solid solutions to people’s problems. In this area, a particularly toxic element is corruption, which generates a high degree of detachment.” In Brazil, one of the key reasons for Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018 was the massive amount of corruption that tainted the administration of Lula’s Workers’ Party, which was in power from 2003 until 2016.

Finally, Casas-Zamora notes “the international context, where a lower price is paid for embarking on an authoritarian path. There are models – such as the Chinese one – that combine horrible repression with a high degree of economic efficiency.”

Richard 'Bigo' Barnet, seguidor de Donald Trump, en el escritorio de la presidenta de la Cámara de Representantes, Nancy Pelosi
Richard Barnett, at Nancy Pelosi's desk, on January 6, 2021.

Gerardo Berthin, the vice president of Freedom House’s international programs, also stresses that economic inequality is a powerful factor behind the frustration. Demographic-social changes are perceived by some groups as threatening realities, which lead them to seek radical political alternatives.

Growing discontent with living conditions is taken advantage of by populist leaders, who exacerbate polarization, cultivate a climate of animosity and dismantle democratic institutions, so as to reduce checks and balances to their power.

There are broad sectors of democratic societies for which the idea that the future will be better has been broken. This generates a systemic rejection of the status quo, opening up dangerous paths to express frustration.

Yasha Mounk and Jordan Kyle published an extensive study on the rise of populism in 2018. The two political scientists built a database, compiling a list of governments defined as “populist” by comparing more than 50 academic journals. They identified 46 populist leaders or political parties in power in 33 countries between 1990 and 2018.

The study yielded several disturbing results. Firstly, this type of government remains in power longer – on average – than non-populist ones; only a minority of these leaders leave power via a normal transition process. About 50% reform the constitution to reduce checks and balances, eliminate term limits, or stack the judiciary with loyalists.

It was also found that there is a similar proportion of right-wing and left-wing populist leaders, causing a significant decline in democracy. Five out of 13 cases on the right; five out of 13 cases on the left. Clearly, disdain for democracy is not limited to one side of the political spectrum.

There is definitely a crisis of democracies
Paolo Gerbaudo, a sociologist at King’s College in London

Yet, in the long-run, democratic systems tend to demonstrate persistent superiority over autocracies, in various areas. This was made clear during the pandemic, when authoritarian regimes – such as China – instituted Draconian restrictions, oftentimes using violence to get their populations to toe the line. Three years later, China is bogged down in a complex management of the Covid crisis, while democratic countries have left it behind. Pharmaceutical developments were more impressive in democratic countries, while pandemic restrictions – although severe – were more humane than in dictatorships.

The war in Ukraine is also evidence of the persistent military superiority of democracies. The delivery of weaponry, training and intel has managed to stop the Russian onslaught. Democracies have demonstrated an effective degree of economic, humanitarian and military coordination.

These traits of efficiency and vitality add to the unequaled foundations of democratic projects, beginning with respect for individual freedom and human rights. But all of these positive elements are not enough to guarantee a bright future.

“Social demands are growing at exponential speed. The ability to respond has not advanced at the same pace. It’s essential that democracies apply their self-correcting mechanism to reduce the gap between demands and the ability to respond,” warns Casas-Zamora, who argues that a reformulation of the social contract is necessary.

In the European Union, the shift from austerity – following the 2008 financial crisis – to the countercyclical response to the pandemic looks a lot like an attempt at a new social contract. “Austerity policies are dangerous for democracy. The Next Generation EU [the bloc’s recovery plan] is, without a doubt, more mature,” says Gerbaudo.

The sociologist notes that, in any case, the violent uprisings – as seen in the United States two years ago, or in Brazil last week – should not be taken lightly.

“These [riots] have not been successful and have picturesque features. But what they mean should not be underestimated. There’s an ongoing debate about whether [the riots] are fascist or post-fascist adventures. In my opinion, they are reminiscent of those pre-fascist authoritarian nationalism movements of the late 19th and early-20th centuries.” Meaning that, in the future, they could be more effective.

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