The Rise of Elected Autocrats Threatens Democracy

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By Joshua Kurlantzick,

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

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.

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.

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