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How democracies die - Anthony Curmi

The book How democracies die was published earlier this year. The joint authors are two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a bestseller. Through their research work the authors concluded that what history reveals could be an indication of the future.

One may be inclined to counter argue against using contemporary political science for treating history as a useful guide to the future. Nonetheless, the case histories of various former democracies explored by the authors do provide much food for thought even in the context of the local political scene.

Admittedly, a good part of the book deals with the political situation in the US prior to and since Donald Trump’s election as President.

The authors show disdain for many of Trump’s policies but at the same time they do not consider that he spells the death of US democracy, although they feel that he is using his presidency as a platform for settling personal scores. 

In this short article I steer clear of politics in the US, but will attempt to highlight the major instances in other parts of the world where, according to the authors, democracies have died as a result of political mismanagement and even corruption.

There are certainly some lessons to be learnt from these.

It is noteworthy that, in their swift survey of authoritarian politics around the world the authors find the same pattern repeating itself.

Their view is that 21st century strongmen do not suspend the constitution and replace it with tanks on the street but they pay lip service to the constitution while behaving as though it did not exist.

The backsliding of democracy is gradual and history shows that citizens are slow to realise that democracy is being eroded

To name just a few quoted in the book, one reads about how Putin swapped the role of president for prime minister in order to be seen to be playing by the rules and at the same time making a total mockery of them.

Also the machinations to stay in power of Erdogan in Turkey; Orban in Hungary; Maduro in Venezuela; Allende in Chile and Modi in India.

The authors put forward four “key indicators of authoritarian behaviour” common to politicians who consider themselves to be unassailable. The make-up of each indicator is then dissected to explain the tactics used. Because of space limitations I am just listing the indicators:

Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game; toleration and encouragement of violence; readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including media, who criticise government.

A common thread is said to be that such politicians cast their rivals as criminal, subversive, unpatriotic or even a threat to national security or the existing way of life. The authors coined the phrase “politics without guardrails”.

These following points, taken at random from the book, reflect the machinations which the authors concluded from their research were typical of situations in countries where democracy was seriously threatened or even died:

Replacing civil servants (non-partisan loyalists with loyalists); impeached minister reappointed to cabinet as defence minister; removing obstacles to money laundering by removing the regulator; alleging fake news and instituting libel cases against critics; bringing down own government considered as treason; lying and bullying, intolerance to criticism; battle against the independent press; amassing background data on voters; support by wealthy outside donors; treating rivals and critics as enemies; referees on one’s side (law enforcement bodies etc.).

The authors hold the view that the backsliding of democracy is gradual and that history shows that citizens are slow to realise that democracy is being eroded even as it happens before their eyes. Moreover, that even well-designed constitutions cannot by themselves guarantee democracy and that when norms of mutual tolerance are weak, democracy is hard to sustain.

A telling comment by the authors is that “no single leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either”.

Anthony Curmi is a former bank executive.

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