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17 November 2021updated 18 Nov 2021 1:47am

How strongmen cling to power

Authoritarian leaders around the world are strengthening their rule. Can anyone topple them?

By Jeremy Cliffe

The next 18 months bring three major international elections at which the survival of democracy in the countries in question will be at stake. In Hungary next April or May Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will face a united opposition coalition at the polls. Next October Brazil will hold an election pitting the hard-right President Jair Bolsonaro against the leftish, resurgent Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Then in Turkey, in the first half of 2023, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should face his most formidable electoral trial yet. Three iconic international authoritarians; three serious challenges to their rule; three potentially era-defining tests of democracy.

In Hungary, Brazil and Turkey voters are tiring of corruption and misgovernment. The Covid pandemic has undermined those authoritarians whose swaggering nationalism has proven a poor substitute for competence. In all three countries the opposition is newly invigorated and confident, and there is a thrilling possibility of a change of leadership. All three are multi-party democracies unlike, say, Vladimir Putin’s Russia (let alone Xi Jinping’s China). Yet in all three, the democratic playing field has become ever-more tilted towards the incumbent and his party. Orbán, Bolsonaro and Erdoğan have systematically attacked their countries’ democratic institutions. It is far from certain that legitimate votes against any of them would actually translate into peaceful and just transitions of power.

Internationally, democracy has been in retreat in recent years. The global average of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, which measures the quality of democracy in countries, has been falling since 2015, and in 2020 reached its lowest ever level. Hungary, Brazil and Turkey have recorded especially precipitous falls.

But though these countries symbolise the so-called democratic recession today, all three were once celebrated for their embrace of democratic reforms. In 1989 it was Hungary that, as the then West German chancellor Helmut Kohl said, “pulled the first brick from the Berlin Wall” and set out into the new era with among the deepest liberal democratic traditions of any post-Soviet state. Multi-ethnic, melting-pot Brazil has long carried the moniker of the “land of the future” and in the early 2000s was considered the great democratic success of the emerging economies. Turkey too was once upheld as a beacon – proof that Middle Eastern states could be Muslim yet also secular, democratic and integral members of the Western alliance. All three, culturally liminal for historical and geographical reasons, symbolised democracy’s potential to flourish beyond its Cold War core of North America and western Europe.

On 6 January this year, as the US Congress formalised the electoral college votes of the 2020 presidential election, a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC, leaving five dead and more than a hundred injured.

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To anyone paying attention to shifts in US politics, those scenes were not surprising. Arieh Kovler, a political analyst, had predicted them on Twitter a few weeks earlier. Reflecting now on the shocking events of 6 January, he says a “polarised environment, weakened norms and conspiracy theories combined to make a crowd of Trump supporters genuinely believe that by attacking the Capitol they were enacting part of an intricately planned overthrow of a fraudulent election result”.

Orbán, Bolsonaro and Erdoğan face the prospect of losing their upcoming elections. All have closely watched Trump’s attempt to defy his own defeat. In all three cases a “6 January moment” – of an authoritarian leader and his supporters seeking to overturn a legitimate national election result – is alarmingly conceivable. Democracy in all three countries will be put to the test. The outcomes will inform how Trump and his followers approach the 2024 US election. Budapest and Brasilia today, Ankara tomorrow and, the day after that, Washington, DC?

Hungary’s election next spring is widely held to be a last chance to save the country’s democracy. Orbán started his political career in the liberal democratic opposition to communism. He was briefly a student at Oxford and governed as a broadly mainstream conservative during his first prime ministerial term from 1998 to 2002. Yet over his three further terms since returning to power in 2010, his Fidesz party has gradually neutered the institutions that make a democracy open and competitive: changing the electoral system to weaken Hungary’s fragmented opposition, packing the courts, driving out independent media and civil society bodies, and using state authorities against opponents.

But Orbán faces a serious challenge. His handling of the pandemic has been a debacle and the EU is finally restricting the flow of funds to his corrupt government. Hungary’s long-disunited opposition has forged a broad anti-Orbán front, ranging from the hard right to the progressive left. On 17 October it chose as its prime ministerial candidate Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative, independent, small-town mayor and father of seven. Márki-Zay defies the caricatures of a hard-left, “globalist” opponent that Orbán likes to deploy. “We have ways of getting around the pro-government media, like using street campaigning to talk directly with voters,” says Katalin Cseh, a liberal MEP in the opposition coalition. One recent poll put the coalition ahead of Fidesz.

Yet to unseat Orbán it will have to win in unfavourable circumstances. The country’s now overwhelmingly pro-Fidesz media is pumping out conspiracy theories about Márki-Zay, including that he is a puppet of Ferenc Gyurcsány, the country’s super-rich former prime minister. Fidesz has reshaped voter rolls and gerrymandered the constituency map, and it controls the election ombudsman and audit authority. It has a track record of using every available lever, from public procurement budgets to surveillance powers, to gain advantage over its challengers. Everything possible will be thrown at Márki-Zay and his broad alliance.

[see also: In Hungary, a united opposition faces an unhinged, Orbán-friendly smear campaign]

As Hungary goes to the polls next spring, Brazil will be entering its own election season ahead of its autumn vote. Bolsonaro is a newer presence in international politics than Orbán, having been elected president at the start of 2019. Yet in only three years he has inflicted considerable damage on the norms and institutions of his country’s fragile democracy – promoting conspiracy theories and attacks on independent media outlets, barracking the congress and judiciary, and flirting with violence and even calls for military intervention in politics in his attempt to reshape Brazil’s constitutional order. “I am the constitution,” he declared last year, like some latter-day Louis XIV.

Bolsonaro’s presidency has targeted what the Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe in their 2018 book How Democracies Die as the two most essential unwritten norms of a healthy democratic system: “mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals” and “forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives”.

As with Orbán, Bolsonaro’s crude populism and indulgence of culture wars failed to conceal his incompetent handling of the pandemic and the economy. Brazil has recorded one of the highest rates of Covid-19 deaths per capita – 2,896 per million – and the country’s largest bank just downgraded its GDP growth forecast for next year from +0.5 per cent to -0.5 per cent. One of Bolsonaro’s predecessors, “Lula”, returned to politics earlier this year. He had been imprisoned for corruption and money laundering in 2018 but was released in November 2019 and had his conviction annulled in March this year. He now has a comfortable lead in the polls ahead of next year’s election.

Bolsonaro is explicit that he will not concede. “I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, killed or victory,” he said in August. Like Trump in the run-up to the US presidential election last year, he has already cast doubt on voting processes (in his case, Brazil’s long-standing use of electronic voting) and pre-emptively blamed any defeat on alleged voter fraud.

Leading by example: Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn his loss to Joe Biden has been closely watched by other heads of state. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Meanwhile, one can easily forget that Erdoğan started off as a reformer in Turkey, becoming prime minister in 2003 preaching pluralism, democracy and progress towards EU membership. Yet like Orbán, his politics have curdled into divisive nationalism, as well as increasingly political Islamism. He has taken aim at most of the balancing sources of independent authority in his country. Amnesty International found at least 180 media outlets have been closed since 2016 and more than 120 journalists are now in prison. In 2017, following a heavily imbalanced referendum campaign, Erdoğan pushed through a constitution that dismantled the separation of powers and gutted the independence of the legislature and judiciary.

Like Orbán and Bolsonaro, Erdoğan’s political strength is waning despite his power grabs. Turkey’s economy lurches from crisis to crisis. Support for his AKP, a religious conservative party with increasingly close links to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has fallen to as low as 30 per cent in polls, down from 53 per cent at the last election in 2018. The Turkish opposition is increasingly confident about its ability to beat him in 2023. Like its Hungarian counterpart, it is shrugging off past divisions and moving towards a broad, common front against the strongman incumbent.

Yet also like Orbán and Bolsonaro, Erdoğan may seek to defy legitimate defeat. There is talk of changes to electoral laws, legal threats against opposition leaders and attacks on “enemies” of Turkey. His willingness to use nationalist fireworks to try to shore up his domestic support is well established; last month’s subsequently aborted move to expel ten western European and North American ambassadors was just the most recent example. Turkey’s election in 2023 will coincide with celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the republic’s foundation, providing an ideal pretext for the sort of militaristic bombast that might help sway or even steal an election.

Search “democracy” on Google Images and the pictures that dominate are raised hands or votes being posted in ballot boxes – voting, in other words. That is an apt depiction. Yet it is also an incomplete one. Voting is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for democracy.

Even undemocratic systems hold elections (just look at Putin’s Russia). What truly makes a democracy is the network of institutions and norms in which those elections take place. Does the media and the wider information environment create room for multiple perspectives and criticism of incumbents? Do opposition candidates have a realistic chance of making their case to voters? Are election and judicial authorities independent? Does an incumbent who loses accept a legitimate victory by the opposition? And are there adequate means to contain and balance the power of the winner?

The answers to these questions are not absolutes. Democracy is not a light switch that can be only on or off. There is a wide grey zone between its presence and its absence – a spectrum along which countries can move, gradually or suddenly, in either direction. Plenty of democracies are in the danger zone, including India, Poland, Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa. But the events of the next 18 months in Hungary, Brazil and Turkey – where weakened but determined authoritarians who have dismantled democratic guardrails face robust challenges from opposition forces – will tell us much about how far a country can slide across that spectrum, and how far its democracy can decay, before it is no longer competitive.

[see also: How Lula da Silva has shaken Jair Bolsonaro’s grip on Brazil]

That should be of intense interest to the citizens of other, stronger democracies, especially the US. For there is a sort of intellectual, tactical symbiosis between Orbánism, Bolsonarism, Erdoğanism and Trumpism. Some of those who were once close to Trump, such as his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, had closely observed the likes of Orbán before Trump came to office. As president, Trump displayed an obvious and at points near-sycophantic affinity with strongmen leaders, including those of Hungary, Brazil and Turkey, as well as Putin.

Having drawn on their example, Trump in turn is now influencing them. His bid to delegitimise a Joe Biden win in the 2020 election, both before and after polling day last November, has provided a model for authoritarians facing election tests. Bolsonaro, for example, gave credence to the defeated US president’s claims of a stitch-up and is transparently preparing a similar strategy for his contest with Lula. Trump has already endorsed Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson in August visited Hungary and presented Orbán as a model for the future of the US Republican Party. The Trumpite Fox News presenter admires what he sees as the Hungarian prime minister’s supposed “Judeo Christian” vision for the West; or, in practice, an opposition to migration, Islam, social liberalism and political pluralism informed by baseless conspiracy theories such as the so-called Great Replacement theory (white cultural suppression caused by migration).

Precedents set by Trump have opened up new space for Orbán, Bolsonaro or Erdoğan to seek to break their countries’ democracies before or after the elections. It is clear Trump’s wing of the Republican Party will be paying attention if they do. Several recent polls show a majority of Republican voters believe Trump was the rightful winner in 2020. Trumpites are increasingly dominant in the party.

“If Trump wants the nomination, he will get it,” says Kovler. Most alarmingly, the analyst who predicted the storming of the Capitol on 6 January says attempts to subvert the election next time could be more effective. “There is some evidence that there is a plan to ensure a future Democrat win is overturned,” he told me, “but in any case, it is happening organically.” Kovler cites the high proportion of Republican candidates for secretary of state (chief clerk, in state politics) in swing states that back Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen. The conspiracy theories that fuelled the violence in January are becoming more widespread.

But it is not only in the US that supporters of liberal democracy need to be vigilant. Britain may have strong democratic institutions, and its politics may be less dysfunctional and its polarisation less extreme than in the US. Yet it too sits on that long spectrum that ranges from absolute democracy to absolute non-democracy. And for all the clichés about the “mother of parliaments”, and the “golden thread” of English liberty, it is also capable of shifting on that spectrum.

Consider Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament for political reasons in 2019, the demonising of independent institutions such as the courts and the BBC by voices in or close to the government, the cynical stoking of the culture wars, the blatant corruption of seats in the upper house being gifted to donors to the governing party. Consider, most recently, the bid to bulldoze a standards committee with the temerity to censure a favoured right-wing, pro-Brexit Conservative MP. All of this, were it to happen elsewhere, would bring head-shaking and hand-wringing about the plight of struggling democracies not blessed with the deep liberal roots of British norms and institutions. And yet all of it is happening in Britain today, perhaps all the more easily thanks to the complacent sense that its system is uniquely robust.

Britain is, of course, different from Hungary, Brazil or Turkey, as well as the US, but it does sit on the same spectrum as those and all other countries. “How do elected authoritarians shatter the democratic institutions that are supposed to constrain them?” ask Levitsky and Ziblatt. “Some do it in one fell swoop. But more often the assault on democracy begins slowly. For many citizens, it may, at first, be imperceptible.”

Not so long ago, Hungary, Brazil and Turkey were cited optimistically as examples of countries travelling in the right direction. Now they illustrate how far and fast it is possible to move in the wrong one. Nor is there anything innate about the US political system that makes it prone to democratic backsliding that cannot possibly apply to the British one. Democratic systems are human constructions, subject to all the frailties of human societies – in Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, the US and, yes, in Britain too.

[see also: Joe Biden and the spectre of Donald Trump]

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand