Democracy on the Brink:
Four Key Insights
Democratisation is not a linear process, nor can the continued development of liberal democracy be taken for granted. Disenchantment with democracy has gained ground among new democracies where many of the promises associated with economic and political freedom have failed to materialise. But trust in political elites and institutions has also plummeted in many of the established democracies.
By drawing attention to changing narratives about the shape, and even the desirability, of democratic institutions as well as examining the practices of governance in many majoritarian democracies, the contributors to this issue of Global Challenges highlight some key aspects of the undermining of liberal democracy worldwide:
- Ambiguous impact of the (in)action of international institutions. Neoliberal structural adjustment programmes have had a detrimental impact on representative institutions in several countries of the Global South (and some in the Global North too, as the case of Greece shows), as suggested by Sánchez’s analysis of populism in Venezuela. Yet, paradoxically, where supranational institutions, or international financial institutions, possess some leverage to ensure prevalence of the rule of law, freedom of expression or separation of powers, they often fail to use it to ensure a commitment to these liberal principles. Randeria argues that EU intervention and sanctions have been conspicuous by their absence despite, for instance, Hungary’s systematic dismantling of liberal democratic institutions. For the Middle East, Ould Mohamedou shows how in the name of “stability” and “security” Western governments have tolerated the ongoing “rebranding of authoritarianism“. Democratic ideals in the Middle East and North Africa region have thus been compromised by an interplay of internal and external forces.
- Shifts in the attractiveness of democratic and authoritarian models. Sylvan’s analysis alerts us to the worldwide historic influence that the US “democratic model” has exerted through its oft-lauded constitution, its culture of active political participation, and its strong civic movements. The current political scenario, however, calls into question several aspects of this model, and emboldens illiberal voices all over the globe. Moreover, as Krastev suggests, liberal and illiberal democracies today seem to mirror each other’s anxieties. While Russia continues to be obsessed about the Western gaze, the expansion of Russian authoritarianism has gripped the political imagination of the West as well. If there is justifiable concern with the ideological and financial links between Putin and the European Right, there is equal worry that the Russian model may predict the future shape of polities (including Western democracies) worldwide.
- Restructuring of state institutions amidst new socioeconomic configurations. Krastev identifies a new pattern of resource extraction in Russia which may be best characterised as “spoliation and neglect”. Randeria delineates the new contours of the Hungarian state, which has narrowed all spaces of dissent while concentrating economic power in the hands of a tiny elite loyal to the leader. In Venezuela, where the expansion of executive power goes hand in hand with a breakdown of political representation, Sánchez explores the emergence of bodily affect as “a crucial political and social crucible”. Given the retreat of the political, the Chavist regime has used control mechanisms embedded in the military and economic machinery of the state to strengthen its own power base.
- Use of liberal means to establish and entrench illiberal democracies. Ironically, elections can be instruments for disempowering citizens where they serve to liberate elites from the electorate (Krastev). The 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey was organised to formally reinforce presidential powers amidst widespread intimidation and massive purges (Bayart). Large parliamentary majorities can be used to undermine the rule of law and to establish instead illiberal forms of rule by hastily passing ad hoc legislation without public scrutiny. Randeria analyses the processes that transformed Hungary’s governance by “rule of law” into an authoritarian “rule by law”. Focusing on Uganda, Tapscott’s analysis reveals the subtle ways in which a state maintains control over society by fostering a climate of uncertainty fuelled by arbitrary interventions. Thus, irrespective of formally liberal politics, “institutionalised arbitrariness” precludes citizens from entertaining reliable expectations regarding state-society relationships.
The lived experiences of democracies today are being shaped by a multitude of reconfigurations at the national, local and translocal levels. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnessing an expansion of the repertoire of democracy along with that of authoritarianism; or, perhaps, even the blurring of the demarcation between the two. Bayart identifies the power dynamics between the proponents of authoritarianism and those of democracy as the real issue in the face of an intensifying struggle over the redefinition of democracy. Illiberal democracies do not share unique defining features that would allow them to be subsumed under a common denominator, as illustrated by the contributions to this dossier. But in what sense these can be considered democracies at all remains a moot question. We need a better understanding of citizens’ experiences of politics and the state in everyday life across the world: the protection of civil liberties can hardly be sustained within political, economic and social structures designed to buttress illiberal regimes. These structures influence citizens’ perceptions of the state, which in turn produces particular types of subjects and subjectivities. We are witnessing an expansion of the repertoire of democracy along with that of authoritarianism; or, perhaps, even the blurring of the demarcation between the two. To understand current patterns and future trajectories of (il)liberal democracies, it is as important to study the working and transformations of institutions as it is to analyse the responses of citizens to these changes. Today, the need to counter “the overproduction of opinionated opinion” – as emphasised by Albert O. Hirschman in 1989 – and to get the citizenry to engage critically in the polity is as urgent as ever. Creative imagination is required in order to (re)make democracies into vibrant spaces of participation but also objects of political desire.