Democracy Has No Ideal Form

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- (This is the fifth of a series of columns on economic growth and the challenges to democracy. Read the other parts here: The Democracy Dividend: Faster Growth Hardliners Learn That Democracy Can Pay OffCentral Bankers Shouldn’t Have to Rescue Democracy; Democracy’s Dividend Is the Right Kind of Growth.)

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, most of the world’s governments are “authoritarian regimes,” “hybrid regimes” or “flawed democracies” (even the U.S. falls into the latter category). That’s not necessarily a problem: Democracy isn’t a rigid structure or a terminal point of development; it’s a moving target, and countries continually shift their positions on a spectrum that ranges from dictatorship to liberalism.

Hybrid or authoritarian regimes often use the word “democracy” to describe their political systems. There’s often a modifier, though. During the transition to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, Kremlin ideologues spoke of “sovereign democracy” and “managed democracy.” In 2014, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary explained that his regime was an illiberal democracy. China’s Communist leaders invoke Lenin’s principle of “democratic centralism,” which holds that decisions reached democratically within the ruling party are binding for all members, even those who didn’t back them. All of these concepts add up to a dictatorship of the majority: A leader or a force that has the support of a large majority of the population makes sure to dismantle the checks and balances that allow the minority to challenge the rulers’ power.

That is what unfolded in Russia in the 2000s, and is happening today in Poland and Hungary. The process begins with efforts to undermine media pluralism and attacks on civil society organizations; parliamentary majorities push through measures to empower the executive and rein in independent courts and central banks. The result, in most cases, is a system described by the Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky and his collaborator Lucan Way from the University of Toronto as “competitive authoritarianism.” They wrote

Unlike the single-party or military autocracies that predominated during the Cold War era, regimes in Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Taiwan, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere were competitive, in that opposition forces used democratic institutions to contest vigorously – and at times successfully – for power. Nevertheless, these regimes were not democratic. Government critics suffered harassment, arrest, and in some cases, violent attacks, and electoral fraud, unfair media access, and abuse of state resources skewed the playing field heavily in favor of incumbents. In other words, competition was real, but unfair.

Levitsky and Way cautioned against describing competitive authoritarian regimes as nascent or transitional democracies. They argued that the rigged competition was a relatively steady state that could persist for a long time (as in Malaysia or Singapore) or shift toward full authoritarianism or full democracy (the latter, they found, occurred in countries with closer ties to the West). They saw Russia an example of the former, Slovakia of the latter. 

Not all of these concepts appear to apply today. Western democratic models have lost some of their shine with the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and what many see as the European Union’s ineffective dithering. Hungary has managed to turn itself into a competitive authoritarian regime, though it is externally constrained, within the EU, inspiring Polish nationalists to try to recreate the experiment. The shift from full democracy to competitive authoritarianism is a new phenomenon. And it isn’t only taking place in Europe: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking India, described by the Economist Intelligence Unit as a flawed democracy similar to the U.S., in the same direction.

As institutions erode, however, the possibility of a peaceful transition of power usually remains because political competition is hard to eliminate. After eight years of Orban’s rule in Hungary, polls showed that a united opposition would have had a real chance to beat his Fidesz party in this year’s elections. In Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, the opposition candidate Muharrem Ince could have forced President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a run-off. In addition, Erdogan’s AK Party lost its absolute majority in parliament, retaining control only in combination with a nationalist ally. The opposition won the Malaysian elections this year, toppling the incumbent prime minister, Najib Razak.

In illiberal regimes, the opposition always has to fight with one arm tied behind its back because the incumbents use their resource advantage, sometimes to the point of rigging the vote. But with a big enough advantage in popularity, the opposition can win.

Unfair competition may sometimes be OK for some countries. Even in established democracies, people often aren’t happy with the endless compromises and the slow decision-making of finely balanced, coalition-based or even minority-backed governments. Citizens sometimes prefer government with a strong, clear mandate. It’s not necessarily a problem that a change of government, in reality, requires more than a simple majority of votes.  

The problem is that such heavily handicapped elections don’t help build effective checks and balances. An opposition that is popular enough to win that kind of race isn’t naturally disposed to limits on its newfound power. In Ukraine, when the opposition forced a revote after a rigged election in 2004, the competitive authoritarian regime remained in place, leading eventually to the 2014 revolution.

Perhaps the best opportunity for democratization in competitive authoritarian regimes isn’t a change of government, be it after elections or as a result of popular revolt. It’s when the incumbent government enjoys low popular support but the opposition is also weak and fragmented. That’s the perfect moment for independent media to capitalize on demand for reliable facts and opinions. It’s also a good time for civil society groups to take over in areas where the government is failing and, eventually, for the courts to shake off political influences. This kind of transformation is chaotic but potentially powerful; It’s at work in today’s Ukraine. But the transition is hardly irreversible: Once a big political majority forms, it gets the power to roll back any institutional change. 

Moves up and down the spectrum from dictatorship to liberal democracy are increasingly common. It may be a heretical idea, but these shifts are normal; there is no fixed endpoint. So it may be a good idea to treat competitive authoritarianism, today’s most widespread form of government, as the middle point on the scale. It’s also normal for various political and societal forces to push a country toward one of the two extremes. In that sense, the political strife in the U.S. is a lot like what’s going on elsewhere.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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