"Democracy under siege." At first glance, Freedom House's 2021 report about the state of open societies, which carries this title, has a depressing takeaway. The Covid-19 pandemic, now in its third year, has accelerated many developments that help autocrats, like allowing heads of state to hold emergency powers. Around the world, the engineered proliferation of medical disinformation intersects with conspiracy theories and ideologies based on scapegoating.
Yet there is another story emerging, and it's one that may come into focus during the elections that will be held this year: the feeling that the autocratic model of governance, with its suppression of freedoms, plunder of the environment, and creation of oligarchies, is no longer sustainable. The costs of corrupt and uncaring leadership have never been clearer.
We'll look at some of the elections for head of state that are happening in spring 2022 and what they tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of autocracy today.
In April, Hungary's Viktor Orbán and Serbia's Aleksandar Vučić will stand for re-election. Hyper-nationalists who pose as guardians of "national tradition," both have domesticated the press, the judiciary, and other institutions to keep themselves in power. And both face a newly united opposition that hopes to unseat them.
Orbán's advantage as the incumbent is magnified by his system of electoral autocracy, where the electoral machinery, staffed by government loyalists, is tilted in favor of candidates with official backing. Yet six parties, including his former allies in the Jobbik party, have come together to try to defeat what coalition leader and opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay calls a "corrupt dictatorship."
In Hungary, as elsewhere, the pandemic has caused economic hardship. The government is betting that tax rebates, pension and wage increases, and other relief measures will sway voters more than the opposition's promises to roll back autocratic abuses. Orbán is supporting Russia's aggression toward Ukraine so Putin will grant him enough natural gas to keep prices low.
That move may seem pragmatic, given the upcoming election, but it could backfire if the Russian invasion is as horrific as many expect it to be. Millions of Ukrainian refugees could stream toward Hungary (the two countries share an 84 mile border). Orbán may be the darling of the American GOP, but his future at home is uncertain.
Serbian President Vučić's hold on power has been weakened by a corruption scandal within his Serbian Progressive Party, and a previously divided opposition has come together over environmental advocacy. A campaign to block a foreign-owned lithium mine project has propelled thousands into the streets, blocking traffic for days.
Under pressure, Vučić has withdrawn his previously enthusiastic support of the project. Yet his persecution of the press and opposition politicians, who had boycotted the 2020 parliamentary elections, continues. "United, we can do it," said Marinika Tepic of United Serbia party, summing up the resolve his adversaries share.
Many Serbians, tired of the contrast between Vučić's bully personality and his constant claims of victimization by the press and his political enemies, are ready for some positivity in politics.
In May, Filipinos will elect a new head of state, since term limits are bringing Rodrigo Duterte's tumultuous presidency to an end. While the investigation by the Hague-based International Criminal Court into Duterte's use of extrajudicial violence in his war on drugs is on hold at the moment, the election will be a referendum on models of autocratic power in the country past and present.
Critics charge that Duterte has exploited his pandemic-era emergency powers to suppress freedom of speech (his loyalists shut down the ABS-CBN media network by not passing bills that would have granted it a new license). They also see his pandemic economic relief measures as benefitting big business and foreign investors, rather than the sick and the jobless.
Duterte will continue to influence Filipino politics. His daughter, Sara Duterte, is running for vice president on a ticket headed by Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who turned the Philippines into a kleptocracy. Marcos Jr. may appeal to many as a more palatable illiberal than the volatile Duterte, and nostalgia for Marcos Sr. has been on the rise.
The autocratic continuities represented by the Marcos-Duterte ticket have galvanized support for opposition candidates like Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer and the current vice president. Her "pink revolution" has over 700,000 volunteers working in over 200 organizations.
Dictators can haunt their countries long after their demise. We will see if the Philippines follows this model or opts for a fresh start with a progressive candidate who is standing up for democracy.
Regarding Ronald Stade's comment--It is interesting to attribute parallel structures to the Cold War geopolitical "clash" between communism and capitalism; the supposed civilizational clash between Christianity and Islam; and the domestic political clash between liberalism and illiberalism. However, I must disagree with the characterization of the clash between liberalism and illiberalism as one between opposing ideologies. Communism and capitalism are ideologies. But as the forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee (formerly of Yale University) keeps pointing out (evidently in vain), illiberalism (or autocracy) is not an ideology. It is individual psychopathology writ large as societal psychopathology. Modern autocracy in its various forms is a disease of democracy, not an alternative ideology--just as the psychopathology of Donald Trump and his followers is a mental disease, not an alternative form of mental health.
There is of course a vast literature on this subject. Thus in his seminal work, "The Crowd," Gustave Le Bon writes that the man who in isolation "may be a cultivated individual" becomes a "barbarian" by "the mere fact" of becoming "part of an organized crowd." He thereby becomes "a creature acting by instinct," who can be "induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits," often adhering to "the most savage proposals" and engaging in criminal behavior. Is this not precisely the phenomenon of Trump supporters and of Autocracy on the Global Ballot in 2022? Le Bon specifically laments (in 1895!) our civilization's continued failure to understand crowd (or mass) psychology: "we are bound to resign ourselves to the reign of the masses, since the want of foresight has in succession overthrown all the barriers that might have kept the crowd in check." How many unnecessary wars, genocides, coups, disappearances, torture chambers and so on have there been from 1895 to 2022 because of our failure--no, because of our determined refusal--to address the psychopathology (not the ideology) of tyranny? How much evil have sociopaths in positions of power succeeded in doing because normal human beings, uneducated in their ways, are helpless to recognize and understand them and their world-historical power, and consequently helpless to control instead of follow them?
Regarding Jan Stickel's comment--Education is certainly essential to democracy. However, thinking of education as getting people to agree with particular beliefs we hold is mistaken. That is indoctrination, not education. Education is helping people to learn to think for themselves. Thus the foundation of democracy is liberal education. That is why the ignorant, reactionary, and materialistic forces of our society have long been instructing us to worship the STEM disciplines while despising and neglecting the liberal arts; have been turning mass primary and secondary education into profit centers dedicated to the militaristic indoctrination of the industrial army and the underclass; and have turned higher education into a lottery that produces a few "winners" sitting atop the wreckage of generations of educational-debt slaves.
Autocracy cannot be addressed solely in terms of its poison fruits. It is necessary to address the total social organism, root and branch, from the perspective of past, present and future, in particular regarding psychopathology and education.
Autocracy, anocracy, illiberal democracy: call it what you want, but it's been on the rise since the 1990s and now the battle between autocratic and democratic values takes place on a global scale. The Cold War morphed not into a clash of civilisations, but into another version of the old clash of ideologies. An urgent question is how liberal democracies can defend themselves against the threat from its enemies (Trump, Putin, Xi, Orbán et al). In Tunisia, Kais Saied employs undemocratic methods to defend secular, democratic values against the islamist threat against the country's democracy. The absurdity of this situation is telling: can illiberal undemocratic forms be used to safeguard the substance of liberal democracy (its values of personal freedom, equality, inclusion, etc)? Our gut feeling will tell us, no, this path leads nowhere. So, then what are our options? Ronald Stade, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Sweden (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Stade)