The authoritarian wave reaches the West

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a "democratic wave". Political freedom spread from its traditional bastions in Western Europe and the United States - and countries as diverse as Poland, South Africa and Indonesia turned democratic.

But now the process seems to have gone into reverse. An authoritarian wave that began outside the established democracies of the West has spread to the US and Europe.

The resurgence of authoritarian attitudes and practices that first manifested itself in young democracies, such as Russia, Thailand and the Philippines, has spread into Western politics. Poland and Hungary have governments with authoritarian tendencies. The most dramatic development is the election of a US president who regards the free press as "the enemy" and has little respect for an independent judiciary.

This authoritarian wave threatens to undermine comfortable assumptions about how politics works. The belief that the politics of the rich, established democracies of the West are fundamentally different from those of Latin America or Asia may need to be rethought. The idea that the middle class and the young will always be the most stalwart supporters of democracy is also looking increasingly rocky.

The erosion of democratic values in the West was outlined last year in a much discussed article by academics Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, written before the election of Mr Donald Trump, which highlighted the rise of anti-democratic sentiments in both the US and Europe. One of their more eye-catching points is that one in six Americans now thinks it would be a good idea for the "army to rule" - up from one in 16 in 1995. And while more than 70 per cent of Americans born in the 1930s think it "essential" to live in a democracy, only 30 per cent of those born in the 1980s agree. There has been a similar, if less marked, decline in faith in democratic institutions in Europe.

Dr Foa and Dr Mounk conclude that "over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as Parliament or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe".

A billboard in Montenegro touting collaboration between the American and Russian presidents. Mr Putin has created a template for soft authoritarianism, the writer argues, and countries in and outside the West have been taking a leaf out of the Putin playbook. PHOTO: REUTERS

The revival of soft authoritarianism is even more visible in countries that were once symbols of the democratic wave, such as the Philippines, which overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986; Russia, where Communist Party rule ended in 1991; and South Africa, which ended apartheid in 1994. All three countries have retained key elements of democracy, such as elections. But they have seen an erosion of democratic norms and an embrace of personalised rule, which has allowed corruption to flourish.

In Russia, the economic collapse and lawlessness of the 1990s created the conditions for a revival of autocracy under Mr Vladimir Putin. The Russian President has created a template for a soft authoritarianism combining nationalism, populism, corruption, a crackdown on the media and a close alliance between the presidency and a wealthy oligarchy. It may be no accident that some of the most articulate warnings against Trumpism have been issued by Russian dissidents, such as Mr Garry Kasparov and Ms Masha Gessen.

Mr Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman President of the Philippines, has borrowed liberally from the Putin playbook. His embrace of vigilante justice has appalled Filipino liberals but has played well with a public frightened by crime and drugs. Mr Duterte also did well with young voters, who have few memories of the struggle to establish democracy.

The same pattern is threatening South Africa. The presidency of Mr Jacob Zuma has seen a surge in corruption and growing pressure on the media and independent branches of government. Many liberal South Africans hope that the end of the Zuma years will see a democratic revival. But things could go the other way. Mr Simon Freemantle, senior political economist with Standard Bank, warns that "South Africa's Trump moment is brewing". He points to surveys showing that South Africa's "born free" generation, born after the release of Mr Nelson Mandela in 1990, are less supportive of democracy than people with memories of the struggle against apartheid. There is also growing support in South Africa for a Trump-like deportation of illegal immigrants.

What is it that links the erosion of support for democracy in countries as diverse as Russia, the Philippines, South Africa and even the US? It is that, for many voters, democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If a democratic system fails to deliver jobs, as in South Africa, or security, as in the Philippines, or is associated with a stagnation in living standards, as in the US, then some voters will be attracted to the authoritarian alternative. A drift towards authoritarianism will become more likely, in the context of rising inequality, when the political and economic system seems rigged in favour of insiders.

Of course, there will always be people who see political freedom as a value in itself - something that is indispensable to human dignity. But dissidents prepared to go to jail in support of free speech are relatively rare. Mr Ronald Reagan, the US President who saw out the last years of the Cold War, liked to boast that "freedom works". Unfortunately, if ordinary people stop believing that, some may give up on freedom.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'The authoritarian wave reaches the West'. Print Edition | Subscribe