Is Your Country Slipping Into Authoritarianism?

How does a county fall from the podium of democracy?

And is it always a sudden fall?

It’s easy to point to regimes that are known for their human rights abuses, lack of access to democratic practices, and more clearly identified types of oppression.

Yet here we have to remember two things:

One, just because something isn’t “clearly identified” it doesn’t mean it’s not there. And two, countries don’t necessarily become authoritarian suddenly. And this is what I’d like to explore with you today.

Where should we look to see if our countries are slipping into authoritarianism?

In political science, the nerdy name for this process is de-democratisation.

If democratisation can be defined as an increasing strengthening of a country’s democratic institutions and practices, then you might guess what de-democratisation is. It’s the opposite:

It’s the process of dismantling those same institutions and processes.

When it’s not something sudden and obvious, like a military coup, but a gradual process, it can be more difficult to spot, point a finger to, and name.  

What can that gradual process entail?

To answer that, we have to first ask what democracy is in the first place.
Unfortunately, in political science, the definition of democracy is not as straightforward as you might think.

There’s an article I would recommend for the extra curious ones, by David Collier and Steven Levitsky, called Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research. Among other issues, it talks about conceptual stretching that may occur when trying to categorise regimes, how the quest to define and categorise democracies has resulted in “democracy with adjectives”, leading to such paradoxical subtypes like “authoritarian democracy” (exactly). 

In short, if political science can’t provide us with one single definition, I definitely can’t.

However, there are surely elements of a political system that make it more democratic. There are a number of attributes that, when accumulated, place a regime on a spectrum. It has some kind of an ideal liberal democracy on one end and authoritarianism on the other. 

Here are some examples of such attributes: 

  • Access to voting: let’s assess voting laws and voter suppression policies,
  • Media freedom: let’s look into media ownership and how concentrated it is; the physical safety of journalists; are they being jailed or prosecuted for exposing your country’s war crimes? (remember Julian Assange?)
  • Separation of branches of the government: for example, are the courts independent?

There are two more attributes that I’d like to draw your attention to as they might be resonating with you more strongly these days. Perhaps it’s something you’ve witnessed but didn’t know how to call, under which conceptual umbrella to place it. What’s truly saddening is that it’s not a single-country issue. But let me get back to these attributes of democratic regimes:

  • Forces that are used for external protection should not be used for internal control: for example, is the army brought to the streets to suppress protests? How militarised is the police?
  • How political losers deal with a loss: for example, does a party or an individual who lost an election accept their defeat, or do they claim the election was rigged? If they were in power before, do they agree to leave? In well-established democracies, the losers tend to accept the outcome better since they generally trust the political process.

In short, to see any of these happen is a big deal. It becomes more than concerning actions within a system: it might be a move towards a different system whatsoever.

And it should be equally scary if these steps are being taken by someone you approve or disapprove of. This leads us to an important disclaimer:

De-democratisation doesn’t mean a party you didn’t support is in power. It doesn’t even refer to someone holding rather terrifying political beliefs being in power – even the most hateful politician might not engage in de-democratisation. 

We shouldn’t be ringing that de-democratisation bell unfairly. But when it happens, we have to be vigilant. 

Protests against a parliamentary coup in Brazil (São Paulo, 2016)

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