Mathew Schwartz, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Resistance to Increasing Autocratization

The world is currently experiencing a so-called third wave of autocratization, which encompasses all regions and is returning the global level of democracy to that of 1985. These results are confirmed by democracy indices such as the BTI, Freedom House and V-Dem. The main drivers of this development are executive incumbents who are gradually restricting or abolishing accountability mechanisms and thus concentrating political power in one person. This is often accompanied by restrictions on freedom of assembly and censorship of the media landscape. Prominent examples include Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro.

However, episodes of autocratization can be stopped and reversed. Political scientists speak of democratic resilience, i.e. the capability of a democratic system, its institutions and civil society to resist authoritarian encroachment. This blog post will focus on three examples to illustrate the similarities and differences in how episodes of autocratization can be stopped.

An unstable democratic era in Nepal

The 2017 national elections in Nepal resulted in a new government made up of two formerly competing communist parties. An unofficial agreement between the two party leaders, which provided for a change of prime minister halfway through the term of office, was intended to settle internal power struggles. However, the then head of government, Khadga Prasad Oli, did not honor the agreement and tried to consolidate his power. This caused a split within the government between Oli’s supporters and his opponents. In 2021, these conflicts ultimately culminated in a constitutional crisis, as Oli dissolved parliament twice and called new elections.

The opposition and civil society feared further consolidation of Oli’s power and saw Nepalese democracy in danger. As a result, demonstrations for the reinstatement of parliament took place across the country. The largest opposition party, the Nepali Congress, but also parts of the ruling party that had split from Oli, as well as various civil society groups, were significantly involved. Among other things, the protests resulted in a nationwide general strike. In contrast to previous protests, the security forces opted for a restrained approach. Public pressure on Oli intensified and several parties filed complaints with the Supreme Court, claiming that Oli’s actions violated the constitution. The court finally addressed the crisis and reinstated parliament with a new prime minister.

This decision proved to be groundbreaking for Nepal’s democracy, strengthening the independence of the judiciary and clearly siding with the democratic constitution. Public pressure played a decisive role in this, as it made it clear that the population would not submit to a possible authoritarian development and stood up for democratic principles.

Defense of democracy in Zambia

Following the death of President Michael Sata in 2015, new elections were held in Zambia to determine a successor for the remaining part of Sata’s term of office. This and the subsequent election in 2016 were won by Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front. The following years were characterized by increasingly authoritarian governance, which significantly restricted the scope for political participation and violated the independence of the judiciary.

In the run-up to the 2021 presidential elections, there was great controversy, as Zambia’s constitution only provides for a single re-election of the president. According to the opposition, however, Lungu was running for a third time. The Constitutional Court disagreed after being put under considerable pressure by Lungu. Dissatisfaction among the population grew, partly because the country had fallen into economic difficulties and suffered insolvency. The presidential elections therefore developed into a protest election, which the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was able to win.

Hichilema and his party’s inclusive strategy, that took into account the country’s ethnic diversity, played a decisive role in this victory. He used speeches tailored to different population groups, emphasizing his personal economic success to appeal to the middle class, staging himself as one of them among poorer voters and using social media to mobilize young people. In this way, Hichilema succeeded in convincing voters to express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box.

Despite a clear election victory, confirmed by a parallel vote count by civil society, Lungu initially refused to accept the outcome. Only international mediation was able to persuade him to hand over power to Hichilema. The turnout of over 70% signaled that the population would not tolerate any further autocratization. A functioning opposition with an effective campaign was therefore able to offer a viable alternative to political regression.

Attack on liberal democracy in South Korea

The consolidated and liberal democracy of South Korea went through a period of comparatively mild autocratization between 2008 and 2017. After a long period of democratic reforms and progressive policies, the country’s first conservative government restricted freedom of the press and freedom of expression in 2008. For example, a scandal in 2010 revealed the surveillance of citizens critical of the government by the secret service. Nevertheless, this revelation could not prevent the election of President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the former autocratic president Park Chung-hee, in 2012. She once again formed a conservative government that continued the course of her predecessor.

It later emerged that the secret service had attempted to manipulate the outcome of the presidential elections. This had been done by publishing online posts praising the government’s policies and discrediting opposition politicians. A so-called government blacklist, which was intended to prevent the sponsoring of artists critical of the government, also made headlines. Finally, the president’s involvement in several corruption cases led to massive street protests involving millions of people. The protest, coordinated by various trade unions and social movements, persisted for several months. They were fueled by a collective feeling of personal disappointment, along with feelings of embarrassment and shame.

Initially, the political opposition was cautious and only joined the protests when it became clear that a clear majority of the population was demanding Park’s resignation. In the face of mounting public pressure, parliament initiated impeachment proceedings, which led to Park’s removal from office. This procedure was unanimously confirmed by the Constitutional Court. Park was subsequently sentenced to many years in prison for corruption, abuse of power and other offenses. Although Park has since been pardoned, this case illustrates, on the one hand, the determination of civil society to stand up for democratic principles and, at the same time, the ability of the country’s consolidated institutions to punish violations of office and respond to abuses, even in turbulent times.

Mass mobilization as a cornerstone of democratic resilience

The case studies outlined above illustrate the essential importance of mass mobilization for maintaining and strengthening democratic structures. Broad and diverse participation in protests and elections puts increased pressure on institutional actors such as the judiciary, parliament and the opposition to decisively counter autocratic tendencies.

In Nepal, for example, mass mobilization prompted various political parties to take action against Prime Minister Oli, filing complaints with the Supreme Court, which then acted in accordance with the constitution.  Similarly, in Zambia, the mobilization of the electorate led to a significant transfer of power after an opposition party positioned itself as the decisive voice of democratic protest. In South Korea, the ongoing protest by millions forced the political opposition to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president in parliament, a move that was later confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

A decisive component for the success of these mass mobilizations was the willingness of actors within functioning democratic institutions to translate the protest into concrete political measures. Country-specific factors such as the unexpected restraint of the security forces in Nepal, the extent of economic failure in over-indebted Zambia or the outrage of civil society at the involvement of its president in several corruption cases in South Korea have all contributed to this democratic resilience.

Despite the different contexts, the comparison of the three case studies makes it clear that episodes of autocratization can be successfully combated if mobilized civil societies work together with democratic actors. This insight gives hope in view of the current challenges facing the liberal world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *