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Democratization and De-escalation

The last twenty years have witnessed an increasing erosion of democracy worldwide. In parallel, the level of conflict intensity has steadily risen. Both trends are interconnected. Identifying the drivers of political regression assists us in devising strategies to depolarize societies and end political violence.

The effects of democracy’s global decline are now showing up in increased conflict within and between countries. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2024 Transformation Index has found an 18% increase in high-intensity violence, rising low-intensity conflict, and a reduction in government ability to manage conflict since its first edition in 2006. The grim findings are largely the result of a return of geopolitics. The unipolar democratic system that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s provided a brief holiday from history, rather than a new world order. But just as violence has risen in the past, so has it fallen. There are ways to change the current trajectory.

Privilege violence and populist authoritarians

There are two main reasons for the rise of low-intensity conflict short of war. The first is countries governed by self-serving elites that have long tolerated significant violence against marginalized groups in order to maintain power for a small, privileged clique of often corrupt business and political leaders. Many of these countries were nominally democracies, but regardless of who was elected, the same small elite ended up in charge. As the unipolar order ended, they could simply take off the veil – as occurred in Nicaragua and was attempted in Guatemala when elites tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.

Conflict intensity is also increasing due to existing social cleavages being intensified by the intentionally divisive politics of populist authoritarians. From Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro to Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu, these leaders purposefully polarize their populations in order to generate extreme personal loyalty. That lets them dismantle democratic institutions with the support of a vociferous portion of the public.

Both populist authoritarians (and the privileged, corrupt elites they eventually resemble) intentionally reduce conflict management in their societies. Populists, however, also purposefully polarize their populations. This increases the likelihood of conflict, which can turn violent in places like India and the United States.

These leaders are most easily stopped before they gain power. Self-serving elites must be voted out without voters succumbing to the siren of an outsider who is simply a populist authoritarian – as occurred in El Salvador. Populist authoritarians must be defeated before they alter electoral systems so much that they cannot lose, as has now occurred in Turkey and probably Hungary.

As long as there is still a chance to compete at the ballot box, opposition parties can’t fall for the bait of deepening polarization. Instead, democratic coalitions must seek unlikely allies to win clear majorities. Poland’s political parties from center right to center left joined hands to oust the ruling PiS government just in time. In Brazil, the pro-democracy movement courted the conservative business community that had come to view Bolsonaro’s personalization of power as harmful to their interests.

In an era of protest, these pro-democracy coalitions cannot remain elite urban alliances; they must build popular movements. The “party training” work of democracy support organizations must alter from a focus on declared parties to building movement-to-party training that helps parties form movements and vice versa. Democratic leadership training should also move beyond assisting individual politicians and instead incubate movements-and-politicians that can build the skills from media to mass organizing, help people get elected, and build the skills that let them govern when they win.

Coups and geopolitics

Coups are a more intense form of conflict that have risen in recent years. Here, too, the best time to intervene is before a coup has occurred. The United States helped do that in Brazil, where clear, consistent, sustained communication about the impact a coup would have on the security relationship was communicated to a wavering military. A similar strategy can help in other countries whose militaries value their security relationship with democracies. The promise that all forms of security relationship will end if a coup occurs must be credible, and so it must be kept. Some Western militaries argue that this simply shoves wavering countries into the arms of Russia and China. But these potential coup leaders are not reliable security partners. Many have played both sides. If they wish to work with Russia’s Wagner Group or similar military partners, they are not allies that can be trusted or are worth fighting for.

At the governmental level, leaders who show they want to build inclusive orders should receive aid, military cooperation, training, and solidarity. Nepal, for instance, ended a Maoist insurgency and, amid grinding poverty, has sought to address longstanding social fissures within marginalized geographies like its Terai. It deserves help and the outside support that would allow it and similar countries build their political will for inclusivity into actually delivering.

Existing democracies should particularly work to help countries that appear as if they may be the next to fall to a coup or authoritarian leader, thinking and working regionally to build groupings of stronger democracies that can support one another within a geography. In countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, and Malaysia, security partners should focus on security sector governance, aid to assist inclusivity, and strengthening guardrails of democracy. Donors should particularly work to incubate democratic politicians and movements that give voters a way to self-correct their systems before they welcome a coup or populist authoritarian.

The local level

At the societal level aid should focus on building more resilience within communities, so that political leaders have a harder time fomenting conflict. In wealthy areas – such as Lagos, Nigeria and Nuevo León, Mexico, businesses have funded islands of stability (though the Mexican example shows that when politicians wish, they can kill such attempts to evade the state). In other places, such as Kenya’s Wajir Valley, local community peacebuilders have built ties across conflictual groups so that they can reduce the conflict politicians may foster.

Behind statistics of rising conflict lie lives torn apart by loss and fear. Turning these trends around is difficult. But BTI’s data shows that turnarounds are possible, and that democracy, however flawed, supports more peaceful societies.

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