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Thu 22 October 2020
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Mike Buckley observes how authoritarian takeovers are often led by elected incumbents and finds worrying signs in Boris Johnson’s populist approach.

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Democracy is in crisis. In the face of the Coronavirus that might seem like a second-order problem, but the grim truth is that those opposed to democracy will likely use this crisis to further their authoritarian, anti-democratic ends. Their will to discredit and dismantle the institutions and norms that have guided western democracies since at least the Second World War will not waver.

The grim truth is that, since the end of the Cold War, the most common form of democratic breakdown has been the subversion of democracy by elected incumbents. These have almost always taken the form of military coups or executive takeovers. During the Cold War, executive takeovers were only marginally more frequent than military coups, but following its end the relative frequency of executive takeovers grew. They have accounted for four out every five democratic breakdowns since the 2000s. 

The rise in authoritarian takeovers challenges our understanding of democratic stability. The process, by its nature, is led by a leader or government which is initially elected legitimately. To be successful, an executive will need the agreement or complicity of its legislature to carry out the constitutional changes that can facilitate the subversion of democracy, such as the abolition of term limits, the political subjugation of the judiciary and the expansion of executive authority. 

Incredibly, many incumbents command significant popular support as they subvert democracy – even after they succeed. Hugo Chávez, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are a few examples.


Crises and Coups

Why do people support the undermining of democracy in their nations?

It is generally not because voters do not care about democracy, but more because changes are piecemeal and being carried out by familiar institutions. Why mistrust a president and a parliament on dry constitutional issues, after all? The gradual, legalistic nature of executive takeovers in their early days are the concern of whistleblowers and journalists, not the population at large, to whom everything can appear entirely normal. 

But, over time, such measures cumulatively and unambiguously subvert the democratic process, tilting the playing field in the incumbent’s favour.

Orban has been in power since 2010. Freedom House, an American organisation devoted to the support and defence of democracy around the world, only downgraded Hungary to the status of ‘partly free’ in 2019. He is using the COVID-19 crisis to further consolidate power, having used Parliament to pass a law gives him the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period and the power to bypass the legislation on any law. It has taken him 10 years to get to this point, but the direction of travel has been clear for some time. 

Erdogan, Orban, Vladimir Putin and others have been repeatedly voted for despite their authoritarianism having been laid bare. Why?

One possibility is that populists deliberately force voters to choose between upholding democracy and partisan interests. A country’s existing social tensions are transformed into axes of acute political conflict and then presented as a choice: vote for a more redistributive Venezuela, a migrant-free Hungary or a conservative Turkey – along with my increasingly authoritarian leadership – or vote for the opposition, which claims to be more democratic but offers less appealing policies and leadership.


Prorogation and Populism

The comparison with the UK’s 2019 General Election, when Boris Johnson offered the prize of a Brexited UK but with a Government that had, over previous months, demonstrated its willingness or ride roughshod over the UK constitution, is clear.

After becoming Conservative leader in the summer, Johnson swiftly rode roughshod over British convention, unlawfully proroguing Parliament, questioning the legitimacy of senior judges when Parliament was restored and later pulling his Withdrawal Agreement from parliamentary scrutiny when his programme motion (which dictated how long MPs would have to discuss the bill) was defeated. 

Public opinion on the legality of the prorogation was split heavily along Leave/Remain lines. 73% of Remain voters believed it was not acceptable against only 25% of Leavers. The latter were clearly willing to accept some creative thinking with the constitution to get the Brexit they craved. 

The fact that the UK Government has had no need for such parliamentary manoeuvres since the election should be no comfort – with an 80-seat majority it no longer has any need to do so (although Parliament is on an extended recess and may not return for some time). But it is the same Government underneath, with no greater respect for democracy or parliamentary convention than it had before. Had the General Election not happened, it would doubtless have resorted to other innovations to get its way.

In effect, these are all examples of incumbents asking their supporters to trade-off democratic principles for partisan interests, whether that means a cut in immigration, a cultural direction or a constitutional issue. They understand that their supporters would rather put up with their authoritarian tendencies than back parties whose platforms they abhor. Brexit created just such a circumstance in the UK – Johnson was, in the end, the beneficiary of the partisan divide he created. 

Political scientists have long argued that social division can present dangers for democracy. In the 1950s, Seymour Martin Lipset observed that “inherent in all democratic systems is the constant threat that the group conflicts which are democracy’s lifeblood may solidify to the point where they threaten to disintegrate society”. 

But, even in such circumstances, voters have a choice: they can vote to defend the institutions and norms of democracy or to have them further eroded. Failure to do so is at least in part a function of the lack of a credible opponent. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party failed to inspire confidence for many reasons in December 2019, meaning that many voters felt they had little option but to vote for Johnson, even though he was the most unpopular winning Prime Minister since such data was recorded. Putin ensures that his opponents lack resources, credibility, freedom and often life. Doubtless, others do the same. 


Questions for the UK

How worried should the UK be and is the Conservative Party intent on dismantling democracy to cement its hold on power?

Before COVID-19, there was more than enough reason to be concerned. The Conservative Party manifesto promised to “look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts”. Lawyers feared that it was planning ‘revenge’ against the Supreme Court for overturning the prorogation. Following the familiar populist playbook, it also planned an attack on public news and broadcasting, threatening the BBC with the decriminalisation of the licence fee and the privatisation of Channel 4.

Sometimes we see clearly when looking in from afar and it is certainly the case that foreign democratic observers are concerned about the UK’s slide towards authoritarianism. Last August, the EU Observer wrote that prorogation had “chilling similarities to how illiberal leaders in central Europe dismantled democratic checks”. Der Spiegel concluded after the UK’s General Election result that “populism wins” and that Johnson was willing to “aggressively attack” the House of Commons and even the courts, “accepting that trust in democratic institutions [would] continue to crumble”. The Polish writer Stefan Bielik argued that, under Johnson, the “UK Government is starting to look like just another authoritarian European one”. 

MPs, the media and the public should be educated about the dangers of a further slide towards authoritarianism. There is a legitimate argument to make that now is not the time and that is entirely right. But, even in the midst of the pandemic, we know that it will end, that politics will resume and that it will have been shaped by the arguments made during this time. 

Even now, the power grab is under way. Parliamentary committee chairs were enraged last week when Government whips tried to force through their preferred candidate as chair of the powerful Liaison Committee, which routinely questions the Prime Minister. It has not met since the General Election because Parliament blocked the Government’s choice of Sir Bernard Jenkin as its chair. The whips are now saying that, if MPs want to question Johnson during recess, then the committee must meet under Sir Bernard. Furious committee heads held a conference call on Friday to find alternative plans. Meanwhile others are attacking this time to attack our institutions, even including the NHS

In Britain we still have an established and robust system of democracy. We have an independent judiciary, a free press and multiple tiers of devolved government. This is not Russia or Hungary. However, the system is under stress and has been since at least the 2016 EU Referendum. To ensure that the UK does not become like the countries we watch, fear and pity, we have to recognise the danger – and act.


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