Military dictatorships were once the greatest threat to democracies. But as Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, democracy's greatest gatekeepers are politicians
Eminent Spanish political scientist, Juan J Linz did extensive research on the breakdowns of democracy and co-authored The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes with Alfred Stepan, a comparative political scientist. The book was originally published in 1967, during the Cold War, when most developing countries were being ruled by military dictators either backed by the US or the former Soviet Union.
Linz, however, was more concerned by certain tendencies within established democracies which he believed could produce authoritarian regimes through a democratic process. His most prominent examples in this context, of course, were Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The two men, one in Italy and the other in Germany, came into power between 1922 and 1934 through democratic elections. They then went on to subvert the very system that had ushered them in, replacing it with fascism.
Linz's book did not draw much traction from his peers at the time. Many of them believed that the mechanisms at the heart of Western democracies automatically filtered out any pretenders wanting to use the democratic system for the purpose of imposing an authoritarian set up. However, this year, two professors of Government at Harvard University in the US, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, tipped their hats at Linz, in their alarming book titled How Democracies Die.
The book has appeared at a time when America's political intelligentsia and think tanks have been left feeling baffled by the shocking election of an iconoclastic political outsider as the president of an economic and military superpower and one of the oldest and most established democracies in the world.
There has never been a US President like Donald Trump. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, he just might become the rash, democratically-elected demagogue that Linz believed could dismantle a democracy.
To understand just how Trump got into the White House, How Democracies Die claims that the warning signs — regarding populists using democratic systems to establish authoritarian regimes — had begun to emerge in various South American and European democracies from the 1990s onward. The examples in this context that Levitsky and Ziblatt furnish include Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Putin in Russia, too, uses (and manipulates) his country's ‘democratic' system to stay in power. And some observers believe that Asia's largest democracy, India, too may have generated its first demagogue in the shape of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Levitsky and Ziblatt observe that even though military coups do still take place, their occurrence has drastically decreased. They suggest that most dictatorships now emerge when populist leaders get elected through an election but then go on to dismantle democratic systems and institutions and alter Constitutions to continue stretching their rule, which becomes increasingly authoritarian.
Just as Linz had done earlier through case studies, Levitsky and Ziblatt, too, jot down a certain set of behaviours through which a populist pretending to be a democrat can be recognised. There are four such behaviours: i) Finds the democratic system limiting and alludes that certain extra-constitutional means are okay to strengthen it; ii) Questions the legitimacy of political opponents, often referring to them as subversive, unpatriotic and foreign agents; iii) Has relations with groups with violent militant tendencies; and iv) Is willing to curtail civil liberties and the media.
Using the analogy of a football game, Levitsky and Ziblatt posit that to come to power through an election, politicians exhibiting the four behaviours “capture the referees, sideline at least some of the opposite team's star players, and rewrite rules of the game to lock in their advantage”.
How Democracies Die tells that almost all established democracies were once protected by ‘gatekeepers’ who made sure politicians with authoritarian tendencies could not infiltrate the mainstream democratic system. These gatekeepers, according to the authors of the book, were often influential members of political parties who decided who their respective parties' candidates for the Prime Minister or presidential slot would be.
Levitsky and Ziblatt furnish various American and European examples in this context in which soberer candidates were given the green light to contest an election at the expense of the more popular but unpredictable candidates. Secondly, in Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s, when a drastic economic crisis saw German and Italian democratic gatekeepers allowing the entry of fascists to take over the Parliament, Belgium, too, was threatened by a similar scenario. But the country's then largest mainstream political party, the Catholic Party, decided to ally with its opponents in the Liberal and Socialist parties so that a populist far-Right candidate could be electorally neutralised.
According to the book, the gatekeeping system in many democracies — most specifically in the US — has considerably weakened. This has seen populists gatecrash political parties, some managing to get themselves elected and then wanting to stay there, even if it meant eroding democratic norms, principles and institutions.
What does all this tell us about democracy in Pakistan? In 1971, we saw how a crisis (the breaking away of East Pakistan) which was largely caused by a long military dictatorship opened a window for a populist — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — to come in through a democratic election held in 1970. He soon turned into an authoritarian figure who kept altering the Constitution to continue empowering himself, and then rigged an election in 1977 so that he could garner enough seats in the Parliament to construct a presidential system which would have extended his stay.
So, what did Pakistan's gatekeepers in 1977 — in the shape of opposition parties — do when Bhutto was toppled in a reactionary military coup? They applauded the takeover.
In 1998, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (elected for the second time in 1997) wanted to introduce an amendment in the Constitution that would have made him ‘Amir-ul-momineen’, a virtual dictator. His fall in a coup, too, was applauded. And now we have an iconoclastic populist, Imran Khan, who constantly questions the legitimacy of his opponents. He is doing exactly what others have done: Get the referees on his side (the non-political establishment); sideline star players of the Opposition (through the judiciary); appease non-democratic groups that have a history of violence; and demonise the media.
This has been happening for decades in Pakistan. It is convenient to blame the non-political elements for meddling in politics. Indeed, in developing countries, military dictatorships were once the greatest threats to democracies. But as Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, democracy's greatest gatekeepers are politicians themselves, so the blame must first lie on the doorsteps of the politicians. Each one is at the gates of democracy, but only to crash it. Nobody wants to do any gatekeeping.
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