Over the past two years, the number of people living under populist governments has dropped by 800 million. Why? Gülşen Doğan explains the factors helping to overturn authoritarian rule, and reveals why authoritarian leaders have been unseated in some countries, but not in others
Democracies face ongoing challenges from alternative governance models, such as hybrid regimes and closed autocracies. In recent years, right-wing populism has emerged as a global phenomenon. Elected governments, meanwhile, increasingly appropriate the institutions of liberal democracy: the legal system, electoral processes, civil society, democratic discourse, and social media platforms.
Some populist movements may not have achieved significant electoral victories. But they have nonetheless played a crucial role in shaping political discourse in their respective countries. Prominent examples include Alternative für Deutschland, and Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National. Populist movements in Bulgaria, Poland, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the United States and Italy all experienced setbacks in their most recent elections. The result is a global decline in the number of populist leaders in office. This downturn is the result of a number of factors, including poor management of the coronavirus pandemic, and the rise of anti-populist opposition coalitions.
Populist movements in Bulgaria, Poland, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the US and Italy all experienced setbacks in their most recent elections
Authoritarian reversal has been the subject of lively debate, particularly in light of social democrats' victories in Germany and Portugal, and wins for left-wing parties in Chile, Brazil, and Colombia. In these countries, there is little political violence, and losing candidates are generally willing to accept defeat. Democratic institutions in these countries have thus become the real winners of these recent elections.
Democratisation is reversible, as is authoritarianism. But why does authoritarian reversal happen in some countries and not in others?
Authoritarian populists strive to destroy the system of checks and balances. They disregard political pluralism. Such executive aggrandisement can have varying impacts on the chances of authoritarian breakdown.
For example, authoritarian leaders can manipulate the electoral process and suppress political opposition – by lawful or unlawful means. Changes in established political rules weaken democratic institutions and erode their resilience against the consolidation of political authority. When this happens, the deterioration of democratic institutions and the suppression of civil society increase the likelihood of authoritarians remaining in power.
Conversely, electoral success for the opposition means their discourse must move beyond simply denouncing the government as fascist and dictatorial. Opposition parties must develop unique, effective policies that differ from their authoritarian predecessors'. In the political arena, they must use less polarised language and encourage discussion about citizens' pressing day-to-day needs and problems.
To unseat autocratic incumbents, opposition parties must develop unique, effective policies that differ from their authoritarian predecessors'
Consolidation of autocracy is a process in a regime's transition into an established form of authoritarian populism. It is successful when the likelihood of regime change remains consistently unfavourable in the short and medium term.
From a methodological point of view, we can identify authoritarian populism by analysing the ongoing transformation of democratic processes and relations, rather than confining attention to a particular episode or moment.
Although authoritarian regimes can revert to democratic leadership, the threat of authoritarianism remains ever-present. After the shift to a democratic system, individuals who occupied positions of power during the period of authoritarian rule frequently maintain their political power. This may be because constitutions established during the authoritarian era are still binding. Or it may be the continued existence within the system of authoritarian-era bureaucratic officials and right-wing political parties.
After the shift to a democratic system, individuals who occupied positions of power during the period of authoritarian rule frequently maintain their political power
In such cases, opposition forces’ strategies are crucial in mitigating polarisation. These strategies must address the demands of the electorate, and prevent the resurgence of authoritarian populism.
For example, Jair Bolsonaro lost the most recent elections in Brazil. Yet his appointees and supporters persist in eroding Brazilian democracy. The United States remains similarly susceptible to a resurgence of right-wing populism, given the persistently high levels of polarisation and the enduring popularity of Donald Trump. Bolsonaro and Trump have cultivated passionate followings through social media, circumventing the need for conventional political party infrastructure. When defeated, they allege fraudulent activity, their appeals rooted predominantly in the notion that they alone represent 'the people'. This approach fortifies existing polarisation in their respective nations. It impedes the transition from authoritarian populist governance to a democratic system, keeping democracy in a precarious state.
The recent decline in the number of populist leaders is a significant pattern. Opposition parties have managed to oust populists from office. However, representative democracy still faces a crisis of confidence and governance. Political, economic, and physical insecurity fuels support for leaders who pledge to restore stability, order, and national pride, often through authoritarian methods.
Governments today face unemployment, inequality, racism, violence, mass migration, and the effects of the climate crisis. Online misinformation competes with legitimate news sources, and demagogy is rife. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the new Israel-Gaza war have reignited the early-2000s debate on the competing demands of security and freedom.
2024 is a big election year around the world. Elections in the rapidly growing economies of Indonesia and India, in particular, carry huge significance. And elections for new leadership of the European Parliament will influence the future of democracy in Europe.
In light of all this, will right-wing populism continue its ascent? Or will another wave of re-democratisation emerge around the world? Given the persistence of the authoritarian populist threat, even in the post-authoritarian era, opposition actors play a key role in ensuring democratic survival. Executive aggrandisement makes authoritarian breakdown less likely. And whether it happens depends on the context and historical trajectories of individual nations.