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With Autocrats on the Defensive, Can Democrats Rise to the Occasion?

Protesters in Myanmar gather with homemade shields and protective gear to defend themselves from security forces during violent crackdowns following the military coup on February 1, 2021.

© 2021 Private

The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendent, democracy on the decline. That view gains currency from the intensifying crackdown on opposition voices in China, Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. It finds support in military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad. And it gains sustenance from the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in once- or still-established democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, and, until a year ago, the United States.

But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot. There are few rallies for autocratic rule.

In some countries ruled by autocrats that retain at least a semblance of democratic elections, opposition political parties have begun to paper over their policy differences to build alliances in pursuit of their common interest in ousting the autocrat. And as autocrats can no longer rely on subtly manipulated elections to preserve power, a growing number are resorting to overt electoral charades that guarantee their desired result but confer none of the legitimacy sought from holding an election.

Yet, autocrats are enjoying their moment in the sun in part because of the failings of democratic leaders. Democracy may be the least bad form of governance, as Winston Churchill observed, because the electorate can vote the government out, but today’s democratic leaders are not meeting the challenges before them. Whether it is the climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, poverty and inequality, racial injustice, or the threats from modern technology, these leaders are often too mired in partisan battles and short-term preoccupations to address these problems effectively. Some populist politicians try to divert attention with racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic appeals, leaving real solutions elusive.

If democracies are to prevail in the global contest with autocracy, their leaders must do more than spotlight the autocrats’ inevitable shortcomings. They need to make a stronger, positive case for democratic rule. That means doing a better job of meeting national and global challenges—of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends. It means standing up for democratic institutions such as independent courts, free media, robust legislatures, and vibrant civil societies even when that brings unwelcome scrutiny or challenges to executive policies. And it demands elevating public discourse rather than stoking our worst sentiments, acting on democratic principles rather than merely voicing them, unifying us before looming threats rather than dividing us in the quest for another do-nothing term in office.

Most of the world today looks to democratic leaders to solve our biggest problems. The Chinese and Russian leaders did not even bother showing up at the climate summit in Glasgow. But if democratic officials continue to fail us, if they are unable to summon the visionary leadership that this demanding era requires, they risk fueling the frustration and despair that are fertile ground for the autocrats.

The Perils of Unaccountable Autocrats

The first goal of most autocrats is to chip away at the checks and balances on their authority. Democracy worthy of its name requires not only periodic elections but also free public debate, a healthy civil society, competitive political parties, and an independent judiciary capable of defending individual rights and holding officials to the rule of law. As if autocrats all read from the same playbook, they inevitably attack these restraints on their power—independent journalists, activists, judges, politicians, and human rights defenders. The importance of these checks and balances was visible in the United States where they impeded President Donald Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election, and in Brazil where they are already working to impede President Jair Bolsonaro’s threat to do the same in the election scheduled for 2022.

A lack of democratic process leaves autocrats unaccountable to the public. That makes them more likely to serve their own political interests—and those of their cronies or military supporters. Autocrats claim to deliver better results than democrats, but they usually deliver mainly for themselves.

The Covid-19 pandemic spotlighted this self-serving tendency. Many autocratic leaders downplayed the pandemic, turned their backs on scientific evidence, spread false information, and failed to take basic steps to protect the health and lives of the public. Their motives ranged from populist pandering to evading criticism for not having done enough to prevent the virus from spreading or to buoy social-protection systems. As infections and deaths surged, some of those leaders threatened, silenced, or even imprisoned the healthcare workers, journalists and others who reported, protested, or criticized their failed response—causing a lack of public debate that tended to breed distrust and make matters even worse.

Variations of this scenario played out in Egypt, India, Hungary, Greece, Tajikistan, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tanzania under the late President John Magufuli, and the United States under Trump. Some autocrats used the pandemic as a pretext to halt demonstrations against their rule, while at times allowing rallies in their favor, as in Uganda, Russia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Cuba.

Even in China, where the government’s vast lockdowns limited Covid-19’s spread, the official cover-up of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan during the critical first three weeks of January 2020 while millions fled or passed through the city helped the virus go global. To this day, Beijing refuses to cooperate with an independent investigation into the origins of the virus.

Autocrats also frequently devote government resources to self-serving projects rather than public needs. In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has spent European Union subsidies on football stadiums, which he used to pay off cronies, while leaving hospitals in a decrepit state. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi allowed healthcare facilities to languish while the army and its vast business enterprises flourished, and he pursued such grandiose projects as building a new administrative capital to the east of Cairo. As Russia’s economy declined, the Kremlin increased spending on the military and the police.

Autocrats’ ability to act more quickly, unencumbered by the checks and balances of democracy, can paradoxically be their undoing. The free debate of democratic rule can slow decision-making, but it also ensures that diverse views are heard. Autocrats tend to suppress opposing views, leading to such ill-considered decisions as the move by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to lower interest rates in the face of spiraling inflation. Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, built a port with Chinese loans and rushed through construction, leading to economic losses so great that Beijing gained control of the port for 99 years. India’s economic growth has yet to recover fully from the abrupt decision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to eliminate high-value currency notes—an effort to contain corruption that hurt the most marginalized people who rely primarily on cash for subsistence.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidates his individual power, he needs to address the challenges of a slowing economy, a debt crisis, a housing bubble, a shrinking workforce as the population ages, and troubling inequality—without free debate about solutions by the country’s citizens. Similar one-man rule previously led to the Chinese Communist Party’s disastrous Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, which killed millions of people. Yet instead of encouraging public discussion of how to manage today’s problems, Xi is overseeing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, bending the legal system to his will, purging political allies, and extending the surveillance state into every nook and cranny of the country. Such unchallenged decision-making is a recipe for disastrous mistakes.

The Popular Embrace of Democracy

Even when intrusive surveillance and severe repression ultimately curtail demonstrations, the large numbers of people who joined them showed the public’s desire for democracy. Repression may yield resignation, but that should not be confused with support. Few people want the oppression, corruption, and mismanagement of autocratic rule.

Many autocrats thought they had learned to manipulate voters through managed elections. They would allow periodic balloting, but only after, by their calculation, tilting the playing field sufficiently to prevail. They would censor the media, limit civil-society organizations, disqualify opponents, and selectively confer state benefits. Some would demonize disfavored groups— immigrants and asylum seekers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, racial or religious minorities, women who demand their rights—to divert attention from their inability or unwillingness to deliver actual results. This manipulation was often enough to declare “victory” but not so blatant as to deprive the exercise of all legitimacy.

As the corruption and mismanagement of autocratic rule became undeniable, though, some voters became less susceptible to the autocrats’ election-management techniques. In certain countries where some degree of political pluralism was still tolerated, broad coalitions of political parties have begun to form, spanning the political spectrum. Such alliances reflect growing awareness that partisan differences pale in comparison to a common interest in removing a corrupt or autocratic ruler.

In the Czech Republic, such a coalition defeated Prime Minister Andrej Babiš at the ballot box. In Israel, a broad coalition ended the long-time rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Similar alliances of opposition parties have formed ahead of forthcoming elections against Orban in Hungary and Erdoğan in Turkey. A comparable tendency within the US Democratic Party contributed to the selection of Joe Biden to contest the 2020 election against Trump.

Electoral Charades

In these circumstances, managed elections have become less effective, forcing autocrats to resort to increasingly stark forms of electoral manipulation. For Russian parliamentary elections, the authorities disqualified virtually every viable opposition candidate, banned protests, and silenced critical journalists and activists. Russian authorities imprisoned the leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny (after nearly killing him with a nerve agent), designated his organizations as “extremist,” and hindered efforts by his team to organize a “smart voting” strategy to select the least objectionable remaining opponent of the ruling party.

In Hong Kong, where an informal primary system among pro-democracy candidates threatened an embarrassing defeat for pro-Beijing candidates, the Chinese government ripped up the one-country-two-systems arrangement, imposed a draconian “national security” law that effectively ended the territory’s political freedoms, and allowed only “patriots” (meaning pro-Beijing candidates) to run for office. The Bangladeshi government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina jailed, forcibly disappeared, and executed members of the political opposition, and deployed security forces to intimidate voters and candidates.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega imprisoned all leading opponents and dozens of government critics and revoked the legal status of the main opposition parties. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko did the same with his main opponents but did not count on the enormous electoral appeal of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who replaced her husband as a candidate and may have won the stolen election before having to flee the country.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, facing a young, charismatic, and popular opponent, banned his rallies, and security forces shot his supporters. Iran’s ruling clerics disqualified all but hardliners from competing in presidential elections. Uzbekistan's leadership refused to register any opposition parties, ensuring that there would be no genuine challenge to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's continued rule. The Cambodian and Thai governments dissolved popular opposition parties and forced opposition politicians into exile or prison.

What is left after such blatant undermining of elections is no longer managed democracy but “zombie democracy”—the walking dead of democracy, a charade that has no pretense of a free and fair contest. These autocrats have moved from manipulated co-option to rule by repression and fear. Some cite this unabashed oppression as evidence of rising autocratic power, but in fact it often represents the opposite—an act of desperation by dictatorial leaders who know they have lost any prospect of popular support. They apparently hope their pretense will be less provocative than overt rejection of democracy, but the cost is the loss of any legitimacy that they hoped to secure from the veneer of an electoral exercise.

Beijing’s Quest for International Approval

The Chinese government offers a variation on this theme. On the mainland, it has never countenanced elections. The constitution imposes the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party, and in recent years the government increasingly has asserted the alleged superiority of its system over the messiness of democracy. Yet the government goes to great lengths to avoid testing that proposition.

In international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, Chinese officials trumpet as a sufficient measure of human rights the growth of its gross domestic product. Predictably, they fight any effort to assess their record on civil and political rights, such as their detention of one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang to force them to abandon their religion, culture, and language. But they also reject any criticism of their economic and social policies that flags unequal rights or discrimination.

To avoid such scrutiny, Beijing deploys a range of carrots and sticks in its foreign relations. The carrots include the one-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, ostensibly an infrastructure development program that promotes a Beijing-led “common destiny” but one so opaque that it lends itself to corrupt leaders siphoning off funds while leaving their people stuck with unsustainable debts. The sticks were evident in the economic retaliation that Beijing imposed on Australia for having the audacity to seek an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, or Beijing’s threat to withhold Covid vaccines from Ukraine unless its government withdrew from a joint governmental statement at the UN Human Rights Council criticizing persecution in Xinjiang. Whether by cutting off countries or companies from access to the Chinese market or threatening members of the Chinese diaspora or their families back home, Beijing now routinely extends its censorship efforts to critics abroad.

Beijing especially does not want to subject itself to the unfettered scrutiny of people across China, which is why it censors (and often detains) domestic critics. When the one territory under its control that was free to express itself—Hong Kong—demonstrated through mass protests its opposition to Communist Party rule, Beijing crushed those freedoms. Similar fear of a domestic verdict on their rule can be seen in other dictatorial and monarchial governments that have never risked even “managed” elections, such as Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eswatini, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Power at Any Price

In the ultimate logic of autocratic rule, some autocrats are so determined to cling to power that they are willing to risk humanitarian catastrophe. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad epitomizes this callous calculation, having gone so far as to bomb (with Russian help) hospitals, schools, markets, and apartment buildings in areas held by the armed opposition, leaving parts of the country devastated and depopulated. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro has similarly presided over the ruination of his country—hyperinflation, a destroyed economy, and millions of people fleeing.

Myanmar’s junta and the Taliban in Afghanistan seem to display a similar disregard for public welfare, as did the Ethiopian government in pursuing a conflict that began in the Tigray region and the Sudanese military even though it has now made a pretense of return to sharing the government with those seeking democracy. Hoped-for bailouts from opponents of democracy— China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates—rarely suffice to salvage the autocrat from such me-over-the people destruction.

In short, the autocrats’ alleged rise is more qualified than often assumed. Whether they face people in the streets seeking democracy, broad political coalitions that resist their attacks on democracy, or the difficulty of controlling elections when people see through their self-serving rule, autocrats are often running scared. The hoopla about the rise of autocrats aside, theirs is not an enviable position.

Democracies Falling Short

Yet democracies today hardly have a stellar record in addressing societal ills. It is widely understood that, ultimately, democracies rise or fall by the power of their example, but too often that example has been disappointing. Today’s democratic leaders are not rising to the challenges facing the world.

Yes, democracies are messy by their nature. The division of power inevitably slows its exercise, but that is the price of avoiding tyranny—a concern that especially permeates the US system of government. However, democracies these days are failing in ways that transcend the inherent limitations of democratic checks and balances. That disappointing performance comes even though the pluralism of democracies—their free media, vibrant civil societies, and independent legislatures and courts—often exerts pressure on governments to address serious problems.

The climate crisis poses a dire threat, yet democratic leaders are only nibbling at the problem, seemingly incapable of overcoming national perspectives and vested interests to take the major steps needed. Democracies responded to the pandemic by developing highly effective mRNA vaccines with remarkable speed, but they have failed to ensure that the people of lower-income countries share this life-saving invention, resulting in countless needless deaths and increasing the likelihood of variants circumventing the vaccines.

Some democratic governments took steps to mitigate the economic consequences of the lockdowns used to protect people’s health and curb the spread of Covid-19 but have yet to tackle the broader and persistent problem of widespread poverty and inequality or to build adequate systems of social protection for the next inevitable economic disruption. Democracies regularly debate the threats posed by technology—the dissemination of hatred and disinformation by social-media platforms, the large-scale invasion of our privacy as an economic model, the intrusiveness of new surveillance tools, the biases of artificial intelligence—but have taken only baby steps to address them.

Yes, these problems are large, but as the climate debate shows, the bigger the problem, the more evident it is that every government has a responsibility to contribute to the solution. That recognition provides an opportunity for greater accountability, but many democratic leaders still hope to get by with soft commitments to which no one will hold them. Their caution is hardly a recipe for effectiveness.

These democracies fare no better when acting outside their borders. When they should be consistently backing democrats over autocrats, they frequently descend to the compromises of realpolitik, in which bolstering autocratic “friends”—to curtail migration, fight terrorism, or protect supposed “stability”—takes precedence over the principled defense of democracy. Egypt’s Sisi and Uganda’s Museveni have been prominent beneficiaries of this misguided logic.

Similar rationalization—in this case, countering the Chinese government—lies behind the general silence among democratic leaders that has greeted Modi’s increasingly autocratic rule in India. The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia sought to strengthen ties with India on security, technology, and trade with only vague mentions of “shared democratic values” and no willingness to hold the Modi government to account for the repression of civil society and the failure to protect religious minorities from attacks.

Biden’s Mixed Signals

In contrast to Trump’s embrace of friendly autocrats when he was US president, Biden took office promising a foreign policy that would be guided by human rights. But he continued to sell arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel despite their persistent repression. In the face of an autocratic trend in Central America, Biden mainly addressed the issue in traditional rival Nicaragua while elsewhere prioritizing efforts to curtail migration rather than autocracy. A preoccupation with migration also led Biden to tread softly with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador despite his attacks on the media and judiciary and his Covid denialism.

During key summits, Biden seemed to lose his voice when it came to public denunciation of serious human rights violations. The US State Department has issued occasional protests about repression in certain countries, and in extreme cases the Biden administration introduced targeted sanctions on some officials responsible, but the influential voice of the president was often missing. After meeting with China’s Xi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Erdoğan, Biden noted that they had discussed “human rights” but offered few specifics about what was said or what consequences might ensue if repression continued. The people of those countries—the primary agents of change, who could have used a boost in these difficult times—were left uncertain about the backing they had received.

Biden’s embrace of international institutions has also been selective, even if it was a considerable improvement over Trump’s attacks on them. Under Biden, the US government successfully ran for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council which Trump had abandoned, rejoined the World Health Organization after Trump moved to quit it, and re-committed to the global fight against climate change after Trump disparaged it.

In addition, Biden lifted Trump’s sanctions against the International Criminal Court prosecutor. But he maintained the US government’s opposition to the prosecutor investigating US torture in Afghanistan or Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, even though both Afghanistan and Palestine have conferred jurisdiction to the court for crimes committed on their soil, and neither the US nor the Israeli government has conscientiously prosecuted these crimes.

European Selectivity

Other Western leaders displayed similar weakness in their defense of democracy. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government helped to orchestrate global condemnation of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. But while holding the European Union presidency, Germany helped to promote an EU investment deal with China despite Beijing’s use of Uyghur forced labor. Rather than conditioning the deal on ending the forced labor, or even adopting the International Labour Organization treaty banning it, Merkel settled for Beijing promising to think about perhaps one day joining the treaty. It took the European Parliament to reject that abandonment of principle.

The government of French President Emmanuel Macron also helped to coordinate broad condemnation of Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang but was blind to the abysmal rights situation in Egypt. Egyptians under Sisi are living through the worst repression in the country’s modern history, yet the French government continues to sell it arms, and Macron even gave Sisi La Légion d’honneur, France’s highest award. Similarly, Macron announced an enormous arms sale to the United Arab Emirates despite its military’s involvement in the countless unlawful attacks against civilians in Yemen, and he became the first Western leader to meet with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, since the 2018 murder of the independent journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In addition, the French government failed to address the operations of the French energy giant Total in Myanmar despite revenue from its operations funding the junta’s crimes against humanity.  

The European Union still has not acted on its new power to condition large-scale subsidies to Hungary and Poland on their autocratic leaders’ respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. It has not even taken the step of finding those governments in “serious breach” of the values of the EU treaty after the scrutiny procedure for both countries was initiated under the EU’s Article 7 because of their attacks on democratic rule. As the Polish government closed its border to asylum seekers passing through Belarus, fears rose that its actions would become the EU’s latest excuse to ignore the government’s moves to undermine an independent judiciary and attack the rights of women and LGBT people. Without a course correction, the EU risks being diminished from a club of democracies to a mere trading bloc.

More broadly, the requirement of unanimity in matters of European Union foreign policy was increasingly abused by a few member states to mute and undermine a swift, principled, and firm collective EU response to crackdowns on democracy and human rights. However, in a positive move, a majority of EU members has decided to act together as “like-minded” states. Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, has also shown a willingness to represent established EU positions on his own authority without the signoff of all EU members.

Global Inconsistency

Outside of the West, governments have taken at least some action for democracy against overt military coups—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the case of Myanmar, the African Union with regard to Sudan, Guinea, and Mali.

But they have shown no comparable interest in addressing endemic rights abuses by longstanding autocratic leaders, such as those ruling in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand in Asia or Rwanda, Uganda, and Egypt in Africa. The Organization of American States has stood up against the dictatorships of Maduro in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua but still gives a pass to the autocratic tendencies of Bolsonaro in Brazil and President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Sri Lanka faced little pressure to respect rights as the Rajapaksa brothers returned to office despite their history of presiding over war crimes.

In the Middle East, authoritarian governments, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, provided financial and other support to prop up Sisi’s repressive rule in Egypt, applauded President Kais Saied’s power grab in Tunisia, and continued to back Bahrain’s zero tolerance for dissent. Iran continued to back Syria’s Assad despite the crimes against humanity that he oversaw in putting down the rebellion against his rule. The UAE, Turkey, Russia, and Egypt all armed abusive actors in Libya.

Meanwhile, the Russian government promoted far-right politicians in Western democracies with the hope of discrediting those democracies and hence alleviating pressure on the Kremlin to respect the desire of Russians for greater democracy.

UN Disappointment

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres showed slightly more willingness in the past year to criticize specific governments for their human rights violations rather than resort to general exhortations to respect rights that no particular government feels any pressure to heed. Yet Guterres mentioned mainly weak governments that were already pariahs, such as Myanmar’s junta after the military coup. Even after he secured a second term and no longer needed to worry about China’s veto of his aspirations, Guterres refused to publicly condemn the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, allowed her inability to gain unfettered access to Xinjiang—access that Beijing has not granted after years of negotiation and probably never will—to become an excuse to delay publication of a report on Xinjiang for more than three years, using the remote monitoring on which Human Rights Watch and many others rely.  In early December, her spokesperson said he hoped the assessment would be issued in the weeks to come. Pressure will then mount on the members of the UN Human Rights Council to address the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity.

The Need to Rise to the Occasion

The outcome of the high-stakes battle between autocracy and democracy remains uncertain. Due to the tendency of unaccountable governments to deliver poorly for their people, the autocrats are on the defensive as popular protests mount, broad pro-democracy political coalitions emerge, and mere managed elections, as opposed to electoral charades, prove unreliable.

Yet despite democracy’s broad appeal, its fate depends in large part on the actions of democratic leaders. Will they address the major challenges before us, elevate rather than debase public debate, and act consistently, both at home and abroad, with the democratic and human rights principles they claim to defend? Being the least bad system of governance may not be enough if public despair at democratic leaders’ failure to meet today’s challenges leads to public indifference about democracy. The defense of human rights requires not only curbing autocratic repression, but also improving democratic leadership.