Scholars Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg have argued that we are no longer in a third wave of democratization, but rather a third wave of autocratization. And indeed it is true that several countries that transitioned to democracy during the third wave have become more autocratic in the past five years. We may not be in a full-on “wave” of dictatorships, but our recent global democratic moment has definitely plateaued.
What exactly is democratic backsliding? The term refers generally to a democracy becoming more autocratic. While Nancy Bermeo describes three ways democracies can fall back into dictatorship:
- executive aggrandizement, and
- electoral manipulation
backsliding is more typically used to refer to executive aggrandizement – efforts by elected officials to maintain power indefinitely through legal means.
Traditional military coups happen when military officers take control over a country. They take place in dictatorships as well as democracies, but I am focused on democratic breakdown here. In these cases, military officers – and it is mid-ranking officers who conduct coups slightly more often than senior generals – use their access to weapons to take control of key institutions in a country. For example, they will occupy parliament and the TV station (or limit Internet access), and arrest the current head of state. They declare a state of emergency, impose martial law, and select a new head of state from among their own ranks.
Coups tend to happen when a military has a relatively strong position in the country and a specific grievance (such as poor economic performance or perceived mismanagement of a military conflict). In the past, the military would say they are taking power because they will be better able to run the country than the elected government; today, they tend to say they are rescuing the country from the current government and promise to hold elections within a certain time frame to restore democracy.
For example, the August 2020 coup in Mali took place after months of protests against government corruption. In Turkey in 2016, the military attempted a coup to avoid the further erosion of secularism and democracy in that country. And in 2014, the Thai military took country of the country after six months of political crisis, when street protests were occasionally violent, eventually allowing elections to be held again in 2019.
One thing these three cases share – aside from the military “saving” the country from an elected leader – is that all three of these countries have experienced repeated coups over time. This was Mali’s second coup in ten years. Turkey had one coup a decade (including coups by memorandum) from 1960 – 1997. And Thailand has had at least seven coups since 1950. In cases like these, countries end up in what is called a “coup trap.” The military intervenes, attempts to set up democratic institutions that would resolve its concerns, is unsatisfied with their performance, and intervenes again.
In the past, democratically elected leaders who wanted to stay in power indefinitely would perform what is called a “self-coup.” Examples include Adolph Hitler in Germany and (more recently) Alberto Fujimori in Peru. In these cases, the leader, with the support of the military, suspends parliament and the constitution, instituting a form of military rule under a civilian leader.
Leaders today generally use more subtle means to maintain power indefinitely, including constitutional amendments and legislation that:
- remove term limits,
- limit the ability of opposition parties and civil society to organize,
- and increase control over media and court systems.
For example, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez was elected through free and fair elections in 1999, but passed a referendum later that year to allow him to change the constitution. He then essentially rewrote the constitution to give himself power by decree, extend the term of president, eliminate the Senate, and so on.
Even more subtle changes, such as limits on the ability of NGOs to operate, can lead to a decline in the strength of a democracy since they reduce the ability of outside organizations to hold elected leaders accountable to citizens.
Executive aggrandizement tends to happen when leaders are popular, but the public is generally disengaged from politics. For example, in Venezuela again, Chavez was quite popular, but turnout on the constitutional referendum was unusually low. Viktor Orban’s party in Hungary won 2/3 of the seats in parliament in 2010, which gave them sufficient power to amend the constitution on their own.