The Great Unequalizer
The Pandemic Is Compounding Disparities in Income, Wealth, and Opportunity
Gloom about the state of democracy pervades Washington and other Western capitals. Restless, insecure, and alienated citizens in many democracies are challenging their leaders on the streets, electing illiberal demagogues, or simply rejecting all of the political choices available to them. Meanwhile, China, Russia, and several other authoritarian powers are growing more assertive and self-confident, claiming that democracy’s time has passed and working to bolster fellow autocrats.
Yet all this attention on the decline of democracy has obscured a story that is just as important: many authoritarians, dictators, and other nondemocratic leaders are also in trouble. Just like their peers in free countries, many citizens in nondemocracies are deeply frustrated with their political systems and have in the last several years been acting on that unhappiness by challenging those in power. The central political dynamic of the current moment is thus not the gradual eclipsing of democracy by authoritarianism. It is, rather, the growing difficulty of political elites in all types of regimes to satisfy the demands of their citizens.
What the world is witnessing is less a crisis of democracy than a broader crisis of governance. The likely result is increased political flux across all types of political systems. Regardless of what kind of regime they lead, only those leaders who get serious about responsiveness and accountability will survive; those who don’t will see their grasps falter.
The last few years have seen a remarkable wave of unrest push a number of authoritarian leaders to resign under pressure. In Ethiopia, protests that began in 2015 over the economic marginalization of the Oromo ethnic group eventually expanded into broader demands for enhanced political rights. The protests persisted and, in 2018, the ruling regime—which sympathetic observers had long cited as an example of how a development-minded authoritarian state could deliver for its subjects—finally fell. The new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has implemented a wave of liberalizing reforms that include restoring access to blocked websites, establishing councils to review restrictive laws, releasing thousands of political prisoners, and appointing women to over half of the positions in his cabinet.
In 2018 in Sudan, major protests—sparked by increases in the price of bread and fuel and then sustained by public fatigue with corruption and political stagnation—eventually led to the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir, who had governed oppressively since 1989. The protests continued even after Bashir stepped down, ultimately resulting in an agreement between the military and protest leaders to share power until elections in 2022.
Such developments have hardly been limited to sub-Saharan Africa. In Armenia, for example, widespread public discontent over corruption and poor governance led to widespread public protests in 2018 that ultimately drove out President Serzh Sargsyan, who had tried to prolong his tenure through political machinations. His ouster disrupted a long-standing “soft authoritarian” system in which a group of political elites dominated the country for roughly two decades, in part through manipulating the electoral system. A new government led by a former opposition leader, Nikol Pashinyan, has launched a series of democratizing reforms, including measures to increase accountability and curb corruption. Last year, Bolivian President Evo Morales attempted to rig an election and gain an unprecedented fourth term, triggering widespread protests and a backlash from the military, which in turn led to his resignation and flight from the country. Elections in May will likely make clear whether the anger over Morales’s overreach can translate into a return to democratic pluralism.
In Algeria last year, protests drove President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office after 20 years of dictatorial rule. Although the military-backed regime remains in power, the protest movement has demonstrated remarkable staying power in continuing to demand fundamental changes. And in numerous other nondemocratic countries, including Haiti, Jordan, Nicaragua, Russia, Togo, and Venezuela, significant protests have shaken power holders even if they have not ejected them.
Meanwhile, other autocratic leaders and parties have been humbled at the ballot box and replaced by more liberal rivals. In Malaysia, Barisan Nasional, the semiauthoritarian ruling coalition, saw its decades-old grip begin to slip in 2015 when public protests erupted over the 1MDB scandal, in which billions of dollars went missing from a major investment fund and more than $700 million turned up in bank accounts of then Prime Minister Najib Razak. Three years later, a rival coalition, Pakatan Harapan, defeated the government in national elections—the first regime change in Malaysia since its independence in 1957—and has proceeded to deepen the investigation of the 1MDB scandal, free political prisoners, ratify several international human rights treaties, and establish a committee to explore significant institutional reforms. Similarly, in The Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh’s 20-year reign of self-enrichment and repressive abuse ended when he was defeated in the country’s 2016 election. The new government has freed dozens of political prisoners and reduced the frequency of state-backed human rights abuses. In the Maldives in 2018, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom was voted out of office after five years of trampling on democratic norms by detaining political opponents and restricting the press. The victor in that election, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has taken some steps to prosecute past human rights abuses, and his party won over two-thirds of the seats in 2019 parliamentary elections.
Even some elected strongmen who for years have seemed politically untouchable have been dented by recent electoral setbacks. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to nullify his party’s defeat in the Istanbul mayoral election last year but was handed a stinging defeat in the subsequent do-over election that he himself had engineered. And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party lost control of Budapest and several other cities in last October’s local elections.
Of course, some of these cases of authoritarian reversal or liberalization could well deteriorate in the face of pushback from deeply entrenched power structures or in reaction to new tensions released by liberalizing changes. For example, Abiy, the Ethiopian prime minister, has been facing new ethnic unrest as a result of his efforts to rebalance the inequities of the prior system. Moreover, some autocracies remain quite stable, including Belarus, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam—although it is worth remembering that various nondemocratic regimes that have experienced turbulence in recent years, such as Algeria and Sudan, were until recently also seen as secure.
But there is little doubt that the many recent cases of authoritarian collapse and slippage highlight a crucial fact: the factors that have brought down many established parties and institutions in democratic countries have close parallels in autocracies. This is true especially when it comes to the economy. Many democracies are struggling to provide a decent life for all their citizens, limit economic dislocations, and avoid rising inequality. But so are most autocratic countries, even ones with significant energy resources. The rigors of a ruthlessly competitive global economy apply just as much in repressive countries as in free ones. Owing to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, “authoritarian capitalism” has attracted attention as an alternative to liberal democracy. But China is an outlier: only a handful of regimes have been able to combine political repression with far-reaching economic reforms that produce real economic dynamism.
Corruption is another problem that often comes up in analyses of what ails democracy. And public anger over corruption has indeed led to the defeat of established parties and even brought down leaders in a number of democracies in recent years, including in Brazil and South Korea. Yet corruption is also an enormous problem for many autocracies, and despite their willingness to clamp down on dissent, public anger about the problem has sparked many of the protest movements that have brought down authoritarian regimes in recent years.
The factors that have brought down established institutions in democratic countries have close parallels in autocracies.
Democratic decline has also been tied to the fact that citizens in free countries increasingly report that they find the ideas and agendas of established political parties to be stale and unappealing, and many voters have embraced radical, often demagogic, alternatives. But many nondemocratic regimes, such as Iran and Venezuela, are also facing the exhaustion of their traditional ideological narratives and show little ability to offer anything new for citizens to believe in.
Commentators who are bearish on democracy often point to the sobering potential of new communications technologies to aggravate social and political fragmentation by spreading misinformation. Yet these same technologies also make it harder for nondemocratic regimes to repress dissent, stamp out citizen mobilization, and limit access to sources of independent information. Here, too, China is a misleading outlier. The Chinese regime has enjoyed an unusual level of success in establishing tight political control over the usually unruly domain of social media. Most other autocratic governments do not have the capacity to do the same. Consider, for example, Sudan, where the government’s restriction of Internet access and other repressive efforts could not prevent protesters’ use of social media to raise awareness of and build solidarity.
All political systems are in for a hard road ahead as people everywhere continue to know more, want more, and do more. In the face of rising popular pressure for answers and results, it’s hard to maintain democracy. But it is equally hard—and maybe harder—to maintain autocratic rule. The instinctive approach of most democratic governments to make partial concessions and engage in negotiations with angry citizens often leads to muddled politics and stalled reforms. Yet compared with the authoritarian instinct to crush dissent and stonewall change, the messy conciliation of democracy is more likely to allow a government to survive and even renovate itself. There is no single right formula for responding to the gnawing public hunger for accountability and justice. But in the long term, plugging one’s ears and denying the legitimacy of those demands is a bad bet.