Leaders shirking their nations' democratic facades more brazenly

Leaders shirking their nations' democratic facades more brazenly
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In every corner of the world, dictators are ascendant and increasingly entrenched in power.

Last month, China’s National People’s Congress voted to abolish presidential term limits, further cementing Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. Following Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s re-election last week (with 97 percent of the vote), his supporters have called for Egypt to follow China’s example and abolish their term limits.

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Sisi’s victory closely follows Vladimir Putin’s re-election, similarly engineered by eliminating all serious competition before a single vote was cast. Putin famously made a mockery of Russia’s term limits by demoting himself to prime minister for a single term and then reclaiming the presidency.

 

These cases fit a recent trend of dictators abolishing or evading executive term limits. Even more significant is the broader pattern in which dictators are eliminating checks on their power and declining to even play-act at democracy.

Since 1990, about 60 percent of non-royal dictatorships have had executive term limits in some form, using data from the Comparative Constitutions Project. Especially in Africa, many were put in place after the fall of the Soviet Union, a moment of democratic ascendancy and political reform encouraged by the West.

Term limits were widely recommended by international actors as a way to ensure rotation in leadership and prevent executives from consolidating too much power.

In 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry promised the United States “will continue to stand up for constitutionally mandated term limits [and] urge leaders not to alter national constitutions for personal or political gain.”

Term limits have been sporadically effective at constraining dictators. Many presidents who tried to abolish term limits faced protests and intense opposition from rival elites eager for a chance at power. In Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia, presidents’ political maneuvers failed, and they moved on. In other cases, like Niger, Honduras and Burkina Faso, dictators were ousted by coups.

Overall, however, roughly 80 percent of the dictators who try to overturn term limits succeed, mostly by amending the constitution. Further, the successes have been rising.

Since 2000 alone, dictators abolished term limits in Uganda, Togo, Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Gabon, Niger, Venezuela, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Nicaragua.

Dictators evaded term limits (such as by declaring they don’t apply to the current president, as in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan) in Lebanon, Eritrea, Angola, Senegal, Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan. Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov opted for a cruder strategy — he simply ignored the two-term limit and held the presidency for 25 years.

Yet term limits are only one of many institutions — including independent judiciaries, legislatures, competitive elections and civil liberties — that dictators have adopted to maintain the outward form of democracy, hoping to get international benefits and improve domestic legitimacy.

And just like with term limits, dictators appear less and less willing over the last few years to even go through the motions of façade democracy.

We’ve seen a consolidation of personal power in several of the world’s most powerful autocracies, including China, Russia, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, alongside democratic erosion in previously healthy democracies like Hungary, Poland and the United States.

Freedom House, which provides annual democracy ratings for each country, points to a steady global decline in democratic quality since 2006, with about twice as many countries experiencing a net decline as a net improvement. As they ominously write, “Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies … are under assault and in retreat globally.”

What is behind this democratic malaise? One cause is the declining feeling that liberal democracy is the only legitimate political model, particularly with China offering an alternative that combines a strong party-state with guided capitalism. As long as autocracies like China and Russia are seen as successful rising powers, countries will gravitate toward them.

This autocratic pull has combined with a weakening push from democracies to follow even the pretense of democratic norms. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE recently made headlines by congratulating Putin and Sisi on their “election” victories.

This fits alongside Trump’s praise for strongmen like Putin, Xi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Yet this is not all Trump’s innovation — the U.S. declined to call a coup a coup when Sisi initially took power (which would have mandated a shutoff of aid), and the European Union has reacted weakly so far to democratic decline in Poland and Hungary.

Especially as democracies decline in prestige and relative power, their unwillingness to defend democratic standards opens the doors to autocratic ascendancy. This is how we get 97-percent election victories in a country seven years removed from Tahrir Square and an invigorated Russia interfering at will with democratic elections abroad.

Responding to this challenge requires more effective messaging on the benefits of democracy and restrained government. Democracies and international institutions also need to renew their commitments to rigorously defend standards of democracy and rule of law.

Term limits often galvanize protest when dictators move to abolish them because they represent such a basic principle — that no one should be permanently entrenched in power. Dictators rarely agree with such principles, at least not without a fight. 

Michael K. Miller is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a founder of Authoritarian Warning Survey (@authwarning).