Leaders Without Limits and the Shadow of the Past: Understanding Democratic Decline

Examining two primary drivers of democratic decline provides an opportunity to avoid democratic breakdown.

People gather for massive protest against CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act). Nagpur, India, January 29, 2020

People gather in Nagpur, India, to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act in January 2020. Photo: Majority World CIC/Alamy

Democracy is a durable form of government because it contains, within itself, mechanisms for resolving conflict and incorporating new ideas. Though generally resilient, democracy can be weakened. And although not all diminished democracies become dictatorships, they are less able to protect fundamental freedoms.

Freedom in the World data shows that, in the rare cases where an electoral democracy has left the Free category during the last 20 years, the two primary drivers of decline have been overreach by elected leaders and issues rooted in an authoritarian past. Unlike the immediate devastation of coups, these threats to democracy take their toll gradually. The slower pace of democratic erosion provides us with an opportunity to avoid democratic breakdown, if we know where to look and when to act.


Dangerous leaders

Elected leaders who subvert democratic norms have emerged as one of the most serious threats to democracy in the post-Cold War era. Although their methods differ, incumbents typically damage democracy by seeking to eliminate the people and institutions that stand in their way.

Incumbents degrade democracy by trying to evade term limits or excluding opponents from elections. Although Senegal’s President Macky Sall recently announced he would not stand for a third term, he has contributed to the deterioration of democracy in his country, following his predecessor’s playbook by questioning the applicability of term limits and overseeing the criminal prosecution of opposition politicians. In June, violent protests in which 16 people died, 350 were injured, and more than 500 were arrested¾erupted after a Senegalese court sentenced a popular opposition leader to two years in prison. Like two other opponents of Sall, Ousmane Sonko, who came in third in the 2019 presidential election, is now disqualified from running for office.

Elected leaders also work to incapacitate institutions, like courts, that offer a counterweight to executive power. In 2021, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele used his party’s majority in the national legislature to radically reshape the Supreme Court, an institution that had repeatedly tried to rein in his policies. He announced on Twitter that the five judges of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court were “FIRED.” Loyalists installed on the court granted Bukele the ability to run for a constitutionally prohibited consecutive term in 2024.

Incumbent overreach can be more subtle than arresting opposition politicians or firing supreme court justices. In India and Hungary, elected leaders have gradually undermined other pillars of democracy, like freedom of expression.

Despite maintaining competitive elections, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have substantially diminished the ability of people in the country to voice their dissent while increasing political inequality. The government’s use of a colonial-era sedition law to silence politicians, students, journalists and academics, raids by tax authorities on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), harassment of journalists, and government-directed mobile internet shutdowns have all had a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Meanwhile, the government has adopted policies that diminish the political rights of certain groups and are widely seen as discriminatory toward non-Hindus, especially the country’s nearly 200 million Muslims.

Like India, Hungary’s democratic decline has been spearheaded by an incumbent taking aim at democracy-supporting institutions. Since coming to power in 2010, President Viktor Orbán has forced most independent journalistic voices out of print and broadcasting. He has used legal tools to bring the judiciary, tax authorities, and the electoral commission under government control. Although opposition parties still try to vigorously contest elections, the country, rated Partly Free since 2018, is perilously close to no longer being an electoral democracy.

Problems of the past

While the antics of incumbents garner most of the attention in cases of democratic decline, the legacy of authoritarianism can also threaten political rights and civil liberties. Corruption and racial discrimination degrade rule of law, while unforeseen consequences of the transition from authoritarianism undermine democratic institutions.

Unresolved problems from the past often echo in new democracies. For example, corruption, which was a defining hallmark of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship, has continued to be a serious problem in the Philippines. While some of the vast fortune stolen by Marcos has been recovered, the impunity enjoyed by authorities which enabled large-scale graft has also supported other human rights abuses.

In the Dominican Republic, violent anti-Haitian racism cemented during the 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo reverberates in modern-day policies that seek to denationalize Dominicans of Haitian descent and strip them of their right to participate in the country’s political system.

The legacy of authoritarianism can also impact democracies in unexpected ways. Persistently high levels of violence perpetrated by drug cartels threaten government officials, electoral candidates, journalists, and ordinary citizens in Mexico. Researchers have suggested that this violence is a consequence of the destruction of networks of informal protection provided by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) during its 70 years in power. No longer able to rely on corrupt officials, cartels have formed private militias to establish control over territories and defend themselves against rivals. The resulting large-scale criminal violence erodes the country’s democracy.

Although Peru’s recent constitutional crisis, which left at least 66 people dead and resulted in the country’s downgrade from Free to Partly Free, may resemble incumbent overreach, it too can be traced back to the legacy of authoritarianism. Peru’s political parties were sidelined during Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship and have never regained their organizing role in the country’s political system. Over time, this has encouraged the participation of self-styled outsiders in elections and contributed to the polarization of conflicts between the legislature and the executive. Pedro Castillo, who tried to avoid impeachment by ordering Congress to dissolve late last year, was the seventh president to hold office in as many years. His attempted autogolpe, and the damage it caused to Peru’s democracy, is a symptom of a problem with roots in the authoritarian past.

Averting breakdown

Can democratic backsliding be addressed before democracy reaches a breaking point? Erosion can take different paths, but remedies that reinforce fundamental freedoms are key to reversing the undemocratic tide.

Independent courts remain centrally important. Brazil’s election court recently barred former president Jair Bolsonaro from standing for office for the next eight years due to his efforts to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. India’s Supreme Court suspended the use of a criminal sedition law last year, leaving it on the books but preventing police from bringing new charges.

Freedom of the media is another bulwark against democratic deterioration. Innovative strategies adopted by media outlets have preserved some journalistic independence in Hungary and to combat disinformation in the Philippines.

It may seem that an authoritarian past is more difficult to address head on than incumbent overreach. But truth commissions, removal of public officials associated with tainted regimes, criminal trials, and memorialization methods captured under the umbrella term transitional justice have helped countries as diverse as Argentina, Chile, Germany, and South Africa productively reckon with a legacy of mass repression.

Whatever shape they take, efforts that promote the rule of law and respect for human rights can help to protect democracy.