Dying Democracies (Part I)

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Irawan Ronodipuro
INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – Eric Posner, an American law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is part of a growing pool of scholars studying the steady decline of democracy, not only in the United States but also in other major democracies around the world.  “I think what people are worried about, when you look at other countries that have slid into authoritarianism, what has happened is that the leaders of those countries have proceeded incrementally, and so when he does some things initially that people don’t resist, that enhances his power.  Once he has more power he can do more things, take more action.”  Talking about U.S. President Donald Trump and worries his battling with the U.S. Department of Justice over the Mueller investigation could cause a constitutional crisis, Posner commented “you could slide into an authoritarian regime without a real crisis ever taking place, and I think that’s what people should be focusing on.”

Posner is not the only person who is worried about the future of democracy.  Democracy experts are tracking the global ascendance of autocracy, and so far the scorecard is showing a surge in illiberal politics.

Until recently, nobody would have fathomed a backsliding in democracy.  With the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was a pervasive sense that—in the words of American scholar Francis Fukuyama—we were entering a new period of history, or as Fukuyama described it, the End of History, by which he meant liberal democracy would be the final form for all nations.

In retrospect, Fukuyama had it right, but only by half.  Literally speaking, democracy is now the predominant form of government.  There were only a handful of democracies in the beginning of the 20th century, while today there are about ninety nations that can call themselves democracies.  But as authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in their seminal work, How Democracies Die,  a large number of leaders in democracies, which they identify as elected authoritarians, are using democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy.

Similar to Posner’s warning about the threat of the United States sliding into authoritarianism, in a recent interview Ziblatt remarked that politicians around the world are gradually turning their countries into autocracies.  “That’s one of the things that makes it so difficult to study and also as a citizen to recognize what’s happening.  You know, military coups happen overnight.  I mean, they’re sudden instances—sudden events.”

Rather than resorting to tanks and bullets and palace coups, the modern authoritarian doesn’t bother to use the military to seize power indefinitely.  Ziblatt says, “Electoral authoritarians come to power democratically.  They often have democratic legitimacy as a result of being elected.  And there’s a kind of chipping away at democratic institutions, tilting the playing field to the advantage of the incumbent so it becomes harder and harder to dislodge the incumbent though democratic means.”

The list of electoral democracies that now only have the trappings of democracy left and not much else has become longer over the past decade.  From Latin America to Eastern Europe, through Africa and into Asia, there is trepidation about where democratic backsliding could eventually lead, and, whether or not it can be reversed.

Here in Indonesia, we should be equally concerned about the future of our democracy.

Looking back over Jokowi’s policies since the early days of his presidency, there is no contesting the fact the president and his men have steadily undermined the underpinnings of our country’s democracy and democratic norms.  Starting with the president’s blatant disregard for human rights, support for the dismantling of civil liberties, use of proxies to intimidate opposing politicians, engaging proxies to limit the freedom of assembly, co-opting the media and issuing an executive decree that empowers him to block some politicians from running for higher office, Jokowi has eerily followed in the footsteps of other elected authoritarians.

A recent example is the case of Neno Warisman, an opposition activist with the #2019ChangePresident campaign, who was intercepted by a crowd of rowdy pro-Jokowi demonstrators attempting to block her from entering Batam island’s airport to attend a political rally.  The pro-Jokowi protestors tried to block the famous singer from leaving the airport, and only after a tense six-hour standoff that verged on turning violent was she allowed by Batam police officers to leave the airport for the event.

For those who are schooled in Indonesian politics, it is obvious the protest against Ms. Warisman was not spontaneous but rather organized by parties behind the president.  It is telling the president didn’t even bother to comment on the incident.  It is also probably not a coincidence that Ms. Warisman’s car parked at her residence in Jakarta suddenly caught fire in the middle of the night.  Police reports suggest it wasn’t sabotage, but smart money would bet otherwise.