‘Elected Autocrats’ Derail Democracy

img1 Dr G. John
21 Jun 2021

There is a growing tendency among the younger generation to lose faith in democracy. In his book titled The People vs. Democracy, Yascha Mounk reveals that only 29 percent of people born in 1980s think democracy is essential. In the US, a quarter of millennials think democracy is bad way to run a country. People are disgust with the present form of democracy throughout the globe.

According to a report by Economist Intelligence Unit, India has slipped two places to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index’s global ranking. It cited ‘democratic backsliding’ by authorities and ‘crackdowns’ on civil liberties as the main reasons for the decline in ranking. Of the 167 countries that were considered for ranking, 23 were classified as ‘full democracies’, 52 as flawed democracies, and 57 as authoritarian regimes. India has been classified as ‘flawed democracy’.

More often democracy is assassinated not by violence or military coup, but by slow poisoning by democratically elected leaders. We have ample evidences in the history for such misadventures, India being the latest prey. Though history is replete with many examples, we inadvertently fail to learn from the past, as we remain non-rational beings, not being able to distinguish between good and bad. 

Democracy meets its Waterloo in the ballot box. We think we consciously take decision and we think we are masters of own decisions, but alas, 95 percent of the times our decisions are intuitive which means we are not the authors of own decisions as said  by Daniel Kahneman, a  Nobel Laureate. Using ballot, we handover the baton to would-be autocrats. 

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, soon after being elected as the President in 1998, dismantled century-old Constitution and rewrote it to give him supreme power. He abolished many institutions established by the previous regime and changed the nomenclature of many. He abolished the bicameral Congress and introduced unicameral National Assembly which was dominated by his supporters. He destroyed gradually, one by one, a number of institutions that were supposed to act as speed breakers.  

Another democratically elected leader in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was a nationalist. In 1999, during his election campaign he read a poem that included these lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers”. He was jailed for this provocative poem. This is the easy way to group people either on the basis of religion/sect, or caste and consolidate the votes of majoritarian group. To keep the votes intact, religious and/or caste sentiments are invoked and make ‘the other’ as the enemy. 

Keep targeting that enemy though rhetoric reinforcing in the minds of the general public a possible invisible threat from that enemy. Such leaders invent and give meaning to the concept called ‘nationalism’. Erdogan came to power in 2003. He too changed the Constitution enabling him to directly appoint top public officials including ministers and vice-presidents. He also seized power to intervene in country’s legal system. He undertook an ambitious project of constructing a lavish Presidential Complex overlooking Ankara that is bigger than the White House and Kremlin. It covers 150,000 sq.m, has 1,150 rooms and cost $615 million. The project was called ‘new Turkey’, like the Central Vista project in India.

When Fujimori won the election in 1990, no one expected him to subvert democratic institutions.  With the support of military, he dissolved the Peruvian Congress and courts, and seized powers that made him dictatorial by democratic means. He justified his actions saying ‘threat to nation’s integrity and threat of terrorism’. During crackdown on two violent insurgencies, nearly 69,000 people were killed. Later, he was found guilty of human rights abuses and authorizing a number of killings carried out by death squads, replicating ‘encounters’ in India. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

There is a signature pattern in subverting and crushing democracy by the democratically elected leaders. After assuming power using democracy route, they gradually become autocrats. Though there are enough checks and balances to uphold democracy, they are crushed in a systematic manner, using legal means. The institutions that are supposed to protect democracy are subverted. How do they do it?

Suppose you are a franchise of an IPL team, in this case we shall call the team CSK, want to win the cup IPL 2022, by hook or crook. You can achieve your objective by following any of the following strategies or in combination.

Change the rules of game

You can change the rules of the game by planting your men as the CEO of IPL-2021, making his tail wag at you. This man would frame rules such that it benefits your team. For example, there will be ample gap between matches of CSK. The CEO would release a press note justifying why there is a gap only for CSK team, saying that the team being based in Chennai, needs more travel time to reach the match venue. An objective reason it may look, but we know the hidden reason. Remember the recently concluded West Bengal elections which were conducted in eight phases.

Buy referees and umpires

Then buy the referees and umpires. There are a lot of men involved in the conduct of an IPL match. Each one of them can be manipulated to be favourable to you. For instance, a third umpire in a close call for a run out can give any decision without much adversity. In those times, he will always give a favourable decision to CSK. Remember Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. Just a few days ahead of the elections, there were raids by law enforcement agencies at business interests of Opposition leaders and at a minority institution.

Play the mind game

Create an illusion in the minds of the public saying CSK being a formidable team under an able captain with the right combination of spinners, fast bowlers and fence clearers will lift IPL 2022. It gets reinforced by the Print and TV media that is already on your payroll. Hire famous sports personalities and cricket commentators to echo the same theory and arguments, creating a public perception. Once the public perception is created, the fence sitters on the day of election would cast their votes believing that there is a messiah who will wipe out corruption and bring back all the black money, eventually to be distributed to the general public.

Go after business houses

Finance being vital, the elected autocrats depend on business houses who supply fuel to run their election campaign. Undue advantages and largesse are extended to business tycoons by extending plum business contracts, allotment of land and other infra facilities at cheaper rates, license to exploit natural resources, tax relief, concessions, waiving of debts etc. If anyone refuses to comply with, the stick would do the talk. Democratic institutions like enforcement directorate, CBI, Income Tax department are pressed into service and they target those business heads who side with political opponents. Ignoring the warning given by President Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s wealthiest man then, was financing opposition parties. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 for tax evasion, embezzlement, and fraud. He was in jail almost for a decade. ‘Either you side with me or face extinction’ is the policy adopted by democratically elected autocrats. 

Go after opinion makers

These are film actors, famous TV personalities, writers, intellectuals, self-styled gurus, singers, pop stars, popular athletes etc. who enjoy a decent face value among the public. Carrots are thrown at them by way of plum posts, seats to contest election and enter Parliament or Assemblies, brand ambassadors etc. 

If they refuse to toe in, they are intimidated. If not these intellectuals and opinion makers align with the democratically elected dictators, it is good for them to remain neutral, otherwise they will face legal consequences. Internationally acclaimed Symphony Conductor, Gustavo Dudamel of the Bolivarian Symphony Orchestra was in good books of Hugo Chavez as long as he remained neutral. Chavez was benevolent towards him. The moment Dudamel criticized Chavez, he was taken to task. The government cancelled his planned National Youth Orchestra tour to the United States. Dudamel was helping nearly 7,00,000 low-income youth in Venezuela through his music-education programme. This was stalled. 

Go after critics and opponents

Yet another tactics followed by the assassins of democracy is to silence the critics and opponents. After making sure that those institutions that protect democracy are made to kneel down under his feet, he is at liberty in unleashing a slew of legal actions like income tax raid at the opponents to intimidate them. We know what happened to Prof. Romila Thapar and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Romila Thapar was shunted out of JNU and Sen withdrew his nomination for a second term as the Chancellor of the Nalanda University in Bihar. 

False propaganda

Once the media is bulldozed and intimidated, the democratically elected leaders indulge in false propaganda. Stories about the achievements of the ruling dispensation are aired repeatedly by the media. In the name of debates and discussion on TV channels, ideologically tilted opinion-makers make gullible public digest the news without knowing the facts. On the other hand, a lot of falsehood is planted about the political opponents.

Polarize society

After being appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, winning a series of elections, Hitler first annihilated democratic institutions. He put Germany into a ‘war state’, like the present dispensation at the Centre which is in ‘election mood’ 365 days a year. He killed millions of Jews, slaves, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witness saying they were impure, inferior, undesirable ‘with life unworthy of life’. He could not have done this alone. He had the active support of German Officers and Workers. 
Hitler divided people as Aryans and others. He fueled sentiments and emotions of Germans saying ‘New German Order’ and reinforced in the minds of Aryans that they were under constant threat so as to consolidate them. He conducted large rallies and meetings in huge stadiums.  He often played to the gallery saying things like ‘either victory of the Aryans or annihilation of the Aryans and the victory of the Jew’. He was a great orator too.

All through the history, the above photocopy strategies are being used by the democratically elected leaders who become autocrats and crush democracy. People’s memory may be short, but the history will record their misadventures for posterity. 

(Dr. G John is the Dean of School of Management Studies, St. Joseph’s College, Trichy, TN)

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