In April, aided by massive gerrymandering, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling coalition crushed opposition in Hungary’s national elections, claiming a supermajority in the parliament. The prime minister — who had used two prior terms in office to dominate media outlets, alter electoral rules so that urban areas were massively underrepresented and seize control of the top courts — moved to further consolidate his power. He is pushing Central European University, a leading academic institution backed by George Soros, whom Orban has demonized, out of Hungary. He also might further alter the country’s constitution.
Autocratic populists like Orban — leaders who win democratic elections and then undermine democratic institutions and norms without becoming outright dictators — have gained control of Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela and Poland, among other nations, in recent years. While these leaders continually pit “the people” against supposedly corrupt elites, they often still hold free (if not always fair) elections. But in office, they act autocratically to unwind the conventions and institutions of democracy. This distinguishes them from populists (such as incoming Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, those who have recently run Greece and a host of other politicians in the West) who embrace populist economic messages and even the elite-popular divide but still mostly work within democratic constraints and rules.
Charismatic autocrats are making headway in other parts of Eastern Europe and Asia, too, and they have an analogue in President Trump. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has waged an extrajudicial drug war with thousands killed, filed criminal charges against a leading investigative journalist and overseen the jailing of prominent opponents, including two sitting senators. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put more journalists in prison than in any other nation, fired government workers he perceived as hostile, and locked up thousands of academics, political activists and other opponents. Brazil’s president-elect, former army officer and congressional backbencher Jair Bolsonaro, is another potential populist autocrat who pledges to ban opposition party members and imprison a rival candidate.
Because many of these countries were, until recently, vibrant democracies, analysts and locals often insist that their political systems will ultimately survive autocratic populism and that their democracies are resilient. Even in places where populists have already severely damaged freedoms, opinion leaders say democracy can be restored after those leaders leave. Prominent Turks whisper to Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations that, after Erdogan exits the scene, Turkey can rejoin the “club of democracies” and rebuild its political system. In the United States and globally, political scientist William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, “this is no time for panic” about the survival of liberal democracy. “Established democracies have weathered far worse,” says James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. A major report by the Center for American Progress dismisses the fear that democracy is “a lost cause or that the global tilt toward illiberalism is irreversible.”
These assertions are probably wrong. Autocracy can end, and democracy can be born afterward. But autocratic populists around the world have been honing their ability to poison democratic institutions and norms. Once they’re gone, it is incredibly difficult, perhaps in many cases impossible, to bring them back.
It’s easy to understand the reflexive optimism: Few want to predict the suffocation of democracy, especially since in many ways autocratic populists are less repressive than the extreme tyrants who ruled countries like Germany, Chile and Spain in the past. A comprehensive new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Democracy Fund surveys democratic regression and supposed renewal, using a range of examples from the 1930s onward. It zooms in on countries like Italy and Argentina, which passed through eras of populism led by Silvio Berlusconi and Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Extrapolating lessons for the United States and other nations, the report notes that rebuilding democracy is arduous and hardly guaranteed, but that countries can potentially heal the wounds left by powerful executives who attacked it.
Yet a look at a broader set of case studies suggests that, in many states, real recovery is very tough. Take Thailand, one of the first countries to be hit by this wave of autocratic populism, with the election of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. Before his ascent, Freedom House rated the nation as “free”; the country boasted a vibrant media, a robust civil society and an increasingly independent judiciary. Then came Thaksin, who intimidated the press, oversaw a wave of extrajudicial killings and weakened the independence of the judiciary, among other steps. Seventeen years later, and despite Thaksin’s exit as a political candidate in 2006 after a military putsch against him, Thailand has undergone two military coups and is now rated by Freedom House as “not free.”
Even in Argentina and Italy, it’s hardly clear that democracy is on the mend. Three years after the Kirchner era in Argentina, which saw the Kirchners politicizing the Supreme Court and giving themselves powers to rule many areas of government by fiat, the post-populist government of President Mauricio Macri has made little headway in restoring the status quo ante. Macri wants to separate prosecutors’ duties from those of judges, among other changes to strengthen the courts, but the legislature has often checked his attempts. In Italy, Berlusconi is no longer prime minister, but other populists — the Five Star Movement and the League — now run the government. They say they want to deport Roma, and they have spread propaganda about migrants and other issues.
It’s true that some countries have shaken autocratic governments. From Indonesia to Spain to Germany, countries have overcome outright authoritarianism — military rule, primarily — and built solid democracies. Germany, for instance, constructed a postwar democracy on the ruins of totalitarianism. But in these places, there was a relatively clean break with the ancien regime. In Indonesia, a large share of the population united to topple the dictator. Occupying forces and local populations eventually eradicated remnants of German Nazism and Japanese fascism.
But more recent populist regimes haven’t ended with a rupture or a reversion to democracy. Former autocratic populist leaders can still have strong bases of public support, as Yascha Mounk of New America has observed in these pages — unlike former dictators such as Indonesia’s Suharto or Spain’s Francisco Franco at the time of their ouster or death. In some cases, the populists can use this persistent adoration to return to power. Thaksin, for instance, remains a key player in Thai politics, and his party still wins at the polls even though he has not held office in more than a decade; it is apparently favored in next year’s elections, too, if these elections, overseen by a junta, are free and fair. And as Mounk notes, although Berlusconi and his coalition were defeated in 2006, they roared back and took power in 2008. They lost it again in 2013, but the party remains a major force in Italian politics.
Another problem is that, while in power, democratically elected tyrants can permanently alter institutions. In Turkey, as Cook points out, Erdogan and his party have so deformed the judiciary, parliamentary oversight and the election process that it will be extremely difficult for future leaders to reform the system and fashion any type of real democracy. This differs from the situation of purer post-authoritarian states: Where there were genuine revolts, where fully autocratic governments fell, their replacements could build judiciaries and political systems with integrity from scratch. Germany fashioned a more decentralized political system after the Nazi era, and Indonesia did the same in the years after Suharto.
Weakened institutions and shattered civic norms leave an opening for other populists to rise — or for opponents of the populists to fight back with even more undemocratic methods, like the coups that ousted Thaksin and, in 2014, his sister and successor. In Venezuela, some Hugo Chávez opponents welcomed a failed 2002 coup, and in Turkey, opponents of Erdogan tried to oust him with a coup in 2016. Citizens who lose faith in democracy and turn to antidemocratic tactics to oust populist leaders grease the slide toward permanent authoritarianism.
The populists also poison the media and other sources of information, making it harder for democracy to recover. They undermine fact and reason, promote magical thinking, depress faith in independent media, and sap trust in voting in ways that make it hard for future elections to be seen as legitimate, as Tom Pepinsky of Cornell University argued after some U.S. politicians called the midterm voting fraudulent. According to The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, Trump has made about eight false claims per day since the beginning of his presidency. Orban has consistently spread conspiracy theories about Soros and other supposed predators. Poland’s autocratic populist government also routinely encourages conspiracy theories.
The evisceration of the media and fact-based discourse alters politics permanently — and is different from what happens in truly authoritarian states that move toward democracy. In outright authoritarian nations, citizens often know that state media and populists are lying to them. So when a true autocracy falls and independent media emerges, citizens often have faith in the newly free media and are enthused about voting. In bastions of autocratic populism, on the other hand, there’s less hope for recovered trust. This is especially true where voting is demonized. “When electoral procedures lose popular legitimacy, it is nearly impossible to get that legitimacy back,” Pepinsky writes.
During long periods of true autocracy, especially in countries that have never experienced democracy, faith in democratic systems fares well. In part, this is because people can idealize a political system they haven’t yet tried. Across the Soviet Union, for instance, citizens often saw Western democracies as models to emulate. In Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, there was broad and deep optimism about the future of democracy, reflected partially by high voter participation and other popular engagement in the political process. (A Pew Research Center study last year further found that people in Indonesia harbored a strong commitment to democracy.)
In Thailand in the 1990s, after years of autocratic and military governments but before the rise of autocratic populism, citizens were similarly optimistic about democracy. They showed an outpouring of interest in the progressive, pro-democracy 1997 constitution.
But autocratic populists erode faith in democracy itself — a faith already damaged in many countries by the failures of democratic politicians to deal with issues like inequality, migration and weak worker protections. In a recent poll from Axios and Survey Monkey, for instance, only half of American respondents said they had confidence in democracy as a political system. Similar declines in faith in democracy can be seen in several hotbeds of autocratic populism. In the Philippines, although public support for democracy is still moderately strong, half the population now has a favorable impression of “rule by a strong leader” — someone who does not really care about democratic niceties. As autocratic populists win power in more and more countries, this erosion of support for democracy is the future.