“How Democracies Die” (Part 2)

It is interesting how Levitsky and Ziblatt are on point with autocrats and authoritarianism.  They point out former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s rise to power as a case in point.  Fujimori is described as a demagogue.

Although some elected demagogues take office with a blueprint for autocracy, many, such as Fujimori do not.  Democratic breakdown doesn’t need a blueprint.  Rather, as Peru’s experience suggests, it can be the result of a sequence of unanticipated events — an escalating tit-for-tat between a demagogic, norm-breaking leader and a threatened political establishment.

The process often begins with word.  Demagogues attack their critics in harsh and provocative terms — as enemies, as subversives, and even as terrorists…Fujimori linked his opponents to terrorism and drug trafficking…These attacks can be consequential: If the public comes to share the view that opponents are linked to terrorism and the media are spreading lies, it becomes easier to justify taking actions against them.  

The assault rarely ends there.  Though observers often assure us that demagogues are “all talk” and that their words should not be taken too seriously, a look at demagogic leaders around the world suggests that many of them do eventually cross the line from words to actions.  This is because a demagogue’s initial rise to power tend to polarise society, creating a climate of panic, hostility and mutual distrust.  The new leader’s threatening words often have a boomerang effect.  If the media feels threatened, it may abandon restraint and professional standards in a desperate effort to weaken the government.  And the opposition may conclude that, for the good of the country, the government must be removed via extreme measures — impeachment, mass protest, even a coup.

They use a soccer game to explain to the reader on how elected autocrats can subtly undermine institutions.  To consolidate power, would-be authoritarians must capture the referees, sideline at least some of the other side’s star players, and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage, in effect tilting the playing field against their opponents.  

The referees are usually independent bodies that provide a check and balance in the democratic institution of the country.  They can be the judicial and law enforcement agencies of the nation.  It is, a referee’s job, after all, to prevent cheating.  If these agencies become controlled by loyalists.  Rights and the constitution violated.  Governments acting with impunity.

Capturing the referees provides the government with more than a shield.  It also offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies…

To entrench themselves in power, however, governments must do more — they must also change the rules of the game.  Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals.  These reforms are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favour of incumbents. And because they involve legal and even constitutional changes, they may allow autocrats to lock in these advantages for years and even decades.

These events do not happen overnight.  They are interplayed with other events in society that make the citizens lose track of what the real objective is.  For example, one can create a fictitious war or claim dissent and sow terror or economic crises and natural disasters in order to rationalise their next political moves.  Citizens are slow to realise that their democracy is being dismantled — even as it happens before their eyes.

We do not have to look at other countries as examples to how to kill a democracy.  Ferdinand Marcos is cited as a homegrown reality.

In 1969, after winning reelection to his second and final term in office, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines began to consider how he might use an emergency to extend his rule.  Marcos did not want to step aside when his second term expired in 1973, as the constitution dictated, so he drew up plans to declare martial law and rewrite the constitution.  But he needed a reason.  An opportunity arrived in July 1972, when a series of mysterious bombings rocked Manila.  Following an apparent assassination attempt on Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos, blaming communist terrorists, enacted his plan.  He announced martial law on national television, insisting somberly, “My countrymen…[this] is not a military takeover.”  He argued that “a democratic form of government is not a helpless government” and that the constitution — the one he was suspending — “wisely provided the means to protect it” when confronting a danger like insurrection.  With this move, Marcos ensconced himself in power for the next fourteen years.

Many constitutions allow executive power to be used during a crisis.  When civil liberties are threatened, elected autocrats will often need crises to stay in power.

There was a backstory to Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972: His “crisis” was largely fabricated.  Acutely aware that he needed to justify his plan to skirt the constitution’s two-term limit in the presidency, Marcos decided to manufacture a “communist menace”.  Facing only a few dozen actual insurgents, President Marcos fomented public hysteria to justify an emergency action.  Marcos wanted to declare martial law as early as 1971, but selling his plan required an act of violence — a terrorist attack — that generated widespread fear.  That would come the following year with the Manila bombings, which U.S. Intelligence officials believed to be the work of government forces, and the assassination attempt on Defense Secretary Enrile — which Enrile later admitted was “a sham”.  In fact, he said he was “nowhere near the scene” of the reported attack.

Constitutional safeguards are not enough to secure a democracy.  Even the most well designed constitutions fail.  With changing times, and circumstances, the constitution should be revisited every so often.

Note that the Philippines’ 1935 constitution has been described as a “faithful copy of the U.S. Constitution.”

Drafted under U.S. colonial tutelage and approved by the U.S. Congress, the charter “provided a textbook example of liberal democracy,” with a separation of powers, a bill of rights, and a two-term limit in the presidency.  But President Ferdinand Marcos, who was loath to step down when his second term ended, dispensed with it rather easily after declaring martial law in 1972.

The need to educate the people is a vital step in assuring that majority understand the meaning and value of democracy.  Dynastic rules in local governments are the most dangerous kind of power.  Perpetuating allies of the ruling party through dynasties kill democracy and a nation.  Unfortunately for us, no one in Congress or the Senate would be willing to throw the hat into the ring to show their sincerity in keeping democracy alive and well.  All rhetoric is spat into our face while back channeling happens within our very eyes.  After all, there is a saying that “what we don’t know won’t hurt us”.

Until it is too late.

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