How democracies die ... slowly | Inquirer Opinion

How democracies die … slowly

We totally agree with the thesis that autocratic rather than democratic countries are prone to do acts of aggression against other nations.

One can cite a recent example of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia — a decision made by only one despotic man, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In democracies, he would have to have the approval of congress or the parliament as this is a “de facto” declaration of war.


It is our good fortune, perhaps, however, that the latest count shows that of the 147 nations, only 21 (13 percent) are autocratic, 46 (28 percent) hybrid, and 96 (37 percent) are the so-called democratic.

However, a New York best-selling book titled “How Democracies Die” (Levitsky- Ziblatt) propounds the thesis that it is elected officials, (appearing democratic) outside of autocratic nations who slowly and insidiously cause many institutions to become dysfunctional and weaken democracy.


Intense partisanship degenerates into an existential conflict that favors those in power and decimates those who are not. This kills democracy but with the veneer of legality and constitutionality — that is why it is deemed more dangerous.

This is unlike during the Cold War when three out of four democracies that were deposed were done through coup d’état or military uprisings. Twelve democratic governments fell down during that period. Recent coups also happened in Egypt (2013) and Thailand (2014). The Edsa people power revolt, on the other hand, was used by the Philippines in 1986 to ease the strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr. into exile — a feat later copied by many Eastern European countries and led to the dismemberment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Today, even in the “cradle of democracy” like the United States, Americans saw for the first time in their horrified lives a demagogue President Donald Trump who would not accept the results of the recent polls and even encouraged a group of a bloodthirsty mob to storm Washington, with bad intentions in their minds.

Today, democratically elected leaders undermine the very system that had them elected by treating political rivals as enemies, media as entities to be controlled, and those who stand in their way emaciated.

“How Democracies Die” mentions countries like Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, and even Ukraine and the Philippines where democratic institutions are threatened by ruling governments themselves.

These moves go unfettered because no martial law is declared or a constitution suspended, so there are no wailing sirens or alarm bells being heard. In some areas, citizens successfully resisted the advances of elected autocrats—but they do not succeed all the time.

The attacks, according to the book, do not come in one swoop — but slowly, insidiously in the guise sometimes of national security, peace, and economic order.


Peru’s Alfredo Fujimori, for instance, bypassed Congress by issuing his own decrees, called oligarchs “corrupt” and judges “jackasses,” even as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tagged judges “communists.” For media, they were called by Ecuadorian President Rafael Corre a “grave political enemy that must be defeated,” while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan labeled journalists as “propagating terrorism.”

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban summarily replaced officials of the audit, the ombudsman, and the constitutional courts with his own “yes men.” While in the past, Argentina’s Juan Perón just replaced three of the four high court justices, today’s attack is more subtle: increasing the number of judges in the courts with allied personages to win majority rulings.

Media outfits often are targets of “buyout” with financial favors, and those opposing are steadily being weakened to the margins. Turkey’s Erdoğan defanged the opposing media outfit, which controlled 50 percent of the market with a tax case, even as Russia’s Putin absolutely brooks no dissent from any media outfit in Moscow.

Both Putin and Erdoğan are said to have used “emergency security crisis” to increase their power to decide unilaterally. In the modern-day pandemic times, we have seen leaders do the same to keep people subjugated and less prone to complaints.

One week into power, Putin reportedly gathered all the Russian oligarchs to his palace and told them to make themselves rich as much as they can as long as “they do not get involved in politics.”

Elsewhere, Venezuela kept iconic cultural organizations loyal by withholding or increasing funding with the same caveat not to use art as a weapon for political posturings. The authors also mentioned leaders changing the rules of the game to stay in power. They cited Marcos, seeing his second term ending in 1973, suddenly declaring martial law in 1972 and perpetuating himself in power up to 1986.

That is, indeed, how democracies die (without calling the army.).

* * *

Bingo Dejaresco III, a former banker, is a financial consultant and media practitioner. He is a Life and Media member of Finex although his views here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Finex.


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TAGS: Bingo P. Dejaresco III, Commentary, democracy
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