In the mid-1970s democracy seemed to have fallen to an all-time low. In Latin America, two of the most successful democratic stories, Uruguay and Chile, were violently overthrown by military coups in 1973, while only two years later Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India, cancelling a general election and eliminating the most basic civil freedoms.
Hence, when in 1974 the ‘Carnation Revolution’ took shape in Portugal, there was not only profound uncertainty regards to the possibility that it would have a democratic outcome, but no scholar even imagined that the event would become the starting point for so-called ‘third wave democracy’ to quote the very well-known words coined by the famous American political analyst Huntington. In just three decades, 83 authoritarian regimes were unseated in various regions of the world, resulting in an unprecedented spreading of democracy. In 2002, for example, according to a report by Freedom House, there were 86 countries that could be classified as ‘free’ and another 58 as ‘partially free’. According to data provided by the scholar Milan Svolik, while amounting to 75% of all countries in 1972, non-democratic regimes had fallen to 39% by the mid-2000s.
One of the reasons that explains the spread of democracy starting in the 1970s, was the growing inability of authoritarian regimes to legitimise themselves as alternative and possibly better models. Such inability was based mainly on the failure of the 20th century’s great ideologies on which many authoritarian regimes had built their fortunes. Thus, while between the two World Wars other ideological models competed for the sceptre of democracy, in the 1970s the situation had changed profoundly. Fascism had been defeated and delegitimised by World War II; following the Second Vatican Council (1961-1963) the Catholic Church was embracing positions far more in tune with democratic rules, and the middle classes – which had often been the reference point for right wing authoritarian regimes in southern Europe and Latin America – were becoming far less inclined to accept to be deprived of their political and civil rights. Finally, the tragic conclusion of the “Prague Spring” in 1968 with the invasion of Soviet tanks and events in the years that followed, resulted in the October Revolution’s motivating power becoming increasingly weak and then definitively annulled by the Eastern bloc’s disintegration and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
In conclusion, it was evident during the Nineties that the “spirit of the times” was decidedly in favour of democracy, while authoritarian regimes had lost all their appeal and were therefore obliged to legitimise themselves as forms of transition governments and aimed at achieving small scale objectives. In brief, democracy was attractive and synonymous with progress.
The democratic crisis
What remains of all this about a decade after the ‘third wave of democratization’? Are we experiencing a democratic reflux and a new assertion of authoritarian models? There are no simple answers to such questions in view of the existence of a complex situation that does not lend itself to one unambiguous interpretation. The last report published by Freedom House in 2016, however, is not encouraging. Although the percentage of ‘free’ countries basically remained unchanged over the past decade – falling from 46% of the total in 2005 to 44% in 2015 – there are many worrying trends to be reported, such as, for example, the fact that for the tenth year in a row freedom in the world has diminished. On this subject, what is even more significant is that 2015 was the worst year of the decade, with 72 countries showing a decline in political or civil liberties and that, on the contrary, only 43 reported progress. In addition to these figures, there are, however, a number of easily identifiable movements that may be summarised as a degree of ‘tiredness’ experienced by long term democracies and the renewed attention-seeking behaviour shown by ‘new’ and ‘old’ forms of authoritarianism.
Starting with the global crisis that began in 2008, the appeal of consolidated democracies has declined significantly. This is partially the effect of the economic storm that affected the United States and Europe with particular virulence. Even worse, however, there has been the growing perception that the institutions of these countries were incapable of providing effective solutions for a crisis that has contributed to bring discredit on the manner in which the democratic system works tout court. The social malaise that has affected significant segments of the population in consolidated democracies then often found political solutions in movements and political groups that show a degree of disinterest – if not even open hostility – as far as democratic procedures and values such as equality, respect and tolerance are concerned. These values that are the natural humus of liberal-democratic regimes. Democracy seems therefore to have lost its own driving force, not only in attracting non-democratic regimes to its own field, but also in being perceived as the best and most efficient system in those countries in which it seemed to have planted solid roots. The case involving Hungary is emblematic. After having been filed away as one of the most positive cases of democratisation in the Nineties, the country has recently experienced a significant deterioration of political and civil liberties, slipping into the group of so-called ‘illiberal democracies’. The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has caused a similar level of fear, as has Great Britain’s isolationist move in voting to leave the European Union.
Alliances between regimes
The second disquieting signal is the renewed lack of scruples shown by authoritarian regimes on the international chessboard. News reports in recent years have in fact shown us how, especially at a regional level, old and new authoritarianisms are trying to affirm their own interests with great determination and vigour. In specific contexts, authoritarian regimes have reached the point of creating real reciprocal support networks, sharing, for example, their own experiences in containing protests. The case of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is probably the best known. Informally led by Saudi Arabia, the GCC consists of six petro-monarchies in the Middle East, known for their extremely low ratings as far as political and civil rights are concerned. Other authoritarianisms have instead shown a renewed capability for military offensives, as manifestly proved by Russian intervention in Syria. Of course the authoritarian regimes present on the world stage are not united by a common ideology, and are often instead rivals as proven by the continuous tension between Riyadh and Tehran. At the same time, the absence of a world rigidly divided into opposing ideological blocs has made the waltz of alliances decidedly less organic and more unpredictable. The winds of war that blew between Erdoğan’s Turkey – now definitively fallen to join “non-free’ countries’ – and Putin’s Russia, have rapidly made way for renewed cooperation, while, after a promising honeymoon, the marriage between the Egyptian army and the Saudi princes seems to have touched an all-time low in recent months.
As seems evident based on all said so far, most authoritarian regimes are rentier states – they largely depend on the extraction and sale of raw materials (hydrocarbons in primis). The most important exception is certainly China; the only example combining a stable form of authoritarianism with a productive and competitive economy. It is probable that it will be the future dynamics followed by Beijing that will mainly determine the outcome of the battle between democracy and authoritarianism. Should the creeping and evident contradictions of China’s impetuous development overflow into a victorious democratic movement, the countercoup for other authoritarian regimes could be significant. Should, on the contrary, the continuous rise and affirmation of China as the first global economic power not spark a democratization process, its authoritarian status would become a model for many.
All in all, it really seems that the match is still very open, with democracy, in spite of everything, continuing to benefit from a superior legitimacy. At the same time, the gap between models appears to have been greatly reduced over the last decade and the fall of a consolidated democracy would be the most tremendous countercoup for the democratic cause. On this subject, it seems that countries in the European periphery will be the most interesting and important test in the coming years.
Translated by Francesca Simmons