How to Stop a Democratic Free Fall When Populists Are in Power

How to Stop a Democratic Free Fall When Populists Are in Power
Indigenous people shout slogans during a rally at the Philippine Senate to mark Human Rights Day, Pasay, Philippines, Dec. 10, 2018 (AP photo by Bullit Marquez).

Since the mid-2000s, democracy has regressed in nearly every part of the world. The global monitoring organization Freedom House has recorded declines in global freedom for 12 years in a row. In Thailand, Bangladesh and Turkey, democracies have all but collapsed. Countries where democracy seemed to be making gains in the early 2010s, like Myanmar and Cambodia, have slid backwards, with Cambodia reverting to one-party rule. Some states where democracy was believed to be well-rooted, such as Poland and the Philippines, have regressed under populists with authoritarian tendencies. Their democracies have not fully collapsed but are in grave danger, as leaders pack courts, jettison judges and threaten the media.

In a recent article for The Washington Post, I outlined how hard it will be for these countries to rebuild free political systems. As a recent study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found, elected populists tend to hold office, on average, more than twice as long as elected non-populist leaders, giving them considerable time to undermine democracy. The same study found that some populist leaders often expand executive power dramatically and foster widespread corruption.

In fact, in states where autocratic-leaning populists are dismantling democratic foundations, democracy may be even harder to rebuild than in places in the past where old-school strongmen have simply crushed it. In part, this is because this new generation of elected populists, unlike junta leaders or other traditional autocrats, often continue to enjoy a degree of popular legitimacy, even if they eventually lose an election. Their corrosive impact on democratic institutions and norms can persist for years after they finally leave power.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.