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Democracy in Trouble: The Era of Democratically Elected Dictators

Democracy in Trouble: The Era of Democratically Elected Dictators
Democracy in trouble... Photo by James-Paramecio

The political climate of the 21st century, only 16 years into its conception, has witnessed some of the most dramatic events all over the world in a way that has made the progression of history seem to take a violent u-turn. These incidents seem to be suggestive to some that we are living in the “twilight of democracy”, where that very ideal of modern civilization is threatened with extinction. While the attempted military coup in Turkey and military controlled governments such as in Myanmar and Thailand demonstrate the stark contrast between democracy and dictatorship, a growing number of countries are witnessing the rise of the ultra rightist political parties that come to power through the doors of democracy which is then threatened by them.

The commonality between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and Vladimir Putin in Russia, go way beyond their being the heads of democratically elected governments in their respective countries. They are responsible for taking its political discourse in the alarming direction towards an authoritarian, anti-democratic, ultra-rightist discourse often in the disguise of nationalist and populist sentiments. This gradual progression towards and the rise of the ultra-right is not restricted to these countries alone. The recent Brexit campaign which saw the exit of Britain from the European Union and the immense popularity enjoyed by Donald Trump in the US election campaign, point to the emergence and acceptance of Xenophobic, racist, communal prejudices in the larger public discourse. What is particular about these regimes and political campaigns is the immense popularity they enjoy amongst the masses.

The Narendra Modi government in India, since coming to power in 2014 has been accused of carrying out its Hindu fundamentalist, casteist, communalist propaganda where a growing sense of intolerance against religious minorities, dalits, and freedom of expression has gripped the nation. Any form of dissent or criticism against the government or its policies is termed “anti-national” and therefore punishable. The parallels between Modi and Hitler and the similarities between Germany in the 1930s and contemporary India are repeatedly drawn by historians and political observers alike. Similarly are the Erdogan and Putin governments in Turkey and Russia where in the case of Erdogan there has been an exercise of unquestioned power, promoting his own brand of Islamic fundamentalism and his constant attack against the Kurds, Gulenists, free speech and the media. Whether fascist, ultra-nationalist, or dictatorship, these political regimes are characteristically anti-democratic and surprisingly populist. The political campaigns of Brexit and Trump and the many nativist Right-Wing parties of Europe draw their strength from the mass mobilization and the immense popular support from the grassroots level.

So comes the question of how are these out rightly anti-democratic, autocratic regimes so popular with the majority of the masses? As Arthur Rosenberg writes in his seminal 1934 work, Fascism as a Mass-Movement, the Nazi Party that came to power in 1932 through a democratically won election which then subsequently controlled every aspect of German social life had a huge ideological backing from the masses. Fascism draws its influence from the reactionary mass movements which give vent to popular sentiments. Looking further closely we then see both social and economic reasons behind the tilt towards rightist populism. The neo-liberal policies adopted by the consecutive governments all over the world have had a drastic negative impact on their economies, a brunt that mostly affects its working class population. The large number of immigrant population to these countries and the economic policies of a conservative government that adopted hyper capitalist policies of privatization cuts in public funding and the retreat of the State from the market all contributed to the rise and influence of right wing political opportunism and ideology. As against the “threat” of the ethnic minorities to the political and cultural legacies of the Judeo-Christian civilization, these far right parties expanded their popular appeal by propagating the xenophobic ideology of “cultural and differentialist nativism” which seeks to give precedence, both economic and social, to one’s own citizens. A discourse of “culture” has displaced “race” as the dominant platform in which the secular, liberal values of European civilization are asked to be protected from the growing “threat” of ethnic minority culture, especially that of Islam.

What is overwhelmingly concerning about these “totalitarian democracies” is that they make democracy seems participatory which claims to give voices to the masses, speaking the “unspeakable” or the politically incorrect in public platforms while at the same time maintaining the existing social relations. Their brand of nationalism breads the ultra-patriotic, anti-leftist, racist and communalist ideologies that are disseminated onto the masses. Threatening the very core and ethics of democracy, these political movements can only be defeated by socially informed counter-hegemonic mass movements themselves.

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