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Over the past decade, illiberal populist leaders from across the political spectrum have won elections and taken power in many of the world’s biggest democracies, from the United States to India, the Philippines, Turkey and Brazil. Once in office, they have often undermined democratic norms and institutions, including the media, the judiciary, the civil service, and, in many cases, free and fair elections themselves.
The rise of illiberal populism is a major reason why the annual “Freedom in the World” reports, published by the global watchdog organization Freedom House, have charted fourteen straight years of global democratic regression. (I serve as a consultant for several chapters on Southeast Asia in these reports.) The Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent Democracy Index found that global freedom was at its lowest point since the index was started in 2006. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in further harm to democracy worldwide, as many illiberal leaders, particularly in developing countries, have taken advantage of the crisis to crush political opposition and grab more power.
Donald Trump is among the first, and most prominent, of this recent wave of populist leaders to lose an election and leave office—albeit not without putting up a fight. Other populist leaders, like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, still appear to be gaining power and popularity. But Trump’s defeat in last November’s presidential election offered some hope to proponents of democracy and the rule of law. Now that he is out of power, can the United States restore the democratic norms and institutions that Trump badly undermined during his presidency? The histories of other countries that ejected their illiberal populist leaders do not give great cause for optimism, but their examples also suggest that American democracy is not doomed.
The United States retains stronger democratic institutions than some other countries where populist strongmen rule today, like the Philippines, Brazil, Hungary, Mexico or Poland. Still, damage has been done. In an earlier study of populists leaders’ impacts on democracies, I found that many countries once ruled by illiberal populists, like Italy after Silvio Berlusconi, struggled mightily to put their political systems back together. Instead, they often wound up with permanently shattered norms that gave rise to a new wave of populists. In the case of Italy, an aging Berlusconi no longer wields much influence, but he has been succeeded by two powerful populist parties: the left-leaning Five Star Movement, which currently governs as part of a coalition, and the right-wing League, the largest opposition party.
Indeed, populist leaders often play upon the idea that their country’s government is so broken that only a strongman can solve its problems. Even after they are ousted, the resulting lack of trust in government often lingers in many citizens’ minds.
As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein has argued, a more mainstream leader who comes to power after a period of populist rule often becomes a kind of placeholder, unable to govern effectively because of obstreperous opposition and deep polarization. Quoting the political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe, Klein observes that “populists don’t just feed on socioeconomic discontent. They feed on ineffective government—and their great appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective through their own autocratic power.” This is why traditional politicians who replace populist leaders are often unable to govern effectively, which creates opportunities for populists to feed on that ineffectiveness and return to power. It is a timely lesson for President Joe Biden.
But there are some reasons to be optimistic, as well. As I noted in a World Politics Review article in 2019, one factor that determines whether countries can rebuild after a period of illiberal rule is whether citizens took steps to reinforce checks on executive power during the illiberal leader’s time in office.
In the United States, for instance, municipal and state-level governments served as powerful bulwarks against Trump’s overreach, as did the media and the country’s independent judiciary, despite its conservative leanings. The limits these institutions placed on Trump during his time in office will make it a bit easier for the Biden administration and its supporters to restore democratic norms and institutions.
In addition, by limiting Trump to only one term, American voters laid a critical piece of the foundation for restoring democracy. In many cases, illiberal leaders compete in a relatively level playing field when they first seek reelection, but then move to co-opt electoral institutions, making it harder for voters to enact change at the ballot box. For instance, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won his second term in office, in 2010—he had earlier served in the top job from 1998 to 2002—he did so in a relatively free and fair election. But each subsequent round of polls after 2010 proved more slanted in his favor, as Orban used extensive gerrymandering and many other tools to make it virtually impossible to defeat his Fidesz party. Finally, in 2020, with the pandemic raging, Orban seized emergency powers to become all but an outright dictator, assuming near-total control of the government.
Russia, a more extreme case of illiberalism, is another example. When President Vladimir Putin first ran for reelection in 2004—he won his first full term in 2000 after serving in an acting capacity for several months—the election process, though not truly democratic, was somewhat contested. At the least, it was more contested and vibrant than later Putin-era elections, which were complete shams.
Other historical examples show that it is possible to rebuild democratic norms and institutions after a period of illiberal rule, even if it is a steep road back. South Korea, for instance, witnessed abuses of power, intimidation of political opponents and a wave of high-level corruption scandals under the conservative President Park Geun-hye, who took office in 2013. She was impeached in 2017 and forced from office amid vibrant and peaceful street protests that helped encourage a democratic restoration. Park was subsequently sentenced to thirty years in prison on charges that included bribery, extortion and abuse of power, though the sentence was reduced on appeal to twenty years.
In the immediate aftermath of her impeachment, South Korean activists and civil society groups mobilized to advocate for anti-corruption measures and transparency in government. Park’s successor, the more progressive President Moon Jae-In, won the 2017 election vowing to fight corruption, make government accountable and level the economic playing field. He has faced criticism from some commentators for politicizing the judiciary, limiting the speech of some conservative organizations and commentators, and trying to govern autocratically, using his Democratic Party’s majority in the legislature to hastily pass consequential laws. But the South Korean electorate has remained energized, keeping the pressure on Moon to follow through on his promised reforms.
South Africa is another instructive example. After the disgraced President Jacob Zuma stepped down before the end of his term in 2018, amid massive corruption allegations, a revival of democratic norms and institutions has come from the top as much as from civil society and the public. Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has made restoring South African democracy a central theme of his presidency, although he has struggled to deliver on that promise given the scale of South Africa’s problems following Zuma’s tenure. Still, Ramaphosa has attacked corruption within the ruling African National Congress, reduced politicization of the police and judiciary, and promoted ways to build national consensus and reduce polarization.
There are lessons to be drawn from all of these examples as the United States repairs the damage from Trump, and as other democracies face their own potential breaks with populists. In the Philippines, where presidents are limited to a single six-year term in office, the historically popular Duterte’s rule will end in 2022. But his illiberal brand of leadership and his record of flouting democratic norms may live on if he is succeeded by his daughter, Sara Duterte, or another illiberal populist who gains his stamp of approval. For now, Sara Duterte claims she has no desire to run in the 2022 elections, and her father has said he does not want her to, as the presidency is “not for a woman.” Similarly, Brazil’s president, the far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, will be up for reelection in 2022.
In all of these countries, the next election may be critical for any hope of maintaining democracy. But even if illiberal populism is defeated once at the ballot box, history suggests it is buried in a shallow grave.