Democratic Backsliding: The New Wave of Politics

The scene of protestors rallying against their governments is far too familiar in the 21st century. The once-promising new democratic states of the world - such as Poland and Venezuela- are now often jammed in protests, calling for a return to democracy or rejecting the governments' vision regarding the future of the state. Populist and nationalist leaders from across the political spectrum sought after the highest public offices and while some succeed and others failed, political scientists and legal experts remain worried about the rebirth of Autocratization and Democratic Backsliding.

'Democratic Backsliding' is a disputed term due to the difficulty that comes along with detecting it in its early stages. According to Nancy Bermeo of Nuffield College, University of Oxford, democratic backsliding is "the state-led debilitation or elimination of the political institutions sustaining an existing democracy." The last five years demonstrated numerous examples of democratic backsliding and showcased a variety of strategies used to achieve it. Cases such as Poland, Hungary, and Venezuela are the most prominent, but, this article will focus more on the Polish and Venezuelan cases due to their ideological and strategic differences.

The processes in which democratic backsliding begins often share strategic commonalities. Populist or Nationalistic politicians run on a platform promising a return to a “greater state” and tend to attack the globalist political world we live in, accusing the international community of conspiring against their sovereignty. Due to the diversity of ideologies that fall under Populist or Nationalistic views, platforms might adopt a xenophobic or some sort of a radical discourse. This may include the usage of historical or religious context that is often fabricated or does not represent facts in order to appeal to a broader audience. 

Political scientists cannot simply give a verdict on whether a candidate or a party is pursuing an anti-democratic transformation of government because a candidate adopting a populist platform or call for centralization does not mean they are pursuing anti-democratic policies. Multiple states in the world run on a centralized system of government with populist majority parties and advanced democratic systems. The problem arises when the ruling party of a state starts to exploit the constitution or the judicial system to adhere to the party's agenda. This is when crackdowns, fines, and public attacks on essential institutions of the government or democratic system pursue. Usually, around this point, political scientists express concerns on whether a state is experiencing democratic backsliding leading non-governmental institutions and the international community to adopt policies pressuring such regimes from going any further in their violation of the rule of law.

Poland is arguably the best current example of democratic backsliding. In 2015, Polands’ right-wing party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), won a majority in both houses of parliament and the presidency after former Prime Minister Donald Tusk's coalition fell apart when he was elected as the EU Council President. PiS went on to attack or fine media outlets that spoke in opposition of the government, they packed the courts with justices loyal to PIS and fired judges if constitutionally permissible. Crackdowns on protests and the opposition became increasingly common. The EU commission invoked Article 7 of Treaties on the European Union over concerns that Poland was violating Article 2 of the same treaty, in which it is stated that members shall uphold “the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities." However, Hungary (also faced with concerns over democratic backsliding) refused to vote in favour of Article 7, forcing the EU council to seek solutions in the judicial court of the EU.

A demonstration organised by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) in front of the Sejm in Warsaw on Dec. 19, 2015. Photo courtesy of Adrian Grycuk via Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, Venezuela is often presented as the outcome of democratic backsliding. In 1999, populist politician Lt. Hugo Chávez was elected into power. During his reign of 14 years, Chaves stayed popular among Venezuelans. The oil price surge in 2004 boosted Venezuela's economy, helping Chávez in implementing the socialist policies he promised. However, Chávez's right-hand man, Nicolás Maduro's, who assumed power upon Chavez's death in 2013, policies and leadership struggled in 2014 after oil prices plummeted. Many of the previously subsidised products and services Venezuelans relied on became inflated to beyond what they can afford, and Maduro's rigging of the economy no longer helped the poor. In 2015 a coalition of opposition parties tried to impeach Maduro. He retaliated by pressuring supreme court justices to resign and swiftly appointing those loyal to him. The supreme court then proceeded to strip the opposition from its status in 2016, a move that proved daunting for Venezuelans who then took to the streets demanding respect for human rights and Maduro's resignation. While the ruling was revoked, the damage was done. Maduro then sought the most radical policies of democratic backsliding by creating a new national assembly with the power to rewrite the constitution. This move led to protests that continue to this day and millions of citizens seeking refuge in Colombia and neighbouring countries.

Venezuela protest on Oct. 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of Hugo Londoño, Flickr.

The Polish and Venezuelan cases were both brought upon by a populist/nationalist platform which at first sought to improve the conditions of the state. However, the turnout of both cases proved to be consequential and gave insight as to how political analysts should perceive populist politics in the future.

In a world filled with misleading news, it is increasingly difficult to raise awareness on the issue of democratic backsliding among the public. Democratic backsliding isn’t special to right-wing or left-wing politics nor is it special to a region. It is a strategy that could easily be adopted by a ruling elite. The media often ridicules concerns for such stories at the beginning for a “rough politician” but doing so was part of what led to the rise of authoritarian parties around the world.

The solution for democratic backsliding isn’t simple, as the problem stems from various issues: the constitution, politicians, the economy, or crisis. Noting the frequent occurrence of this phenomenon, it should be considered how our interconnected world can contribute towards this issue. Spreading stories of people who are affected by the phenomenon will allow for a better understanding of what is going on in our countries and how we can preserve the established institutions of democracy. This should encourage us to take part in the government and give a better perspective on the issues that the country is facing. It also helps keep politicians and public officials within the checks and balances put forth in our constitutions. Democratic backsliding can only be prevented by the engagement of the citizens in the government and the upholding of journalistic ethics by the media.

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