Democracies around the world are experiencing a critical moment, due to institutional erosion, disenchantment with traditional politics and the rise of authoritarian leaders. In countries in all regions of the world we see warning signs that quickly lead to authoritarian regimes. However, as in medicine, these conditions can be diagnosed early. But it’s not like that.
Democracies, before “getting sick, reveal certain symptoms that, if analyzed in time, would allow us to anticipate the disease to prevent its advance. One of the symptoms that have been identified in different latitudes is the fatigue of democracies. In medicine, fatigue is defined as tiredness or reduced energy levels of a person. This, in terms of democracy, is expressed in electoral abstentionism, low levels of participation and the attraction to anti-democratic formulas.
Political participation is an indicator that society acts as elements to combat any authoritarian drive. On the other hand, the increase in abstentionism and the lack of enthusiasm with the political options is an alert that should not be ignored. Discomfort with democracy arises because citizens consider that it does not solve their problems in the expected way. This is the main symptom in Latin America and is becoming more worrying.
Populism is another symptom present in the region’s democracies that manifests itself through the appearance of leaders or parties that promise simplistic solutions to complex problems. These currents use anti-system, polarizing and aggressive rhetoric, which attracts sectors that are disenchanted with how the system works.
Populists argue in the name of revolution, transformation, or the people and accuse institutions of serving other interests. The populist perceives himself as the embodiment of the majority, he feels he has the right to impose his vision of the country and with it stifle plurality or attack those who think differently. First appearance of authoritarian pulses.
Populism arises as a response to the discomfort of the population with the institutions, parties and rulers. He enters the electoral path and plays by the same rules to degrade democracy from within, while the laws and institutions represent a brake on his national project, which leads to the next step: institutional erosion.
The institutions of a State are essential to keep the order and stability of the country. However, if they do not work efficiently, they become the object of criticism from society, which in turn weakens democracy. This is where populist rhetoric sharpens by proposing deep reforms with promises of benefits for society.
The threat to institutions is commonplace in Latin America. And it is that the modifications or reforms, which, in theory, must guarantee a better functioning and not be guided by ideological criteria are often tools for their own weakening. When institutions lose credibility, the outlook darkens and the virus of authoritarianism and concentration of power flourishes.
The division of powers allows the balance of the political system, but when this is broken, democracy is weakened. They can realize cases in which the Executive and the Legislative are integrated by the same party and this unifies the regime; others where, through reforms, the Executive is strengthened as Congress and the Court are weakened. In other cases, the Armed Forces are used to subdue other powers and, finally, if a power does not respond to the interests of the ruling party, officials are dismissed and new ones are appointed, in order to colonize spaces that do not respond to the interests of the Executive.
Reaching this point is the prelude to authoritarianism, since the institutional scaffolding has succumbed to a leader and, finally, he will be able to modify it without facing opposition. The progressivity with which it advanced arose from the context, as is currently being seen in several countries in the region. This factor can also be carried out from the hybridization of the regime to the formation of full authoritarianism.
In conclusion, being attentive to the initial symptoms of weakening democracy can allow us to address the problem in its initial stages and, thus, avoid further degradation. Otherwise, we will be exposed to the overthrow of democracy.
*Political Scientist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).