The riddle of ‘Elected Autocracy’

It is a leadership duly elected in a democratic electoral system but uses the power to ride roughshod over all existing norms


Political scientists are using the term ‘elected autocracy’ frequently to characterise a fairly widespread but puzzling phenomenon. A political leader who gets duly elected in a democratic electoral system but uses the power to ride roughshod over all existing norms and conventions, either to bend and twist laws or disregard the laws in place, in order to impose his will on the state and its people.

The point is if it is an accident or something in transition to something more unsettling. Powerful circles in many countries have come to regard democracy as a great hindrance in the way of fulfilling their intentions. These include powerful corporations and big finance. But they also come into close alliance with mass parties and groups holding furious anti-democratic ideologies starkly opposed to the very foundations of the democratic state. It stands to reason to conclude that such parties are interested in using the democratic system only to undermine and replace it. To put it blankly, it is a proto-fascist force that works to ruin democratic institutions and eventually install a fascist regime. For, given the dynamics of social and political life, the regime is driven to curbing more and more civil rights and throttling the press and dismantling democratic institutions. As Edmund Burke had presciently observed during his liberal phase, once force is used to suppress political dissent and opposition, there is no escape from using it more and more often.

It will be of some interest and significance to ask how such a ruling group holds on to and exercises power. Roughly, we can divide such countries into two sets:

(a) Those where such a group uses the army to suspend or eliminate all basic civil and political rights except the minimum required to carry on ordinary life. Needless to say, all political expression, discussion, not to speak of dissent and protest, are muzzled with force. At the slightest sign of unrest and disturbance, tanks roll out into the streets. No political challenge can survive in ordinary life and all opposition is driven underground. International condemnation leaves heads of such states unfazed.

Examples: Egypt, Brazil under Bolsonaro, some other Latin American and African countries, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Thailand as candidate members. It matters little that army generals alternate as political functionaries in such countries.

(b) Countries where ruling dispensations make active use of a popular support-base imbued with a given anti-democratic ideology, say like Islamism. The army is kept in reserve and public space is filled more with frenzied popular support for the regime.

Examples: Turkey with apparently fanatical support from swelling crowds on streets.

It is obvious that the background could be either aborted evolution of the state to democracy or regression from popular democracy owing to increasing poverty and misery of the common people who get disillusioned with democracy.

This is of course not a simple rectilinear advance or retreat. Democratic and anti-democratic forces are locked in a contest to seize State power with either one winning or losing out.

Where does our country fit into either of these two types?

The Constitution of the country has put in place many democratic institutions and upheld certain democratic norms and practices. There are also three quarters of a century of political struggle to uphold and expand the scope of democracy, of democratic political practice including more or less fair elections, governments that with certain exceptions have adhered to democratic norms. The struggle against the Emergency is looked back upon as a shining example of affirmation of people’s power against encroachments of a despotic government.

It is a matter of record that the advent and sweeping advance of neo-liberal economics in the policies of former third world countries have led to dissolution or abandonment of state-supported strong social security systems that ensured free or affordable education and health, and food security for the masses. It is these trends that disenchanted the distressed masses with the charter of liberal democracy. That allows the aspiring despots to suspend, weaken and dismantle its institutions and conventions. It also prompts them to bend existing checks and balances in exercise of power conferred by the Constitution and general elections.

The press comes under increasingly severe state scrutiny and censorship. Online communication also gets under routine surveillance and repression. Civil society initiatives once touted by supporters of the open market get brushed aside as bottlenecks in the progress of economic freedom. The judiciary also comes under the crushing weight of executive power. The doctrine of separation of powers is shredded by a succession of laws that extend the executive’s reach at the expense of the rest. Agencies enforcing the law start enforcing the rulers’ will. Sections of the public and the democratic parties cry foul and mobilize resistance. But they find arrayed against them hordes of blind supporters of the regime baying for blood. The question is whether and how much our country fits the slot. Readers decide for themselves.

The moment may be ripe for magisterial intervention of the judiciary. As in some historical moments in a nation’s history, it may come, never again. Never. This may not mean a lot of painstaking tinkering and repair. It goes deeper than that, calling for bold and radical decisions. There may well be laws that turn the constitution into a joke, practices that enable a complete rejection of the rule of law, crying out for redress for years and yet pending. And there is now scope for such resolute departure from meek evasion or postponement as the people get restive and bristle with anger. One feels it in the air. How will the honourable judges behave at this historic juncture? Will they watch the State tumble down the slope towards fascism in a mechanical conformity to the letter of the law or act to reverse the momentum? Justice, truth and humanity must become living realities, not fading memories. People like me may not live long enough to feel the breath of freedom turn into a healthy gust or wither under the scorching heat of an advancing desert. But there is no middle way left.

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

Other pieces by Dr. Hiren Gohain: 

Riddle of Assam elections 

Raging storm: People as flotsam 

War imagery turned upside down!



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