Though much has been written about the wave of authoritarian populist leaders who have swept into power around the world in recent years, most are not actually fully authoritarian yet. They may seek to undermine and weaken democratic institutions, but until they can fully consolidate power, these leaders still need and crave democratic legitimacy. Some recent developments have provided encouragement that democratic institutions can still function the way they’re supposed to, and that liberal political forces are showing some signs of life in several tipping-point countries.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP suffered a major setback in local elections on Sunday, amid widespread dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy. The AKP lost control of the capital, Ankara, for the first time since the party’s founding in 2001. Final results in Istanbul, Erdogan’s hometown, are still being disputed, but the mayoral candidate from the opposition CHP party appears to be in the lead. Results could still shift, as the AKP is alleging voting irregularities, and its worth pointing out that the CHP, which ruled Turkey for decades under a military-backed one-party system, does not exactly have impeccable liberal credentials. But it’s still encouraging that even after the passage of constitutional amendments to expand the president’s powers, the imprisonment of thousands of Erdogan’s opponents, and the shuttering of much of the country’s critical media, some degree of normal, competitive democratic politics is still possible in Turkey.
In Brazil, recently elected far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is finding out that running the country is more difficult than attacking the people running it. Bolsonaro gleefully courted controversy throughout his presidential campaign with his praise for Brazil’s Cold War-era military dictatorship and attacks on racial minorities, LGBTQ people, feminists, the media, and environmentalists. But his approval ratings have taken a dive since January as his administration has been consumed with infighting and his inability to pass a key pensions system overhaul. Bolsonaro has frequently been compared to Donald Trump for his brash outsider style, but he seems to also share the American president’s penchant for appointing friends and family members to key positions as well as an inability to compromise with opponents. His combative social media style may be starting to wear thin—a mocking tweet about “golden showers” during Carnival left many Brazilians unamused.
In Europe, mainstream conservatives may finally be drawing the line at some authoritarian excesses. The European People’s Party, the center-right grouping in the European Parliament that includes France’s Republicans and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, voted on March 20 to suspend the membership of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party. The EPP still hasn’t expelled Fidesz, as many activists have called for, but its failure to take any meaningful action until now served to legitimize a party known for its xenophobic rhetoric, ill treatment of migrants, and authoritarian attacks on the media, civil society, and academia.
Finally, in neighboring Slovakia, the presidential elections that concluded last weekend showed that liberals can also play the outsider politics game. Slovakia’s first female president will be Zuzana Caputova, an environmental lawyer and political newcomer who ran on a pro-EU, anti-corruption platform. Her rapid rise was fueled by public anger and mass protests over last year’s killing of an investigative journalist and his fiancée. The far-right’s candidate was defeated in the first round of voting two weeks ago. In the runoff, Caputova defeated a veteran diplomat who made a last-ditch attempt to appeal to far right voters and paint her as an “ultra-liberal” for her support of gay rights. It didn’t work, and her election bucks a trend in the region after recent right-wing victories in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
With closely watched elections coming up this year in Ukraine, Israel, and India, not to mention next year in the United States, these examples are worth keeping in mind. Would-be authoritarians often stumble not because they are overthrown in a mass uprising, or are impeached, but because they’re not very good at the normal tasks of governance, fail to deliver to the people who put them in power, or lose to opponents who simply have better arguments to make about the future of their countries.