Lost Your Democracy? How Long Will It Take to Get It Back?
We don’t know exactly what will happen after January 20, 2017. This could turn out to be an ordinary election in which I’m disappointed in the outcome but not a Game Over moment in terms of liberal democracy. I do expect we’ll know pretty quickly after Inauguration Day whether or not we in the United States can count on the constitutional rights that we have come to take for granted, and whether rule of law will be replaced by “the law is what we say it is.” In any case, I intend to continue this blog, bearing witness for readers in the U.S. and around the world and recommending books that enhance intercultural understanding and reflect a commitment to human rights. I will also let readers know what’s going on with my own books, including the two forthcoming translations from Portuguese that have much to say about the current situation — Henriqueta Cristina and Yara Kono’s Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World), coming from Enchanted Lion at the end of February, and Davide Cali and Marco Somà’s The Queen of the Frogs, coming from Eerdmans in March.
I’ve read online that the average time it took for an elected leader in the 20th century to suspend the rule of law and install himself as a dictator was four months. Granted, there were very few cases, but in the previous century, it was clear from the start that Hitler, Mussolini, and Dollfuss were not ordinary conservative politicians. In the current century, we’ve seen a more gradual erosion of civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law in the cases of Putin and Erdogan, and Erdogan, elected prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014, waited for an attempted coup to crack down completely, though the seeds of despotism had already been planted years earlier. Duterte in the Philippines, has moved far more swiftly after promising he would kill 100,000 “criminals” in his first six months of power if elected. (What kind of country would elect a leader who promised to kill 100,000 people? Never mind…)
I decided to follow up the online estimate of speed of crackdown with a little research of my own. How long did it take in the 20th century for freedom loving people to get their democracy back after it had been lost? I had a few more countries to work with because I didn’t restrict myself to ones in which the people elected a dictator. The
11 12 countries I included had an elected government before the dictator came to power (which leaves out some of the most notorious authoritarian regimes like the USSR) and were not invaded and occupied by a foreign power (as was much of continental Europe in the 1930s and 1940s), though in most cases their democracies were short-lived.
The Spanish Republic, for instance, was in power for five years from 1931 to 1936 before General Franco’s troops started the Spanish Civil War. The Weimar Republic in Germany, imposed by the Allies after the First World War, held onto power for 15 years before Hitler became Chancellor of a coalition government that he immediately dissolved. In contrast, only two countries in my survey, Chile and Uruguay, had a history of democracy dating to or before the 20th century, but they had various short periods of dictatorship and chronically weak opposition parties even before the era of the Dirty Wars in the 1970s and 1980s. One country, the Philippines under Marcos, followed the same pattern as Erdogan of an elected leader who declared himself dictator after an attempted coup.
In all, four countries (Italy, Germany, Austria, the Philippines) elected the man who would, sooner or later, impose a dictatorship. Spain’s dictatorship followed a three-year civil war that also served as a proxy war between Germany and Italy on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. Two countries, Portugal and Argentina, lost their weak democracies to military coups with little or no outside help, and in three other South American countries — Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay — the military had various levels of support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Greece, the birthplace of democracy, experienced a military coup with alleged U.S. interference, but U.S. involvement had been more or less ongoing since the country’s bloody civil war following the end of World War II.
I included South Africa in my survey even though the country continued to have elections after the Nationalists became the dominant party in 1948 because of the disenfranchisement of the majority non-white population, which suffered repression as onerous as any dictatorship, and because of the statutory weakness of the opposition. In many ways, I see the South African case, and the weakened state of the Progressive Party due to voting restrictions and restrictions on civil liberties, as a model for what may happen to the Democratic Party in the U.S.
So the number: 21 years. Yes, on average, it took 21 years for democracy to return to formerly democratic nations that had lost their freedom for any reason except invasion and occupation by a foreign power.
In general, the briefest dictatorships were ones in which the country got into a war and lost — Argentina (7 years) in the Falklands/Malvinas War, Greece (7 years) in a proxy war with Turkey over Cyprus, and the Axis Powers (12, 12, and 21 years) in World War II. In only one country, Portugal, did a military coup end a dictatorship, and that was after 48 years and a low-grade colonial war that was bankrupting the country and driving hundreds of thousands of young people to emigrate. In Spain, the dictator’s death led to democracy — after 37 years. All of the other countries had a negotiated end to absolute or one-party minority rule following years of violence (Philippines, 14 years), economic failure (Brazil, 21 years, Uruguay, 12 years), and/or boycotts (South Africa, 52 years), and in the case of Chile (17 years), a plebiscite in which Pinochet ran as the only candidate and lost.
Lost your democracy? Getting it back takes a very long time, and the sacrifice of the entire population. In the next few months, we need to stay vigilant and do everything we can to keep this from happening in the first place.
[Note: Updated 12/6/16 to add Greece to the list.]