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How authoritarian regimes threaten democracies

Dominique Reynie
Dominique Reynié
Professor at Sciences Po and Director General of the Foundation for Political Innovation
Key takeaways
  • Today democracies are in a “perilous situation” due to the recent political, climate and health crises.
  • The notion of democracy is constantly evolving, now being redefined around several approaches such as illiberal regimes, climatic, and technophile.
  • Democracies must compete with non-democratic systems that are equally or more successful and very prosperous.
  • Technology is used by authoritarian regimes to inject division and chaos into democracies, or to remove large amounts of information.

War in Ukraine, glob­al warm­ing, the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic… Recent events are mak­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes more frag­ile. As such, they are cur­rent­ly in a “per­ilous sit­u­a­tion”, accord­ing to Dominique Reynié, Direc­tor Gen­er­al of the Foun­da­tion for Polit­i­cal Inno­va­tion, which con­duct­ed a sur­vey on democ­ra­cy in 55 coun­tries. Despite a clear attach­ment of cit­i­zens to this mod­el, “demo­c­ra­t­ic states must with­stand inter­nal crises and del­i­cate change that can desta­bilise their foun­da­tions”, explains the polit­i­cal scientist.

You have stud­ied democ­ra­cy in 55 coun­tries. How would you define this regime? 

Democ­ra­cy is a sys­tem based on a prin­ci­ple and a mech­a­nism. The prin­ci­ple is pop­u­lar sov­er­eign­ty, and the mech­a­nism is the appoint­ment of gov­er­nors by the gov­erned. In the his­to­ry of democ­ra­cy there are two main lines of thought. The first leads to the view that the only full democ­ra­cy is assem­bly democ­ra­cy, where the peo­ple meet, delib­er­ate, and decide with­out a rep­re­sen­ta­tive. The sec­ond is rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment, elect­ed through com­pet­i­tive elec­tions, which is what we expe­ri­ence today in lib­er­al democracies. 

There are strong polit­i­cal issues at stake in the way democ­ra­cy is defined and the way the term is appro­pri­at­ed. Chi­na describes itself as a “social­ist democ­ra­cy”, for what purpose? 

Like almost all notions used in pol­i­tics, def­i­n­i­tions are rid­dled with con­flicts of inter­pre­ta­tion. Chi­na speaks of a social­ist or Chi­nese way of democ­ra­cy, which is an alter­na­tive con­cept, because there is a glob­al bat­tle to see which pow­er can lead the world and from which mod­el. Like the “social­ist democ­ra­cies” in the past, it is a way of say­ing that there is anoth­er form than West­ern – and more par­tic­u­lar­ly, Amer­i­can – democ­ra­cy and there­fore a way of chal­leng­ing the world order. 

Has the notion of democ­ra­cy evolved over the course of his­to­ry? Are we now wit­ness­ing new attempts to rede­fine democracy? 

Democ­ra­cy has nev­er stopped evolv­ing, even as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment, whether it be through the exten­sion of the right to vote, the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of elec­tions… Today, we can see sev­er­al pos­si­ble ele­ments of evo­lu­tion. First­ly, the shift from our lib­er­al plu­ral­ist regimes to “illib­er­al” regimes, such as that of Vik­tor Orbán in Hun­gary. Illib­er­al­ism is a democ­ra­cy with elec­tions, but with­out respect for the rule of law (ques­tion­ing the inde­pen­dence of judges and the media, vot­ing sys­tem favour­ing the re-elec­tion of incum­bents, etc.). 

Nowa­days, there is also the dis­course of a “beyond democ­ra­cy” based on the imper­a­tive to pre­serve the envi­ron­ment. Since cit­i­zens are sus­pect­ed of vot­ing as con­sumers, it is imag­ined that elec­toral democ­ra­cy will be aban­doned and replaced, for exam­ple, by a sys­tem of draw­ing lots. 

A third ele­ment of evo­lu­tion may be a technophile approach. At the begin­ning of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion rekin­dled the hope of a pos­si­ble return to direct democ­ra­cy, and the birth of the web ignit­ed the dream of inter­net vot­ing. It is less preva­lent today because oth­er issues are now at stake: hack­ing, espi­onage, inequal­i­ties, vote buy­ing, pres­sure on vot­ers’ homes…

In your study, you men­tion the cur­rent “per­ilous” sit­u­a­tion of democ­ra­cies. What is the state of the regime in the world today? Is the mod­el real­ly being called into ques­tion in an unprece­dent­ed way, even with­in demo­c­ra­t­ic countries? 

Democ­ra­cy is a frag­ile regime by its very nature. Cohe­sion requires the sup­port or con­sent of the gov­erned. We are wit­ness­ing his­toric phas­es of social trans­for­ma­tion. Since Chi­na’s entry into the WTO, glob­al­i­sa­tion has pro­vid­ed emerg­ing pow­ers with con­sid­er­able resources. We must there­fore deal with coun­tries that are not democ­ra­cies, which is not new but that are pros­per­ous, which is unprece­dent­ed. Whilst the USSR was not pros­per­ous, Chi­na is a total­i­tar­i­an coun­try capa­ble of rapid enrich­ment, and of a cre­ative intel­li­gence that no longer needs to be demon­strat­ed. We are there­fore in a dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal phase, where democ­ra­cies must com­pete with non-demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tems that are just as good or even bet­ter – depend­ing on the comparison. 

We must deal with coun­tries that are not democ­ra­cies, which is not new, but that are pros­per­ous, which is unheard of.

Fur­ther­more, democ­ra­cies face mul­ti­ple inter­nal crises. These regimes are exposed to nat­ur­al but com­pli­cat­ed migra­to­ry move­ments, involv­ing cul­tur­al upheavals that can desta­bilise them. These states remain pros­per­ous, but they are fac­ing com­plex changes. Pop­u­la­tions have aged, social sys­tems are becom­ing more expen­sive. The para­me­ters of some sys­tems, such as pen­sions, are being changed at the risk of pro­vok­ing major protests.

Despite these issues that are com­mon to lib­er­al democ­ra­cies, the coun­tries of north­ern Europe seem to stand out because of the pos­i­tive per­cep­tion of their sys­tems and insti­tu­tions. Can you explain this?

North­ern democ­ra­cies are more con­sen­su­al: they spend less and hold their elites more account­able. They also have less promis­ing and there­fore few­er dis­ap­point­ing sys­tems, based on par­lia­men­tary coali­tions, and not around a leader elect­ed by direct uni­ver­sal suf­frage, which is sup­posed to solve many of our prob­lems. These are some of the ele­ments of under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ences. One could also men­tion oth­er eco­nom­ic or cul­tur­al aspects, i.e. expla­na­tions that involve Protes­tantism or the place of trade, for example.

Author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries are active­ly try­ing to over­throw demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes. This is not new, but tech­nol­o­gy plays an impor­tant role today. In what way and with what tools? 

These non-demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries, enriched by glob­al­i­sa­tion, are much more pow­er­ful, and more con­fi­dent. They clear­ly aim to redis­trib­ute pow­er on a glob­al scale to the ben­e­fit of emerg­ing coun­tries, which are gen­er­al­ly author­i­tar­i­an. The action is car­ried out through indus­try and trade, but also by influ­enc­ing the soci­eties them­selves. More­over, rela­tions are asym­met­ri­cal, since the Russ­ian and Chi­nese sys­tems are closed. Con­verse­ly, we are open soci­eties, and there­fore eas­i­er to pen­e­trate: the Rus­sians, for exam­ple, are try­ing to influ­ence var­i­ous elec­tions around the world. As for the mobile appli­ca­tion Tik­Tok, it is clear­ly a Chi­nese tool for pen­e­trat­ing the West­ern pub­lic space. Tech­nol­o­gy can thus inject divi­sion, chaos, and var­i­ous move­ments, as well as bring up data, and extract large mass­es of infor­ma­tion from it.

Will the war in Ukraine change the per­cep­tion of democ­ra­cy much? 

In the face of Russ­ian aggres­sion, we could have had a col­lapse of democ­ra­cies refus­ing to lose gas and oil. Yet, this was not the case. Democ­ra­cies proved more resilient than we thought: they were able to coor­di­nate, to face up to the sit­u­a­tion and to turn around. NATO is expand­ing. Indeed, there is now a clear democ­ra­ti­sa­tion process in Belarus and Ukraine. Rus­sia is also show­ing this evo­lu­tion, with young Rus­sians who are grad­u­ates and who aspire to more plu­ral­ism, a freer press, hon­est elec­tions… This is what, I think, has caused Putin to be alarmed, to the point of want­i­ng to break up this eman­ci­pat­ed neigh­bour, com­mit­ted to the West­ern path of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy and NATO.

How do you see democ­ra­cy evolv­ing? What are the issues that could cause demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tems to fal­ter in the future? 

My the­sis is that demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes would not with­stand a sus­tained expe­ri­ence of mate­ri­al­ist regres­sion. Democ­ra­cy has been estab­lished in peri­ods of progress. If the process is par­tial­ly reversed, with more expen­sive edu­ca­tion and health care, lat­er retire­ment, etc., I don’t know how democ­ra­cy will fare. Does this mean that we have mourned the pass­ing of an era of plen­ty? It is not certain. 

Demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes would not with­stand a last­ing exper­i­ment in mate­ri­al­ist regression.

Anoth­er issue is the cli­mate ques­tion. Giv­en what is at stake, the pub­lic poli­cies announced are not there for five years but de fac­to for­ev­er. I don’t see how democ­ra­cies will man­age to get peo­ple to accept a form of eter­nal degrowth. How can we ask cit­i­zens to elec­toral­ly rat­i­fy the aban­don­ment of cer­tain sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits, with­out ever being able to ver­i­fy the results of their efforts or sac­ri­fices? Democ­ra­cy needs short or medi­um-term per­for­mance. At present, attempts are being made to explain that these can no longer be guar­an­teed: this is the appear­ance of a major sys­temic prob­lem that threat­ens the sur­vival of the demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem, which is based on the con­sent of the governed.

Interview by Sirine Azouaoui

Pour aller plus loin :

« Lib­ertés : L’épreuve du siè­cle – Une enquête plané­taire sur la démoc­ra­tie dans 55 pays », Parue en jan­vi­er 2022, disponible sur le site https://​www​.fon​dapol​.org/​e​t​u​d​e​/​l​i​b​e​r​t​e​s​-​l​e​p​r​e​u​v​e​-​d​u​-​s​i​ecle/

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