The recent Democracy Summit, presented by the Biden administration, was intended to be a constructive event. But the virtual rally of 111 governments took place against a worrying backdrop. Freedom House, which monitors political freedom, has recorded a contraction of global freedom in each of the last 15 years.
The global “democratic recession” is now well entrenched. But things could improve in 2022. Some high-profile strongman leaders, now associated with the erosion of established democracies, may lose power.
Three leaders whose political destiny hangs in the balance are Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. They are all important figures worldwide. Bolsonaro leads the largest country in Latin America. The Philippines has a population of over 100 million people. And Orban’s vocal advocacy of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary has made him a hero to the Trumpian right in America. His erosion of the rule of law also led to a confrontation with the European Commission.
Of the three, Duterte’s departure is the most assured. The Philippine leader’s efforts to have the constitution amended to allow him to serve a second term as president could not be supported – and he will retires after election in May. As president, Duterte led his country on a dark path. The International Criminal Court is investigating its “war on drugs”, in which thousands were killed. The Philippine leader also persecuted journalists and opposition politicians.
The fact that Duterte is the most likely successor Bongbong Marcos, son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, must temper expectations. Marcos’ running mate is Sara Duterte, Rodrigo’s daughter – so the current president will still be an influential figure. But his departure from the presidential palace will give the Philippines a chance to get rid of the worst excesses of the Duterte years.
Now that Angela Merkel has stepped down as German chancellor, Viktor Orban is the longest-serving leader in the EU. But polls suggest he may may lose to an opposition coalition, in elections next April. The Hungarian strongman’s strict control over the media and state institutions may tip the field back in Orban’s direction. There are also lingering questions about whether he will accept an election defeat – or try to challenge it by using Trump-style claims of fraud and foreign interference. But there is at least a good chance that Orban’s decade-plus in power may soon come to an end.
It also looks like Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics”, will face electoral defeat in Brazilian presidential election In October. Worryingly, Bolsonaro is already preparing the ground to contest an election defeat by alleging fraud. There are even fears that he may try to bring about a military coup, rather than accept a defeat at the hands of his old rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula). But Brazil has been a democracy for more than 35 years now. The country’s institutions are likely to be able to withstand a Bolsonaro-led assault.
A fourth strongman leader who seems increasingly shaky is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish president will only have to face an election in 2023. But unbridled inflation, and economic mismanagement, mean it looks weaker than it has for many years.
Over the next 18 months, therefore, it is conceivable that four of the world’s prominent strongman leaders may lose. This possibility alone should be an antidote to pessimistic fatalism over the global democratic recession.