Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismantled democratic institutions that limited executive power, says the writer. File picture: Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismantled democratic institutions that limited executive power, says the writer. File picture: Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP

The rising tide of authoritarian populists

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jun 11, 2020

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Across the world democracy is under threat. The rise of authoritarian populists have destroyed some of the most fundamental precepts of democracy.

Independent voices have been silenced, journalists gagged or called enemies of the people, and the rights of minorities cruelly violated.

The right of people to peaceably assemble and petition their governments for redress of grievances has been met with vicious brutality by security forces.

Populist leaders have invoked protests and riots only to crush them with an iron fist, and justify their moves to curb basic rights and freedoms and weaken democratic institutions.

The violence does not incubate in isolation, and the response of these leaders is seldom one of reconciliation or empathy. Their approach is to dominate and parade as strongmen who apportion blame to the truth-tellers, the ordinary people who try to make their voices heard, and to those who express their political opposition.

State media has become the mouthpiece of the authoritarian populists.

Where independent media exists, it is demonised as the purveyor of fake news. In this slide towards authoritarianism it has become difficult to defend democracy. We need to watch for the signs of populist leaders orchestrating assaults on democracy, which can be identified in six categories.

The most blatant is the seizure of executive power. The more subtle indicators are: spreading disinformation, quashing dissent, politicising independent institutions, amassing executive power, delegitimising communities and corrupting elections.

In the US, many of the warning signs have been there. The Department of Justice has been politicised, federal agencies filled with loyalists, those who were disloyal have been purged, there has been retaliation against the critical media, and a foreign government has been coerced into digging dirt on a political opponent.

Hungary, a model of democracy in the 1990s, has gone to even greater extremes since the rise of Victor Orban as prime minister in 2010.

Orban dismantled democratic institutions that limited executive power. He dominated the electoral commission, weakened the courts and limited press freedom. He suspended parliament and is ruling by decree. Those who Orban said spread false rumours on social media faced jail time.

Turkey, once considered a flowering democracy, has become a country led by a government that is intolerant of dissent. It is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, and the executive has taken over the largest print and broadcast media agencies and turned them into government mouthpieces.

Those who are considered political opponents have been designated as terrorists and tortured in the tens of thousands.

The depths of despair in civil society in Turkey is unparalleled. Those even loosely affiliated with perceived government opponents are thrown in prison, vilified, their assets and their families surveilled.

Freedom is elusive for many in Turkey. Our only hope is that men and women of conscience across the world are speaking up.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media group foreign editor

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