Democratic devastationRising populism is an increasingly familiar reality in many democratic countries. As this wave of populism continues to gather momentum, It is difficult to predict what the future holds for democracies, but democratic destabilization seems a likely and perhaps inevitable result.
While it is well known that the history of populism is intertwined with important historical tragedies in some countries, it is less known how populists slowly but surely ruin democratic countries. Brazil, Italy and South Africa all provide clear evidence of how populism destabilizes democracies.
In these three cases, populists clearly dragged their countries down into a path of political decay. The governments of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil (2003-2011), Jacob Zuma in South Africa (2009-2018) and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (2001-2006, 2008-2011) all reveal important lessons about the inevitable costs incurred when populists gain national control.
Lula, Zuma and Berlusconi, independent from their political and ideological orientation, share similar trajectories and characteristics. They were each elected politicians who abused their authority after attaining the top leadership positions in their respective countries. Their abuse of power came in the form of manipulating the state for private gain, leading to long-term disastrous political and economic consequences. The ultimate result of handing the reins of national power over to these elected populists has been the weakening of democracy.
Brazil was thrown into an unprecedented economic and political crisis in 2014 when a huge corruption scheme started to be slowly uncovered — a consequence of the legacies of Lula. South Africa began to face significant democratic setbacks in 2011 when Zuma started to clearly put self-interest before national priorities, thereby leading to the country’s massive loss of credibility. Berlusconi emerged in the Italian political scene in the 2000s in the middle of an institutional paralysis that was only further exacerbated in subsequent years with his deliberate attempt to govern in favor of his business empire, which gave Italy the derogatory nickname “the sick man of Europe.”
Populists gradually destroy democracy in three ways: delegitimizing public institutions, challenging the rule of law and polarizing societies. This lethal combination of strategies essentially pushes countries into democratic crises.
The antagonistic style of populists leads them to delegitimize public institutions. Lula, in order to defend himself in the face of growing evidence of his involvement with the largest corruption scheme ever uncovered in Brazil, openly attacked judicial institutions. Zuma destroyed the reputation of sound institutions such as the Ministry of Finance and the National Treasury by appointing close friends to the highest posts in these institutions. Berlusconi did not think twice about passing several laws that directly benefited his business ventures.
As devoted plutocrats, populists often defy the rule of law as they try to cover up their wrongdoings. Lula did not hesitate to put himself above the law by obstructing justice through his political aids as evidence mounted that he was one of the architects of a billionaire corruption scheme involving the public oil company. Zuma left office facing no fewer than 16 charges of corruption, fraud and money laundering, including at least 783 payments associated with a massive arms deal. Berlusconi was a master at illegally financing his political party, falsifying accounting at his businesses and avoiding taxes. All of this was done while he avoided prosecution by bribing judges.
Populists often detest opposition, and one way they try to marginalize opposing viewpoints is by highlighting and deepening existing divisions to further polarize society. Lula was quick to activate a divisive discourse of left versus right as his direct involvement in the corruption scheme became clearer. Zuma turned against his own party and galvanized factionalism, thereby tearing apart the social fabric that was critical in forging the “Rainbow Nation” in the post-apartheid era. Berlusconi used his media empire to sway public opinion in his favor and threatened the careers of journalists who publicly criticized him.
It has become painfully clear that as political projects of populists fail, they leave behind a trail of democratic devastation. As a result, public trust in government and the commitment to representative democracies have been declining.
In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center that asked if democracy is working, few citizens in Brazil, Italy or South Africa have a positive impression of their democracies. In Brazil and South Africa, the percentage of those who have a very strong perception that democracy is working decreased by more than half from 2013 to 2017 in both countries, reaching an alarmingly low 3 percent among Brazilians and 15 percent among South Africans. In the case of Italy, the perception that democracy is working is very strongly supported by a mere 2 percent of Italians, which is the lowest figure among Western European countries.
Brazil, Italy and South Africa are still coming to grips with the negative effects of populist leadership and the ways their democracies were forced into unrecognizable landscapes. Sadly, the democratic future of these nations today still looks fragile and tenuous as they struggle to understand their experience of democratic destabilization and find a path forward.
Hélder Ferreira do Vale
* The author is a professor at Hankuk University’s Graduate School of International and Area Studies.