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Ailing Democracies: Symptomatology of Authoritarianism

Democracies around the world are going through a critical moment because of institutional erosion, disenchantment with traditional politics, and the rise of authoritarian leaders. In countries in all regions of the world, we observe warning signs that quickly lead to authoritarian regimes. However, as in medicine, these ailments can be diagnosed in time. But this is not the case. 

Democracies, before they “get sick”, reveal certain symptoms that, if analyzed in time, would allow us to anticipate the disease and prevent its progress. One of the symptoms that have been identified in different latitudes is democratic fatigue. In medicine, fatigue is understood to mean tiredness or a reduction in a person’s energy levels. This, in terms of democracy, is expressed in electoral abstentionism, low levels of participation, and attraction to anti-democratic formulas.

Political participation is an indicator that society acts as an antibody to combat any authoritarian impulse. On the other hand, the increase in abstentionism and the lack of enthusiasm for political options is an alert that should not be ignored. Dissatisfaction with democracy arises because citizens feel that democracy does not solve their problems as expected. This is the main symptom in Latin America, and it is developing into other more worrying symptoms.

Populism is another symptom present in the region’s democracies that manifests itself through the appearance of leaders or parties that promise simplistic solutions to complex problems. These currents use an anti-system, polarizing, and aggressive rhetoric that attracts sectors disenchanted with the functioning of the system. 

Populists argue in the name of revolution, transformation, or the people and point to institutions as serving other interests. The populist perceives himself as the incarnation of the majority, feels entitled to impose his vision of the country and with it, suffocate plurality or attack those who think differently. First appearance of authoritarian pulses.

Populism emerges as a response to the discomfort of the population with institutions, parties, and rulers. It enters through the electoral path and plays by the same rules to degrade democracy from within, while laws and institutions represent a brake on its national project, which leads to the next step: institutional erosion.

The institutions of a state are fundamental to keeping the order and stability of the country. However, if they do not function efficiently, they become the object of criticism by society, which in turn weakens democracy. This is where populist rhetoric sharpens, proposing profound reforms with promises of benefits for society.

The threat to institutions is commonplace in Latin America. Modifications or reforms, which in theory should guarantee better functioning and not be guided by ideological criteria, are often tools for their own weakening. When institutions lose credibility, the panorama darkens, and the virus of authoritarianism and concentration of power flourishes.

The division of powers allows for the political system balance, but when it breaks down, democracy is weakened. There may be cases in which the Executive and the Legislative are integrated by the same party and this unifies the regime; others, where, through reforms, the Executive is strengthened as the Congress and the Court are weakened. In other cases, the Armed Forces are used to subdue the other powers and, finally, if power does not respond to the interests of the ruling party, officials are dismissed and new ones are appointed, in order to colonize the spaces that do not respond to the Executive interests.

Reaching this point is the prelude to authoritarianism, since the institutional scaffolding has succumbed to a leader and, therefore, they will be able to modify it without facing opposition. The progressiveness with which it advances will depend on the context, as it is currently being seen in several countries in the region. This factor can also lead from the hybridization of the regime to the configuration of full authoritarianism.

In conclusion, being attentive to the initial symptoms of democracy weakening can allow us to address the problem in its early stages and thus prevent further degradation. Otherwise, we will be exposed to the overthrow of democracy.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Political scientist from UNAM with a diploma in journalism from the Carlos Septién School of Journalism.


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