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Commentary: Threats to democracy come from within, even in the United States

Bill Emmott (Mainichi)

Is it a series of coincidences, based on differing national circumstances, or is there some global theme or cause? The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil's new president forces us to think about this question. For in the case of President Bolsonaro, as with Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines more than two years ago, we see voters choosing freely to elect "strongman" leaders who stand opposed to some of the fundamentals of democracy itself.

President Bolsonaro is an especially shocking example for the liberal, or pro-democratic sensibility. He has expressed praise for the military leaders who ran Brazil for more than two decades up until 1985, a phase of the country's development most people -- including most Brazilians -- thought had been consigned to the past.

Three successive Brazilian presidents have been charged with corruption, the second, Mrs Dilma Rousseff, impeached while in office. Prosecutors and judges have become heroes in Brazil for successfully and fearlessly investigating a huge corruption scandal involving scores of politicians and public officials, originating in a powerful construction company, Odebrecht, which is also known to have been bribing officials in many other Latin American countries.

This "Operation Carwash," as the investigation has become known, looked like a triumph for the institutions of Brazilian democracy and the rule of law. Yet now it has culminated in the election of a new president who often expresses scorn for that same rule of law and for the judiciary itself.

It is rather as if the apparent "people power" that accompanied the impeachment and removal from office of President Park Geun-hye in South Korea last year had then been followed by the election of someone praising the tough governing style of her late father, the military dictator Park Chung-hee. But that didn't happen, of course: instead the moderate, left-leaning President Moon Jae-in was elected.

So let us return to the opening question: is President Bolsonaro part of a global trend or is he a result of particular national circumstances? Certainly, the list of strongmen is getting longer: President Duterte in the Philippines; Prime Minister Orban in Hungary; President Erdogan in Turkey; Vice Prime Minister Salvini, the dominant and anti-immigrant partner in Italy's coalition government since June; and of course President Trump himself, the man who has repeatedly pledged to build a wall to keep out migrants on the U.S. border and promises to send troops to block a big group of Honduran refugees currently marching through Mexico.

Many analysts' strongman lists also include President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China. Those two are certainly both authoritarians, and as the leaders of nuclear powers with global reach they are also influential. But their cases are really different: President Xi has never pretended to be democratically elected, and while President Putin does do so, no one is really fooled.

It is the strongmen who have been democratically elected who should concern us more, for if they represent a global trend then we could eventually see similar tendencies in our own democracies. Both President Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Orban of Hungary have used their electoral victories to extend their power over their countries' media and judicial institutions so as to make subsequent victories easier. Our worry should be that strongmen leaders in the United States, Europe or Japan might succeed in doing the same, destroying democracy from within, with the active consent of voters.

There is, I think, one common theme that connects these cases. It is fear and stress. President Bolsonaro's success can be explained by the extraordinarily high levels of violent crime in his country, which also lay behind the rise of President Duterte in the Philippines. A basic role of the state is to enforce law and order, by establishing and maintaining a monopoly of the use of force. When that breaks down, with the agencies of law and order seen to be both corrupted and incompetent, it is understandable if voters are then tempted by alternative, tougher solutions.

The stresses and fears prevalent in Italy, Hungary and, over a longer period, Turkey, are different: they include economic strain, some religious concerns that affect the sense of national identity, and sudden large flows of immigrants. But the perceived failure of previous administrations to respond to the fears and stresses of voters do lie behind the free choice of governments that may end up restricting citizens' freedoms. And of course in the case of President Trump, the legacy of the 2008 global financial crisis and fears that go with perceptions of America's declining global power add up to an explanation.

Yet alongside these cases with a common theme we must also place the many countries in which fear, stress and the discrediting of old regimes has not led to the choice of strongmen: Malaysia, for example, in its election this summer of the 93-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamed, or South Korea, or France with President Emmanuel Macron chosen in 2016, or the crime-ridden, highly violent Mexico, where the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will take over as president next month.

To choose safety at times of fear is a natural human instinct. It is also natural to assume that tough actions of law enforcement or the suppression of criminality will apply to other people and not to yourself. That is the mistake citizens have often made when countries slipped from democracy into dictatorship, as Germany did under Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, following his victory in an election.

What we should worry about is not so much a global trend but rather a very human danger, which always risks making democracy weak. But we should worry even more about trends in the world's single most important democracy, the United States, for that country remains far more influential, both for good and ill, than either Russia or China.

The signs during the first two years of the Trump administration are that the rule of law and the checks and balances that famously defend the U.S. Constitution remain strong. Yet with Congress's midterm elections about to occur on Nov. 6th, with a major investigation by former FBI Director Robert Mueller into alleged lawbreaking by the Trump campaign due to conclude during coming months, and with the campaign for the 2020 presidential election about to begin, we should not be complacent about this. The battle for democratic principles and the rule of law has to be re-fought every day, even in the United States of America. (By Bill Emmott)

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