Democratic Backsliding versus Authoritarian Reversal

Illan Nam, Colgate University

Democratic backsliding appears to be sweeping across many countries in East and Southeast Asia. But unlike the more dramatic and far-reaching manifestations of democratic breakdown that took place during the Cold War era, classic open-ended coups or executive coups have been replaced by more muted variations such as promissory coups and executive aggrandizement. Rather than collapsing, democracies today are more prone to “careening.” A comparison of contemporary backsliding to older, classic breakdowns raises several important questions. First, are the new patterns due to the fact that, in light of the legitimacy that democracy gained in the ensuing decades, aspiring dictators are sensitive to conveying an image that they harbor democratic aspirations in order to buy their citizenry’s good will? Or do elites intervene in democracy in order to “right” the corruption of democratic institutions that they believe democratically-elected politicians commit? Second, what exactly do regimes now veer between? If regimes used to transition between dictatorship and democracy, do they now careen between elitism and populism? Third, contemporary cases of democratic backsliding reveals that the outcomes are not merely a result of conflict between the usual suspects – dictators and democrats – but often due to splits amongst the democrats themselves. This paper argues that in Third Wave democracies in East and Southeast Asia, as actors navigated the post-transition blend of new democratic institutions that mixed with those of the ancien regime, they settled into institutional positions that disposed them to identify with certain dimensions of democracy over others, which cohered with or supported their interests. As a result, their commitment to greater consolidation of democratic institutions was contingent upon whether these institutional positions were advanced or curtailed by different dimensions of democracy.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 34. Democratic Regression in Comparative-Historical Perspective