It wasn’t very long ago that staging a coup d’état meant bringing out tanks into the streets or launching a massive popular revolt to topple one government and replace it with another.
But that is so 20th century.
What happens now is much more gradual, but no less effective. Complacency is costly. Early moves demand a firm response.
Modern-day would-be dictators don’t overthrow another government. What they do is take over the system of government. As we have seen from autocrats — from Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela to Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and others currently in different stages of this process — the secret is manipulating the democratic norms, wearing them down to a thin shell, a cosmetic shield that contains only the wrecked remnants of democracy.
Their stories offer an anthology of cautionary tales filled with useful information for people who want to save their states from a similar fate.
The autocrats move in and slowly start dismantling the system. First, they win an election, then they begin discrediting the opposition, smearing and undercutting the free press, inventing “enemies of the people,” at home to undercut critics’ claims. Foreign threats are also helpful, especially if the autocrats can claim they have allies lurking within the homeland.
Accusing the opposition or the media of being part of an “elite,” or a “deep state” allows an autocrat to paint those who point out problems as having ulterior motives. This keeps the public from heeding their arguments and their warnings. Then, the autocrat and his team systematically dismantle the independence of the judiciary and, ultimately, the rule of law.
Before long, the democratically or pseudo-democratically elected leader is indistinguishable from a dictator. By the time most people realize what has happened, it’s too late to push back. In fact, by then, the leader, in full control of a false narrative, may also be enormously popular. A government of, for, and by the people becomes all about protecting the rule of one individual or party, plus cronies.
That is, unless the people notice the warning signs early and act to prevent it.
Maintaining popular support is not always possible, especially when economic mismanagement is as disastrous as what the Venezuelan people have endured. Under the rule of President Nicolas Maduro, the economic catastrophe has reached unimaginable depths. It is far worse than the Great Depression, magnified by out-of-control crime. Still, Maduro, who was anointed by the late President Hugo Chavez, is doing whatever it takes to keep himself and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela in power.
Last weekend’s election of a constituent assembly, clearly fraudulent, aimed at perpetuating the party’s control. Opposition leaders are in prison, the independent media has been crippled by a law banning news that “foments citizens’ anxiety,” or “disrespects authority.”
And the Supreme Court, like practically all other institutions, works at the behest of the President.
The process in Venezuela has its own local traits but it closely resembles what we’ve seen in other countries where autocrats have emerged from a democratic cocoon, only to crush it.
Consider Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has held power since New Year’s Eve 1999. He systematically took over all the levers of power. Those who dared challenge him faced horrific fates, from imprisonment in Siberia, as his critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky endured, to mysterious deaths, such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who in 2006 was murdered in her apartment on Putin’s birthday after reporting on corruption.
Putin, like Erdogan and Chavez, benefited from massive improvements in economic conditions earlier in their rule. That helped cement a core of loyal followers.
But Russian voters didn’t want to see their democracy stolen. When fraudulent parliamentary elections in 2011 gave control of the parliament to Putin’s United Russia party, they held the largest protests since the fall of the USSR. Three months later, Putin won his third presidential election.
By then, Russia was well underway to complete domination by Putin. From his earliest days he moved to take control of the media and the message. State television, the main source of news for 90% of the population, became a government propaganda outlet. Independent media was gradually snuffed out. The opposition has been largely muzzled, the judiciary is no longer independent, and true democracy is a fading dream.
It’s not unlike what happened in Turkey, where President Erdogan, who has governed Turkey since becoming prime minister in 2003, recently staged a constitutional referendum consolidating power. International observers lambasted the process as undemocratic. But Erdogan won, setting in motion a process that turned the once-figurehead presidency into the center of executive, legislative and judiciary power. What more could an autocrat want?
Erdogan accelerated his power grab after a 2016 coup he called a “gift from God.” He used it to destroy what was left of a free media, shuttering outlets, imprisoning critical journalists, firing more than 100,000 people from their jobs, and arresting tens of thousands of teachers, police officers, and government workers under the pretext that they supported the coup.
Autocrats everywhere have taken note of the successful new method, but so have citizens who don’t want to let the process reach its conclusion. In Poland, a recent attempt by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to take over the judiciary triggered such massive protests that the largely ceremonial president decided to veto the controversial law, a move that surprised even jubilant democracy activists.
In countries where democratic institutions have deeper roots, such as the United States, anyone seeking to undermine the system faces much higher obstacles. Besides, with such an anthology of available examples, an autocrat aiming to consolidate power has now lost the element of surprise.