Home / Opinion / Columns /  Election results in the Americas show that democracy is resilient

The results of mid-term elections in the US last month were a big surprise. Most opinion polls and political pundits had predicted a Republican Party wave.

Yet, the Democrats obtained a clearer majority in the Senate, while the Republicans just about managed a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives. For Joe Biden and the Democrats, it is an unexpected victory, despite consumer price inflation running at its highest level in four decades. Indeed, this is the best mid-term election outcome for an incumbent US president and ruling party in two decades. The biggest loser was Donald Trump. Many of his handpicked candidates for the Senate, House and governorships were defeated. Moreover, of the Republican candidates for Congress, governor or secretary of state who rejected, questioned or declined to confirm the outcome of the 2020 presidential election that ousted Trump (the election deniers), almost two-thirds were defeated, as citizens voted to preserve the sanctity of elections in a political democracy. The Republican Party is now a divided house. Trump’s announcement to run for President in 2024 can only divide it further.

In Brazil’s presidential election held just a week earlier, Lula de Silva defeated the populist, authoritarian, far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. The surprise was the narrow margin. In Latin America, this was the most recent in a succession of similar election outcomes. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla turned leftist politician, was elected President in June 2022, defeating his populist-businessman rival Rodolfo Herandez, described as ‘Colombia’s Trump’. In Chile, Gabriel Boric, a former student leader who organized a massive protest movement, was elected President in December 2021, defeating the far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast, making him the youngest head of state at 35. The losers in these elections were all populist-nationalist-authoritarian leaders on the right or far-right.

These election outcomes in a few countries in the Americas might represent the beginnings of a fundamental departure from the recent past which suggested a growing disillusionment with political democracy across the world. Its origins can be traced to the era of markets and globalization, during 1980-2010, that led to prosperity for a few and exclusion for the many, with inequality rising sharply everywhere. This disrupted the smooth sail of globalization, as the world was confronted with mounting economic problems and political challenges.

Economies became global. But politics remained national. The ideological distinction between mainstream political parties, on both the right and the left, was progressively blurred as both converged to the middle in the belief that markets and globalization were forever, leaving citizens with almost no choice.

There was a political backlash in the form of resurgent nationalisms riding on populist or nationalist sentiments. In advanced countries, nationalist-populist political parties, or far-right xenophobic leaders, exploited fears about openness in immigration and trade as a threat to jobs. In developing countries, nationalist-populist political parties or leaders, challenged or ousted incumbent governments, exploiting ethnic divides, religious beliefs or rampant corruption. These leaders, whose political campaigns sought to exploit and mobilize popular discontents, were in fact elected by their people in countries across the Americas, Europe and Asia.

It was not long before the irony of this changed reality surfaced. Such leaders, elected through democratic processes, turned authoritarian and sought to undermine the foundations of political democracies that brought them to power, by changing constitutions, fixing elections, or refusing to accept election results. Democracy was, and is, at risk, not from monarchs or generals, but from leaders chosen by people themselves, who have done little, if anything, for people whose support they mobilized in their quest for office and power.

Of course, democracies can be manipulated or misused. This has happened in the past and will recur in the future. Yet, if political democracy exists, authoritarian leaders and governments are more accountable to their citizens than they would be without it. But, democracies can become choice-less for voters when or where there is almost no difference between the main contenders for power among political parties. In such situations, which were not uncommon in the recent past, people did elect demagogues disguised as populist leaders, who then subverted democracy. Yet, inevitable flaws and warts cannot be a reason for rejecting democracy or preferring authoritarianism. Democracy is obviously better than the alternatives, not only for the rights and freedoms it provides to citizens, but also for the checks and balances and the self-correcting mechanisms it provides for political systems when things go wrong.

Recent political developments and election outcomes in the Americas seem to suggest that this might be the beginning of the end of that phase when populist-nationalist-authoritarian leaders were elected by their people and ruled the roost. For one, their credibility is dented. For another, their authoritarianism is no longer acceptable to people as citizens of democracies. A week is a long time in politics. Yet, a better world appears possible.

The legacy of such demagogues will persist. The US and Brazil are now sharply divided societies. So are many others which have not yet witnessed change. The future that unfolds will depend upon the healing touch and political sagacity of the elected leaders who replace ousted populist-nationalist-authoritarians.

But recent political developments do highlight the resilience of democracy, its self-correcting mechanisms, and the power of people as citizens, even in difficult times.

Deepak Nayyar is emeritus professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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