Home / Opinion / Columns /  Illiberal democracy has taken on epidemic proportions

Politics in the 2020s is much stranger than fiction. This week, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the infamous dictator of the Philippines deposed more than three decades ago after millions took to the streets of Manila to protest corruption, looked set to win the presidency by a landslide against the experienced incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo. Even by the standards of fake news, Marcos Jr’s supporters have set a new gold standard. Using YouTube to live-stream his rallies, they have variously claimed that the Marcos era of the 1980s was characterized by high economic growth and that Marcos’s election was foreseen by Nostradamus.

Making a virtue even of corruption allegations against his late father, who was accused of taking billions of dollars from the country’s treasury, rumours have spread that his election will allow a stash of gold obtained from a royal family to be shared with the wider population. As the Americanism goes, you cannot make this stuff up. Years ago, a Facebook executive described the Philippines as “patient zero" in the global disinformation wars, as the New York Times (NYT) observed last week. But coming on the heels of two terms of strongman rule by Rodrigo Duterte, whose daughter Sara will be Marcos’s vice-president, Marcos’s win marks a new low in the spread of illiberal democracy. It is exactly 25 years since Fareed Zakaria warned about the rise of illiberal democracies in a lead article for Foreign Affairs magazine. Zakaria was referring to leaders with a despotic bent winning free elections and establishing governments with little regard for the rule of law. Over the past several years, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Donald Trump in the US, Recep Erdoğan in Turkey and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have been symptomatic of this trend.

Given this dispiriting backdrop, cynics might argue there is nothing unusual about Marcos’s thumping election victory. But illiberal democracies are now an epidemic. It is hard to remember a British prime minister who has ruled the country with such a disregard for facts and prime ministerial protocols as Boris Johnson. Yet, in last week’s local elections, Johnson’s Conservatives may have lost ground, but did better than expected outside London. In late April, while Johnson was in New Delhi, the UK parliament voted to investigate whether he had lied to it about breaking rules by attending a party of staffers during lockdown. The UK is reeling from labour shortages in a diverse range of industries. Some of this shortage of manpower is a direct result of Britain’s exit from the EU. Johnson and others had campaigned for it, making untruthful claims that Brexit would somehow result in hundreds of millions of pounds in savings to fund the British National Health Service.

‘Alternative facts’ such as these, a delightful euphemism for fabrication coined by Trump’s then adviser Kellyanne Conway, tend to win elections time and again. She used the term in January 2017, and it remains the sludge-like foundation of social media-influenced politics. Facebook, Google and others have done too little to police it. Disinformation is now so widespread and so viral, it is worth remembering that the one spirit which Pandora in the Greek myth left shut in the jar was elpis, translated as ‘hope’. It is hard to be hopeful about democracy in a world dominated by fake news on social media.

Consider that President Bolsonaro stands a good chance of winning re-election later this year in Brazil, despite many instances of misgovernance, including having made claims in October 2021 that people vaccinated against covid were contracting AIDS at a higher rate. The Brazilian president’s group of supporters on social media, aptly described by opponents as the ‘office of hate’, have also campaigned to do away with elections altogether in favour of military rule, with Bolsonaro in charge. Meanwhile, US elections this month in such places as Ohio and West Virginia confirmed that Trump still enjoys a stranglehold over America’s Republican party. Most astounding was the win by J.D. Vance, Yale-educated venture capitalist and author of Hillbilly Elegy, in the Republican primary in Ohio. He once called Trump “America’s Hitler" before becoming an ardent supporter who went on to receive the former president’s full backing. Among Vance’s alternative facts was that US President Joseph Biden has tried to get Republican voters addicted to the opioid fentanyl to punish them for not voting for him and that Biden’s opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin is because Putin does not support transgender rights.

One can alternately laugh or weep at such nonsense, but its dissemination through social media, an opioid in itself, makes winning elections promising centrist, moderate policies very difficult. President Emmanuel Macron recently succeeded in France, but almost entirely because older voters backed him. A recent book by Matthew Continetti on the US Republican Party argues that Trump merely amplified extreme views that always existed within its support base by his deft use of social media. Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2012 was attributed in part to his backing away from extreme views on immigration. This week, the NYT reported that far-right activists were acting as vigilantes and intercepting immigrant children at the Arizona border because they believe they need to be saved from sex trafficking gangs in the US, despite little evidence that this is true. It may well prove one of the defining theories in upcoming US elections. Any parallels with Indian politics, from cow slaughter vigilantes to fake news of ‘illegal’ immigrants to dynasts promising a revival, are purely coincidental.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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