Democracy is dying. This may seem a strange thing to say as the world breathes a sigh of relief, buoyed by the pro-democracy paean that was United States President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech. But as important as they are, beautiful speeches cannot resuscitate dying political systems. And dying they are.

In How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the real threat to democracy no longer comes from major upheavals such as coups, dictatorships or suspensions of the constitution. Instead, it comes from within the system itself.

As the authors put it:

Democracies may die at the hands not of generals, but of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.

They continue:

Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance. Many government efforts to subvert democracy are ‘legal’, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even by portrayed as efforts to improve democracy.

The authors argue that this form of democratic collapse is more sinister as people do not realise what is happening; “there is no single moment … in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells”.

Traits of autocrats

Levitsky and Ziblatt also provide a litmus test for authoritarian behaviour, to help track when elected leaders begin to behave in ways that make democracies die.

They focus on four traits: the rejection of democratic rules of the game (refusing to accept election results, delaying elections, restricting civil rights), denial of the legitimacy of political opponents (declaring opponents to be foreign agents, national security threats, anti-patriotic, or criminal), toleration or encouragement of violence (refusal to condemn violence by supporters, endorsement of mobs), readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media (including laws that restrict protest or criticism of the government, legal or punitive action against rivals, such as political parties and the press).

Writing following the election of Trump in 2016, the authors’ goal was to help ostensible democracies recognise their slide into authoritarianism. Beyond Trump, their model can be applied to lapsed democrats such as Hungary’s Orban or Turkey’s Erdogan.

Pakistanis may think this analysis has less relevance for their country, where long stretches of military rule have left us with (at best) democratic aspirations. Indeed, in recent years we have normalised and accepted the “hybridity” of our system, one in which the military no longer has to overtly seize power in order to exercise control.

But Levitsky’s and Ziblatt’s reminder that the existential threat to democracy comes from elected representatives is one we must heed. It is time we placed greater onus on our elected representatives to acknowledge their complicity and halt the decay of democracy.

Pakistan’s status quo

Consider civilian government initiatives such as anti-corruption probes, draconian internet regulations, detention of political opponents on public unrest charges, restrictive media regulation and contempt of court charges against journalists. All these fail the litmus test and are clear demonstrations of so-called democratic representatives behaving as autocrats, exploiting the veneer of democracy to legitimise majoritarianism and societal control.

Speaking in a webinar last week, Moeed Yusuf, special adviser to the prime minister, in a reference to the National Command Operation Center, described the workings of the government and military in the context of tackling Covid-19 as “convergent”.

He conceded that it would be preferable if this public health initiative were purely civilian-led and managed, but argued that the government did not currently have sufficient capacity to operate without military support. He looked forward to a future state in which the government had more capacity to function independently.

These are familiar narratives – the civilians are not up to the job, the legacy of martial law has a long tail, political parties are hapless in the face of establishment machinations, hybridity is working, we need bureaucratic reforms. They are all excuses that defend the status quo. And they rob elected representatives of any agency or responsibility to make it otherwise.

But Pakistanis need to change these narratives, not least because as democratic representatives and institutions behave as autocrats, they too will want complete control, which is, of course, antithetical to the way democracies are structured.

Infectious authoritarian tendencies will fuel further institutional warfare between parliament, courts, bureaucracy, opposition parties, regulators and other power centres. And the only outcome of that is wasted taxpayer money, poor service delivery, degraded civil rights, and neglect of the polity. Will this be enough to ring our alarm bells?

This article first appeared in Dawn.