The Age of Zombie Democracies
Why Autocrats Are Abandoning Even the Pretense of Democratic Rituals
By Kenneth Roth
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Over the past decade, autocrats around the world have perfected the technique of “managed” or “guided” democracy. In Belarus, Egypt, Russia, Uganda, Venezuela, and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have held periodic elections to enhance their legitimacy but monopolized the media, restricted civil society, and manipulated state institutions and resources to ensure that they remained in power.
Such methods are never foolproof, however, and their effectiveness has diminished as citizens have wised up and learned to operate within rigged systems. A growing number of autocrats have thus been forced to rely on ever starker forms of repression: they still hold periodic elections since their people have come to expect them, but they do not even pretend that these empty rituals are free or fair. The result has been the proliferation of what might be called “zombie democracies”—the living dead of electoral political systems, recognizable in form but devoid of any substance.
Just as autocrats have moved from managed to zombie democracy, so too must supporters of human rights evolve. Whereas they could once counter managed democracy by attacking particular autocratic techniques—restrictions on civil society, say, or arrests of journalists—they must now fight zombie democracy with a more frontal approach, one that deprives autocrats of the legitimacy they seek from electoral charades.
Traditional dictatorships make no pretense of democracy. The Saudi and Emirati monarchies don’t even bother to hold direct national elections. Nor does the Chinese Communist Party; its kin in Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam; or the unapologetically authoritarian governments of post-Soviet Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Other authoritarian regimes, such as the military junta in Myanmar that has killed hundreds of protesters and imprisoned thousands more since it seized power in February, have overthrown elected governments and dispensed with democracy altogether.
But in a growing number of countries, governments have cloaked their autocratic rule in the garb of democracy—only to strip away this thin disguise to the point of risibility in recent years. A good example is Russia, which has hurtled toward zombie democracy status in large part due to opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s repeated end runs around the Kremlin’s managed democracy. The Kremlin had long kept the opposition in check by manipulating public opinion through its dominance of state-run television and other media. But Navalny evaded Moscow’s information controls by producing slick documentaries about the corrupt dealings of President Vladimir Putin that garnered tens of millions of views on YouTube.
After allowing Navalny to run for mayor of Moscow in 2013, when he secured 23 percent of the vote, the Kremlin barred his party as well as other genuinely independent opposition parties from participating in elections. In 2019, however, Navalny circumvented that restriction by encouraging Russians to vote for candidates from the tame pseudo-opposition parties that the Kremlin had allowed—a “smart voting” strategy aimed at undercutting the ruling United Russia party. Russian authorities responded by banishing Navalny to a penal colony, seeking to criminalize as an “extremist” any candidate who supported him, and tarring some of the country’s remaining independent media outlets as “foreign agents.” Russia will continue to hold elections, but without even the pretense of a genuine opposition or free public debate.
Putin’s ideological bedfellows in Belarus and Hungary have taken their countries down a similar path toward zombie democracy in Europe. In office since 1994, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has relied on restrictions on the media and civil society to maintain tight control of his country. When he sought a sixth term in office in 2020, he likely assumed he would coast to an easy victory after detaining the main opposition candidates. But the public rallied around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the jailed opposition politicians, forcing Lukashenko to resort to blatant electoral fraud and mass detention and torture of protesters. Later, his government prosecuted critical journalists and human rights defenders and liquidated dozens of civil society groups and independent media outlets. He even went as far as forcing down a commercial flight to arrest a leading opposition figure.
Governments have cloaked their autocratic rule in the garb of democracy.
Hungary has taken a different route to zombie democracy. After coming to power for a second time in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban took control of much of the country’s media, replaced independent judges with handpicked ones, imposed restrictions on civil society groups, gerrymandered electoral districts, and deployed public funds to maintain a large majority in parliament. But Orban’s strategy began to fail in 2019, when his party lost local elections in many large cities. Now, faced with the possibility that his party could lose next year’s parliamentary election to a unified opposition, Orban is moving to ensure that his party will control the state regardless of who is in government. His party has quietly taken control of the boards that run many state institutions and is creating foundations run by cronies that will control many state resources and operate beyond the oversight of the legislature.
Zombie democracy has also taken root in Latin America, most notably in Venezuela and Nicaragua. After Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party lost parliamentary elections in 2015, he used his control over electoral and judicial authorities to ensure that future elections would be neither free nor fair. The Supreme Court allowed government supporters to take over opposition parties, and security forces detained opposition leaders and brutalized their supporters to eliminate the possibility of an opposition victory. In response to international pressure, Maduro’s government recently appointed two officials associated with the opposition to the country’s National Electoral Council, but it remains to be seen if this concession will meaningfully improve electoral conditions.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has grown steadily more autocratic as well. When large-scale protests against his rule erupted in 2018, his government responded with murderous repression: the police and heavily armed pro-government groups carried out a brutal crackdown on demonstrators that left more than 300 people dead and 2,000 injured. The government detained hundreds more and has carried out another wave of arrests in the lead-up to presidential elections slated for November of this year. Seven presidential candidates and at least 20 critics have been arrested, leaving Ortega to run for his fourth consecutive term effectively unopposed.
The Middle East and Africa have not escaped the scourge of zombie democracy, either. After the coalition government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lost mayoral elections in 2019 to candidates fielded by an opposition alliance, Erdogan escalated his attacks on a pro-Kurdish party that had supported alliance candidates, removing and jailing its mayors, green-lighting a court case to shutter the party, and redoubling efforts to prevent its charismatic former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, from leaving the prison cell where he has spent the last four and a half years. In the face of declining public support, Erdogan has sought to eviscerate independent media and exerts control over the courts. His coalition also appears to be preparing to alter legislation on elections and political parties without consulting other parties, raising concerns that the 2023 election could be less than fair.
Leaders of zombie democracies have utterly forsaken their people.
In Egypt, General turned President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his military junta have sought to foreclose the possibility of victory by an independent party such as the Muslim Brotherhood (which won the last fair presidential election in 2012) by imposing the most repressive rule in the country’s modern history: shutting down independent media, harassing civil society groups, and detaining tens of thousands of people. In 2018, Sisi was reelected with an official—and laughable—97 percent of the vote. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, meanwhile, was reelected earlier this year with a less commanding 58.6 percent of the vote, but only after his security forces arrested his main opponent and brutalized and killed many of his supporters.
Finally, Hong Kong has also taken on some of the characteristics of a zombie democracy. An election process that allowed pro-Beijing constituencies to choose half of the members of the governing Legislative Council had long guaranteed a pro-mainland majority. But after a landslide victory in the 2019 local elections amid large-scale protests, pro-democracy candidates briefly threatened to prevail in the next Legislative Council election by using an informal primary system. Participants in that system are now being prosecuted, however, and all opposition activity has been shut down under a harsh national security law imposed by Beijing.
THE AUTOCRAT’S ACHILLES’ HEEL
The problem of zombie democracies has become so acute that governments committed to promoting genuine democracy need a strategy to address it. For decades, the standard response to managed democracies has been to attack their tools of electoral manipulation one by one—calling out censorship, opposing limits on civil society, or defending the rights of opposition candidates—to nudge these governments back toward allowing broader civic engagement, unfettered media, judicial independence, and free and fair elections.
But countering zombie democracies requires a more holistic approach. Their leaders have given up trying to manage popular opinion in favor of quashing it, but even the worst zombie democracies rely on some degree of popular consent, coerced as it may be. That gives those seeking to promote genuine democracy a point of leverage.
The United States and other like-minded democracies should continue to denounce the censorship and other abusive tactics that zombie democracies use to silence their critics, as well as the political and legal machinations they employ to empty democracy of its meaning. They should also stop providing sustenance to the leaders of zombie democracies, be it U.S. military aid and arms sales to Sisi or European Union subsidies for Orban.
But countries seeking to promote genuine democracy should go a step further and hit the leaders of zombie democracies where it hurts the most—exposing the corruption and self-dealing that sustain their regimes. Because zombie democrats no longer trust even a manipulated public to back them, they increasingly rely on cronies in the military and the private sector to prop up their rule. But generals and oligarchs are rarely true believers in zombie democracy. Their loyalty must be bought through the diversion of public funds, which is the autocrat’s Achilles’ heel.
Democratic governments should spotlight the ways in which the leaders of zombie democracies advance their private interests at the public’s expense. Sisi and Orban have both left public hospitals decrepit while paying off their cronies. The Kremlin has allowed friendly billionaire oligarchs to prosper while cutting pensions and letting wages stagnate. Maduro has paid off the army while the people of Venezuela suffer a humanitarian crisis. Similar critiques could be made of most leaders of zombie democracies.
Sadly, U.S. President Joe Biden missed the chance to hammer Putin for his corrupt self-dealing at the summit between the two leaders in Geneva in June. Biden later said that he spoke to Putin “about the violation of human rights,” but apart from a brief mention of Navalny, there is no public record of what he said. That means the Russian people didn’t get to hear Biden criticize Putin and his oligarch friends for getting rich by appropriating state resources and then gutting the country’s democracy so they don’t have to answer for their actions.
Biden did a better job of highlighting the corruption of the Cuban government, after nationwide pro-democracy protests erupted earlier this month. He publicly accused Cuba’s authoritarian leaders of “enriching themselves” instead of protecting people from “the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected.” That kind of pointed criticism resonates far more with the citizens of authoritarian countries than a perfunctory note about “human rights” being privately mentioned.
The best way to undermine zombie democracies is to demonstrate that their leaders are indifferent to the publics they pretend to serve. Yes, autocrats can resort to brutality to cling to power, but that is a dangerous game. Even the most committed dictators have a hard time hanging on when the public has completely turned on them. To hasten the arrival of such reckonings, Biden and other democratic leaders should stress how, in their quest to retain power, the leaders of zombie democracies have utterly forsaken their people.