As the democracies around the world started to take a regressive turn, the academic literature and policy agenda of many pay more attention to the subject of de-democratization. As more and more countries’ credit ratings fell from free to partly free (even to not free) in the annual reports of Freedom House, the literature on democratic erosion enriched to a degree that, now, we know the ways in which democracies break; the sneaky tools that is used and the mechanisms that lead through the incremental authoritarianization.
Since we know the sins and crimes committed, the autocrats become the faces of concern. Yet, what even more worrisome is that the legacies they are now creating by dragging the regimes they took over closer towards the line of authoritarianism. Reading the gruesome literature on democratic erosion and the cases of de-democratization, an equally alarming question emerges: What happens after the authoritarian leader dies? Though we are just experiencing this reversal trend of democracy, for me, the picture for the future seems gloomy. Because that the transformed regimes (such as competitive authoritarian regimes) are self-sufficient, I believe the system will show great resilience against re-democratization once they are turned into stealthy authoritarian regimes and even after the authoritarian leaders are gone. Looking at the robustness of the mechanisms used in particular, the reversal of this trend seems incredibly challenging if not impossible.
First of all, the slow and incremental removal of democracy makes it impossible to find “the bright spark that ignites an effective call to action” against the perpetrators. By circumventing the law instead of breaching, for example, the authoritarian leaders usually leave the opposition without ammunition to use to expose the capture of the incumbent. Slow and sneaky erosion of law and democracy makes it hard to realize and counter effectively.
The second point is more troublesome. The already-low chance of countering authoritarianization in the making is reduced almost to zero after the judiciary is packed, the institutions are captured, the state resources are practically owned by the authoritarian and the power is consolidated. Why? Because the mechanisms used in this consolidation are sturdier than the autocrat himself/herself. We already know the entrapment and have seen the examples. But, to go one step further, is there a way to take democracy back through democratic means? The victory over the authoritarian leader through the elections is not a likely chance since the playing field is hardly looking like a playing field anymore. In 2019 in Turkey, the High Election Board rendered the local elections in İstanbul as invalid after the president Erdoğan openly stated his discontent with the results. In addition, the existing opposition within the institutions cannot make a difference as the power of the executive accumulates. In Philippines, ever since ruling party won all 12 seats in senator election, the President Duterte’s power has reached to a new height free from parliamentary check. Moreover, the election fraud, though not the go-to preference in autocrats’ playbook, is still an option in an environment where every institution is virtually controlled by that leader and the party. Thus, it seems that once it is captured, the road back to democracy is forever closed.
Then, can the leaders of opposition or any other suited party tilt the already skewed playing field to their own favor? Even before the contestation through election, they need to have the chance for a fair competition first. So, from a theoretical perspective, how a loyalist judge or a corrupt partisan bureaucrat can be convinced to not to bend the rules in favor of the incumbent? Since the change of heart is not expected just by asking, it would only seem possible if the interests of the clientele are protected somehow. Or a more provoking example would be from the resource distribution that is practically to enjoy by the executive in deteriorating competitive authoritarian regimes. Since it is one of the main pillars of the system that provides the self-sufficiency, the opposition would first need to counter the resource flow towards the partisan businesspeople. Yet again, the resource triangle of the authoritarian, the businesspeople and the voters is one though cookie to break. Either cooption of the existing businesspeople or the creation of a new base of clientele would be needed in order to change the rules of the game. Even for the sake of balancing the field, can this be considered as a chivalry coming to the rescue of democracy?
Following the same line of thought, the polarized society (personal favorites of the populist leaders) needs to be reconciled in order to look beyond the inflated grievances and focus on the real problem of governance if opposition would have any chance against the incumbent authoritarian. Yet, as we know from the polarization literature, it is such an hefty job that cannot be undertaken in the lifetime of one election cycle. Thus, the remaining option for the challenger is to further polarize the society via minor alterations that would enhance the supporter base of the opposition. Then, again in this scenario, in case of a change of government, the only difference would be name of the government as the same polarized and illiberal attributes would still prevail.
Overall, the most horrifying thing in all of the
complications caused by the leaders turning authoritarian is the spoils of the
system they create while accumulating power. Just like its insidiousness makes
the authoritarianization hard to detect, the mechanisms used (such as weakening
of the democratic institutions, patronage, polarization and so forth) makes it
even more hard to counter. As the voters and election are sidelined by the
might of capture by the authoritarian leader, the opposition is almost left
with no choice other than using the same tactics against the incumbent. Not
only this possibility creates a moral dilemma, it also weakens the very
foundations of the democracy. Even if the opposition somehow manages to win an
election and take over the government, the resilience of the created system
over institutions, agencies and people would prevent the expected transition
back to democracy. Thus, as depressing as it sounds, the future of democracy
can only be seen between the pieces as memories of the past shadowed by the
newly-created legacies of today’s authoritarians.
 Term “stealth authoritarianism” is borrowed from Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism, 100 Iowa L.” Rev 1673 (2015): 1685.
 Bermeo, Nancy. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27.1 (2016): 5-19.
 The sustainability provided by the distribution of resources is used as an explanatory factor also in the literature on neopatrimonialism, rentier state and resource curse. See Bratton, Michael, and Nicholas Van de Walle. Democratic experiments in Africa: Regime transitions in comparative perspective. Cambridge university press, 1997.
 For a case study on role of resource distribution in authoritarianization, see Esen, Berk, and Sebnem Gumuscu. “Building a competitive authoritarian regime: State–Business relations in the AKP’s Turkey.” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 20.4 (2018): 349-372.
 Svolik (2019) asks “when can we realistically expect ordinary people to check the authoritarian ambitions of elected politicians?” and finds out that people would not punish the undemocratic behaviors of the leader/party if their economic interests are at stake (or perceived as such). See Svolik, Milan W. “Polarization versus democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30.3 (2019): 20-32.