On August 18, 2020, mutinous soldiers seized power from the Malian president. Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) appeared on TV asking, “Do I really have a choice?” shortly before dissolving the government, parliament, and resigning. IBK along with Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga and several high-ranking officials have been detained in Kita, a town about 200km from the capital of Bamako. Although these events are unfolding (as of publishing October 2020), the current situation in Mali allows us to complicate theories of Democratic Erosion.
There is a subtle presumption in the theories of Democratic Erosion, Democratic Backsliding,, Constitutional Retrogression, and Stealth Authoritarianism, that a pre-existing, well-functioning democracy existed before the backsliding began. Democratic Backsliding, Constitutional Retrogression, and Stealth Authoritarian describe a set of gradual actions that leaders take to weaken their democracy, often by using and changing existing institutions and often in the name of democracy for positive press within the international community. Examples of potential actions include, but are not limited to changing electoral or campaign finance laws, prosecuting opposition leaders for non-political crimes instead of pursuing libel lawsuits, formal re-writing or amending of the constitution, expanding or packing the courts with political supporters, and centralizing or politicizing the executive. These actions are in contrast to coups which represent swift and immediate changes to a democratic system.
The quintessential examples of Democratic Erosion are frequently middle-income countries like Russia, Hungary, Belarus, Turkey, and Venezuela. In this article, I will not belabor the point that many middle-income countries had not necessarily had a strong or inclusive democracy in the first place. Instead I will focus on how often in poorer countries, there is rarely a robust and pre-existing democracy as theories of Democratic Erosion presupposes: in fact, leaders in low-income countries intentionally build weak democracies. By observing the recent events in Mali, I will reinforce how these theories are productive in understanding why these weak democracies were created, but nonetheless how the theories fail to account for countries like Mali. For low-income countries similar to Mali, leaders deliberately construct weak democracies to present to international bodies. This is only further fueled by international expectations of stronger procedural democracies.
The day after the coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately shut borders with Mali and suspended all financial flows between its fourteen member states and Mali until a civilian government was in place. ECOWAS continued to uphold the standard for about a month. The United States also suspended providing military aid to Mali, which has been fighting jihadist groups in the Sahara Desert and Sahel.
In her theory of Democratic Backsliding, Bermeo discusses how over time, in conducting “executive coups”, leaders have become privy to the severe international consequences of conducting such coups. The leaders note the swift international condemnation and attention a coup draws from the international community. Nonetheless, leaders recognize that despite a coup, if they create a facade of a nominal democracy, the international community will be gently satisfied. The events developing live in Mali demonstrate this point.
Despite initial condemnation from the international community, ECOWAS quickly removed their strict sanctions after Mali demonstrated nominal movements towards a stable democracy, most notably in appointing a “civilian government”. The Malian leaders have no intention of creating a strong democracy based on civilians to run a “civilian government”. For the international community, a retired colonel and former Minister of Defense Bah Ndaw, counted as a civilian government.
Furthermore, the coup leaders have been able to retain power and even received welcome from the US for the establishment of the transitional government. The Department of State emphasized four major points for the transitional government to fulfill which are, “strengthen governance, combat corruption, reform electoral processes, and implement the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali.” None of these goals outline the necessary economic investments Mali has to take as one of the poorest countries in the world (184 of 189 in the Human Development Index), where 45% of its population lives below the poverty line, and a 35% literacy rate. The majority of conflict within the country stems from a poor economic outlook for youth (from a poor education of youth where two million children aged 5-17 are not in school) and increasing susceptibility to divisions as a result of strained resources due to climate change. Helping people escape poverty or increase literacy is far from a priority for the United States even in its official policy briefs. Despite receiving multi-billion dollar aid packages, the day-to-day life of average Malians has only increased marginally. While the country’s top officials spent lavishly on luxury cars, there is clearly no intention of building a strong, well-educated democracy beyond what pleases the international community.
The international community’s focus on reform of the electoral process further underscores the procedural importance of democracy (eg. through strengthening governance, combating corruption, and reforming electoral processes), continuing to derive its definition of democracy from procedural definitions as described by Schumpeter. Schumpeter tells us to understand the world’s democracies by prioritizing the “election of the men who are to do the deciding” over the ideal of “vesting power of deciding political issues in the electorate”. Moreover, this can serve as a good starting point in which the international community can judge the quality of a democracy. This signals to leaders that merely providing attempts at strengthening electoral processes will lead to acceptance in the international community.
Although the theories of Democratic Erosion may not fit as neatly for lower-income countries, it is still useful in navigating the steps that leaders take immediately after a coup or a bout of civil unrest. The theories provide a potential “goal” of a weak democracy that leaders can strive for instead of a strong democracy that is so often idealized. Even though these leaders are not eroding an existing robust democracy, they are building up a democracy that is (1), accommodating on the surface level to international and regional demands, and (2) failing to build up real institutions of democracy (eg. investing in education) to consolidate power and keep its population down.