Warnings of fascism are a distraction from the crisis facing our democracies | David Runciman | Opinion

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Who is the most successful elected politician in the world? Purely on the numbers, it has to be Vladimir Putin, who last week was sworn in for his fourth term as Russia’s president. Not only has he never been defeated at the ballot box, his latest victory was his biggest yet: he won nearly 77% of the vote on a turnout of 67%. That means more than one in two eligible Russians gave him their support. Most democratic politicians can barely dream of such astonishing popularity.

For that reason, we take it for granted that Putin is no democrat at all. The margins are too big and the opposition too puny for this to count as real democracy. Yet the Putin model of authoritarianism validated through elections is becoming increasingly widespread. In Hungary last month, the deeply illiberal Viktor Orbán won nearly 50% of the vote. Next month, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan goes to the presidential polls in Turkey. Like Putin, he has never lost an election. He is not about to break the habit of a lifetime now.

We should be careful about assuming everything in these votes is fixed. Last week’s Malaysian election saw the return to power of a 92-year-old former strongman, Mahathir Mohamad, who had previously ruled the country for more than two decades. The outcome was a genuine surprise, with the ruling party of Najib Razak unceremoniously turfed out of office. No election, no matter how ruthless the incumbent regime, is ever entirely predictable. That’s what gives this form of politics its effective hold on power: it manages to combine the democratic energy of popular participation with the absence of fresh alternatives that makes democracy meaningful. In Malaysia, they picked the devil they used to know over the one they’ve got to know recently. It’s not much of a choice.

Yet while parts of the world are experimenting with elections without real democracy, nearer to home we see the opposite: the creeping rise of democracy without elections. This year’s Italian elections were the first for more than five years there and had been delayed as long as possible because of the fear they would make Italian politics even harder to manage. The result, which divided the spoils between the contradictory forces of the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, seemed to confirm those fears. What has brought the feuding factions to heel is the combined threat of another election or the imposition of an unelected technocratic government. It seems that the only thing worse than the present uncertainty would be to allow the voters a further chance to have their say, since most of the uncertainty starts with them.

Elections in many places simply reveal how divided the electorate has become, making it even harder to find common ground. Last year’s German elections, which resulted in a six-month stalemate while a weakened Angela Merkel tried to patch together a coalition government, showed a country that did not seem to know what it wanted any more. Again, it was only the deeply alarming prospect of another election, which almost no one wanted, which enabled Merkel to paper over the cracks. In Britain, Theresa May called an election to get decisive popular backing for her Brexit strategy. What she got instead was weakness and division. It will be a long time before a British prime minister makes that mistake again. It now seems likely that Brexit, with all its machinations and all its implications, will be played out well before we get another chance to elect a government in 2022.

Behind this anxious avoidance of elections lies a deeper trend, which is the growing attraction of alternative ways of doing democracy. The Five Star Movement has pledged that any government of which it is a part will use online votes to generate and validate policies. Popular participation will come not in the crude form of elections but through streamlined digital democracy, with regular consultation replacing intermittent upheaval. Elections can look like outmoded analogue politics in a digital age. Why ask voters one question when you can ask them many? Why all vote at one time when you can vote all the time?

New technology also threatens to make elections redundant by making them untrustworthy. The wave of suspicion about Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump will take a long-term toll on our confidence in electoral politics. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has made many voters aware of how vulnerable elections are to manipulation. Certainly, few people have much faith that their elected governments will be able to tackle the problem, since their elected governments are often the manifestation of it. Politicians are reduced to asking the tech companies to help get them out of this mess. In the end, it won’t be more elections that solves the problem of Facebook – it will be Facebook that solves the problem of elections.

The current weakness of democracy is a reflection of the bewildering variety of challenges it faces. During the 20th century, the battle lines were much more sharply drawn: liberal democracy faced ideological rivals in fascism and communism that offered stark alternatives to it. Now, democracy is being pulled in different directions at the same time. Authoritarians increasingly co-opt elections as part of their political arsenal. Meanwhile, democratic politicians view elections with growing suspicion and wonder if there are more effective ways of getting things done.

Few of the threats to democracy are explicitly anti-democratic any more. What Putin and Erdoğan, Facebook and Five Star have in common is that they all pay lip service to the idea that the people should have their say. They believe in popular participation, but on their terms. The result is that democracy is much more likely to blur into its alternatives than confront them.

We spend a lot of time worrying about whether demons from democracy’s past are coming back. Is Trump turning into a tyrant? Is fascism making a return? These fears are a distraction, as the conditions of political life have changed dramatically since democracy was last under so much strain. The real question is whether democracy is going to break apart into little pieces and whether we would notice if it did.

David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends is published by Profile



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