Participating in local government is a way to nip authoritarianism in the bud
Want to join the global fight against authoritarianism?
Then, participate in the local government of your community.
Because authoritarians don’t teleport fully trained in national leadership. They must first learn to govern in an undemocratic way, usually at the local level. To stop authoritarianism on a global scale, we all need to identify our hometown autocrats and make sure local governments are as democratic as possible.
Detecting potential authoritarians is not always easy. Some spend too little time in local government, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who spent two quiet years on the Rio city council, but many local authoritarians are vocal about their tyrannical ambitions.
“If I go to the presidential palace, I will do exactly what I did as mayor,” Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said while campaigning for the Philippine presidency. “All of you drug addicts, sons of bitches, I’m really going to kill you.” I have no patience, I have no middle ground, either you kill me or I kill you fools.
Tragically, he was as good as his word – presiding over the murder of more than 30,000 people during his war on drugs, while rolling back the rights of dissidents.
Fighting crime is not a prerequisite for authoritarians. Participating in dubious businesses can work well. Consider Vladimir Putin’s record as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
St. Petersburg fell behind Moscow in terms of income, profits and investments – and rose in terms of unemployment, emigration and suicides – during Putin’s term.
According to Steven Lee Myers’ book “The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin,” Putin made deals for St. Petersburg to buy food and basic goods from state-owned companies that never materialized. It also ceded the operating rights to the casinos, without obtaining significant public benefits in return. Putin has used the licensing authority to target companies and investors – legal and illicit – in service of his own power.
Putin avoided accountability for his corruption, increasing the power of the mayor while reducing the oversight power of the city council, which had called for Putin’s incompetence and bad faith. In the process, Putin developed the model of corruption and oligarchy that he has used to rule Russia ever since.
Putin’s sins in St. Petersburg were glaring. It is more difficult to spot emerging authoritarianism when it is surrounded by a capable government.
Consider Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former head of state of Gujarat. In his book, “Inside Out India and China: Local Politics Go Global”, Bill Antholis described how Modi “combined the pragmatic and efficient spirit of Gujarat entrepreneurs with a charismatic and potentially destructive, divisive and bellicose Hindu nationalism”.
Modi’s national leadership has followed this local formula – aggressive economic action and infrastructure development, but tainted by a cult of personality that punishes dissent and exploits religious nationalism in ways that endanger the lives of Muslims. .
Controlling relentless and successful authoritarians requires matching their relentlessness. Even impeachment may not be enough.
Take Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. He successfully solved problems – water, traffic, garbage – but was removed from office for inciting religious hatred. He eventually made a comeback and won the election for prime minister.
Today, commentators are noticing how little Erdogan’s agenda has changed since he became mayor. He improved government services, while centralizing power, attacking secularism, and increasing spending (fueling hyperinflation).
These different authoritarians share a common experience: all worked in contexts where ordinary people had relatively little power in local government. Thus, these budding autocrats could do whatever they wanted, without being confronted by the citizens.
In the years when these men were in local government, it became easier to build undemocratic local empires. Political scientists blame a decline in political diversity around the world. Highly polarized countries – like the United States – are full of politically monochromatic localities and regions that are perfect breeding grounds for authoritarian extremists.
Ironically, local authoritarianism may be a bigger problem in democracies than in autocracies. As countries democratize at the national level, they often decentralize power, creating stronger local governments that can become power bases for aspiring autocrats.
This is why the greatest weapon the planet has against the authoritarians is you. When you challenge local leaders, you stand up for democracy where you live and around the world.
Joe Mathews, democracy editor at Zócalo Public Square and co-chair of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, writes the Local Democracy column.