As a political system, democracy is not something that is eternal or permanent. Democracy can die, and its death is generally caused by either its own people, or by outsiders.
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The former can be exemplified by the death of Myanmar’s democracy after the military coup in February 2021. Meanwhile, the latter occurred in Chile in September 1973, when General Agusto Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende, who was democratically elected.
These two causes of the death of democracy, both from within and from outside, can interact with and influence each other. However, a number of internal factors in a country play an important role in determining the resilience of its democracy. And one of the biggest threats to the resilience of democracy is growing public doubts over the system. This is partly due to the presence of four narratives which, if continuously voiced, can reduce and undermine public trust in the merits of democracy.
The first narrative questions the relevance and credibility of democracy. This narrative is generally voiced in postcolonial countries. After gaining power through democratic means, elected political leaders then accuse democracy of being a political system forced by colonists in a new attempt to perpetuate colonialism. This narrative, however, also serves as an attempt by political leaders to justify their desire to hold unlimited power – a system of authoritarianism.
The second narrative claims that democracy can only be implemented after fulfilling a number of tough and challenging prerequisites. Democracy is illustrated as an advanced system that can only be implemented by an advanced society. This narrative often suggests that democracy can only work in a society that is already economically prosperous and highly educated. Various measures have been put in place, such as a minimum per capita income of US$10,000 and the majority of the population having at least graduated from high school. As such, democracy is deemed unsuitable for a society with lower income and education.
The third narrative assesses democracy as a system that has failed to maintain stability and prosperity. This narrative often surfaces in political societies that have just or are undergoing a transition to democracy, or a transition from authoritarianism. The various political issues that arise at the same time as the collapse of an authoritarian system, such as communal conflict or separatism, are seen as evidence that democracy failed to ensure stability.
The transition to democracy is also often blamed for causing economic crises such as high inflation and rising rates of unemployment. Democracy is then criticized as a failed system and compared with other systems that are deemed better.
The fourth narrative holds that there are one or two groups of people in a country who are more skilled or superior than other groups. An example of this is the opinion that only military leadership can bring the country to glory and prosperity. Democracy, due to its competitive electoral system, is seen as only facilitating a divided and dangerously competitive civil leadership. Such a narrative reopens discussions to abolish the direct election system. Narratives like this also often underlie the attitudes of some politicians who push the military around to carry out tasks that are uncommon in a democracy.
Of course, it is necessary and important to criticize democracy and its implementation. However, such criticisms should not be aimed at killing democracy but to perfect it. The main problem is not the meaning or idea of democracy itself, but how democracy is understood and implemented. Here, it can be seen that the four narratives mentioned are part of the process of building a supportive environment to restore a nondemocratic system. If the four narratives above become the status quo, it would be easy to revert from a democracy back to authoritarianism. We must prevent this if we do not want to betray the reform mandate.