People Want Their Militaries to Save Their Democracies. When Generals Get a Taste of Political Power, They Tend to Come Back for More, Reports Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 22, 2018 | Go to article overview

People Want Their Militaries to Save Their Democracies. When Generals Get a Taste of Political Power, They Tend to Come Back for More, Reports Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations


The results of Egypt's presidential election this month were about as surprising as the sunrise. President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, who came to power in 2013 in a coup, won re-election with 97 percent of the vote. Of course, Egyptians didn't really have other options: Since the coup, Mr. Sissi has embarked upon a brutal campaign of repression, and NPR reported that six potential opponents were detained or pressured by the government to withdraw their candidacies. Still, elites, especially business elites, have largely welcomed the new president, according to H.A. Hellyer of the Atlantic Council, seeing Mr. Sissi as an antidote to a government backed by the poor and Islamists.

Mr. Sissi's consolidation of power would have been shocking only 10 years ago, when militaries were largely retreating from politics and democracy seemed to be thriving globally. In the 1990s and much of the 2000s, the idea that military officers would again seriously erode civilian rule and take control of governments around the world - and even be welcomed at the helm by citizens - seemed outlandish. Although coups and military meddling were common during the Cold War, they became rare after 1989. From Indonesia to Brazil to Thailand to Chile, the armed forces grudgingly turned over power to elected officials. In many of these countries, younger army leaders vowed to be truly apolitical, and the public enthusiastically rejected army influence in politics as well as outright coups.

But over the past decade, the flow of power has switched direction. In many democracies, such as Hungary, Italy, the Philippines, Poland and possibly the United States, norms and institutions are faltering as voters turn to populists. In the most dire cases - first in places with weak democratic systems, such as Turkey and Egypt, and then even more in vibrant democracies like Brazil and Indonesia - military power is on the rise, and citizens, particularly the middle classes, have embraced it.

The reasons are familiar. Where voters believed that political reform would bring growth and development, rising global inequality has led to disillusionment. Sweeping technological, economic and cultural changes - such as migration to Central and Western Europe and austerity policies in places like Thailand - have unsettled populations, providing opportunities for illiberal populist parties and strongmen such as Hungary's Viktor Orban and Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra. Increasingly influential authoritarian states, like China and Russia, have exerted power over their neighbors.

But the military medicine voters are imbibing in a startling number of countries speeds up democratic sickness, leaving nations worse off than before. Civilian leaders become even weaker, and countries with coups are prone to repeat them in a never-ending cycle of military intervention.

Striking shifts in public opinion

In some of the world's biggest and most dynamic democracies, recent shifts in public opinion on the military's role in politics are striking. Among American millennials, only 19 percent believe that a military regime would be an illegitimate form of government, according to research by Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk and University of Melbourne lecturer Roberto Foa, who studied generational views of government. They found that more than twice the percentage of Americans in their study thought military rule would be a "good" or "very good" type of regime than they did 20 years earlier. And younger people across Europe were less likely than older Europeans to disapprove of a military takeover: Thirty-six percent of millennials considered such a takeover illegitimate, while 53 percent of older Europeans did.

Even in regions where the scars left by juntas are still somewhat fresh, the military appears to be eroding civilian democracy without much pushback or panic. In Brazil, where a brutal military regime governed between 1964 and 1985, but in recent years democracy seemed to have become entrenched, the army has edged back into political life. …

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