The recent referendum in Turkey, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed a narrow majority of votes to expand his presidential authority, is the latest example of a puzzling phenomenon: Democratically elected leaders who triumph in elections even as they move toward autocracy by undermining checks and balances and consolidating power.
Today, the most common way for a democracy to collapse is through the actions of an elected incumbent, not a coup or revolution. Hugo Chávez, elected to four terms as president of Venezuela, used his time in office to dismantle the institutions of Venezuelan democracy and expand his own authority. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has so thoroughly concentrated power in his own hands that many observers now refer to Russia as an “elected dictatorship.” And in Turkey, Mr. Erdogan appears to be following that well-trodden path.
This phenomenon, which experts call “authoritarianization,” highlights a deep vulnerability built into the structure of democracy itself. Once in power, unscrupulous leaders can sometimes manipulate the political environment to their own benefit, making it more likely that they will be victorious in future contests. By winning those elections, they gain the stamp of democratic legitimacy — even for actions that ultimately undermine democratic norms.
Manipulating and winning elections has become a kind of exploit in the rules of political legitimacy — a way for would-be autocrats to hack the system.
People around the world have become so attached to the idea of democracy that elections have become a de facto requirement for government legitimacy, said Milan Svolik, a Yale political scientist who studies authoritarianism and democratization. That has helped spread democracy across the globe.
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