Want to fight global authoritarianism? Be active in local government

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 making their tyrannical ambitions explicit.

“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, son of a bitch, 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 kept 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 dodgy businesses works just as well. Consider Vladimir Putin and his record as deputy mayor and top economic official of St. Petersburg, under a rookie mayor in the 1990s.

Russian experts Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy have reported that St. Petersburg has fallen behind Moscow and other Russian cities in terms of income, profits and investment – ​​and increased in terms of unemployment, emigration and suicides – when Putin was deputy mayor.

Based on the book by Steven Lee Myers 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 dismissal for “total incompetence bordering on bad faith”, reports Myers. In the process, Putin developed the model of corruption and oligarchy that he used to rule Russia and get rich ever since.

Putin’s sins in St. Petersburg were so obvious that he should have been arrested before he even reached a national post. It is more difficult to spot nascent authoritarianism when it is wrapped up in jurisdiction and governance in the public interest.

This is the story of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made a name for himself as head of the western state of Gujarat. In his book, Inside Out India and China: Local Politics Goes GlobalBill 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 after two and a half years, accused of inciting religious hatred . His career seemed over. But then he said he was abandoning Islamist politics and eventually 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 most of the time what 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 my country, the United States – are full of politically monochromatic localities and regions that are the perfect breeding ground 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 is Democracy Editor at Zócalo Public Square and writes the local Democracy Column.