Hungry for Power – When Democracies become Authoritarian

By Kate Park, Special Contributor for Globalization Issues

Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism” – Tom Pepinsky

Venezuela and South Korea are both presidential republics/representative democracies; they have a system where the executive branch exists separately from a legislature, and elected representatives – not citizens themselves – vote on legislation.[1] Currently, these two countries are experiencing high political tensions, making headlines all over the world. The two cases share some common threads which are worth noting.

To begin with, both states have legacies of authoritarian rule. South Korea’s ousted President Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, who is infamous for his repressive regime and his harsh prosecution of political dissidents. Meanwhile Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chavez had hand-picked his successor, current President Nicolas Maduro, passing down a controlling executive branch that claims to be populist.[2] Even though nearly 20 years ago Hugh Chavez championed the leftist populism as a means of preserving democracy, populism can lead to democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism because in a system of extreme majoritarian sentiments, any dissent is viewed as a threat to freedom and not evidence of it.[11]  

Second, under both leaders freedom of expression has deteriorated while abuse of power and opposition to dissent have increased. In addition to bribery charges, the administration of President Park kept a blacklist of cultural figures who were critical of her policies, and the president even blocked government funding from supporting certain organizations that opposed her administration, echoing her father’s policies.[3] Similarly, as of this month, the Venezuelan government has banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles from holding political office for 15 years.[12] Furthermore, during Maduro’s four-year rule, the government has detained scores of dissidents and stripped the National Assembly of its power. This is evidenced by recent protests against the supreme court’s attempts to take over legislative functions.[4] His government is, in fact, holding more than 100 political prisoners.[5]

Lastly, both states have shown the corruption within the government and its deep collusive ties to the economy. Former President Park is accused of colluding with a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to pressure big businesses to contribute funds to non-profit foundations that backed her policy initiatives.[6] Moreover, former President Park has been under scrutiny due to her connection with the family-run conglomerate Samsung. Meanwhile, President Maduro faces global criticism due to his country’s over-dependency on the petroleum industry.

In addition to the situations in Venezuela and South Korea, parliamentary republics such as Serbia[7], Turkey[8], Hungary[9] and South Africa[10] are also struggling with their government systems. Prime ministers strive to consolidate their power by curtailing freedom of press and attacking critics. It seems as though various forms of democracy – be it presidential or parliamentary – are in peril due to politicians’ hunger for more power.

From South Korea to Hungary to Venezuela, millions of people are protesting against unjust ruling. As social media and the attention of international audiences catapult movements for reform and solidarity, I predict that the masses will rightfully continue to pressure governments toward true democracy.

Sun Young (Kate) Park is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she studies Global Studies and Spanish.