It’s true that some countries have shaken autocratic governments. From Indonesia to Spain to Germany, countries have overcome outright authoritarianism — military rule, primarily — and built solid democracies. Germany, for instance, constructed a postwar democracy on the ruins of totalitarianism. But in these places, there was a relatively clean break with the ancien regime. In Indonesia, a large share of the population united to topple the dictator. Occupying forces and local populations eventually eradicated remnants of German Nazism and Japanese fascism.
But more recent populist regimes haven’t ended with a rupture or a reversion to democracy. Former autocratic populist leaders can still have strong bases of public support, as Yascha Mounk of New America has observed in these pages — unlike former dictators such as Indonesia’s Suharto or Spain’s Francisco Franco at the time of their ouster or death. In some cases, the populists can use this persistent adoration to return to power. Thaksin, for instance, remains a key player in Thai politics, and his party still wins at the polls even though he has not held office in more than a decade; it is apparently favored in next year’s elections, too, if these elections, overseen by a junta, are free and fair. And as Mounk notes, although Berlusconi and his coalition were defeated in 2006, they roared back and took power in 2008. They lost it again in 2013, but the party remains a major force in Italian politics.
Another problem is that, while in power, democratically elected tyrants can permanently alter institutions. In Turkey, as Cook points out, Erdogan and his party have so deformed the judiciary, parliamentary oversight and the election process that it will be extremely difficult for future leaders to reform the system and fashion any type of real democracy.