Which path is easier? Going from a democracy to a dictatorship? or vice versa?
It is easier to go from a democracy to a dictatorship.
The evidence for this lies in the number of democratic countries that have, in reality, become dictatorships (or at least an oligarchy) in the last 100 years.
Dictatorships need not be formed through military force alone. They can be set off by democratic processes by anyone smart enough to use the system. How often have we seen this situation? The present is terrible. The future looks bleak. Then some powerful leader steps in and promises change and hope. Over time this leader becomes a dictator. Think Germany in the 1930s. Think India now.
Very often the leader comes from the same democratic system and gradually assumes dictatorial powers. Society does not always see this shift happening because it is so gradual. Further, it is seen by a significant portion of the population as beneficial. Pastor Martin Niemöller captured the situation in Nazi Germany brilliantly when he said
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Remember that a large number of ordinary Germans, pained by the Versailles treaty and hyper-inflation, supported Hitler when he attacked the communists. They thought it was good for business and hence for Germany.
The move from a democracy to dictatorship can happen within a few years. This is also why citizens in a democracy have to be alert and watchful all the time.
As a citizen of India, I fear that we need to be more alert NOW as compared to any time in the last 67 years.
Moving from a dictatorship to democracy is much more difficult. Democracy is not about elections and voting alone. Democracy is more a way of thinking. A way of living. It is about having
- guaranteed freedom of thought and expression,
- vibrant civil society that is free to dissent,
- independent media,
- separation of State and military / religion.
Even if a country wants to move in this direction, it’s citizens may not be ready to make the mental shift and engage in governance for a long long time; often generations. We can see this in Myanmaar, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries now.
To conclude, it is always dangerous for citizens of democracies to rest peacefully and assume that everything will remain as it is. As far back as 1790 the Irish politician John Philpot Curran had said
“It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”
It would be useful to remember this even now.