Democracy: On the Precipice

Posted November 7, 2021

Categories: Articles, Featured, Human Rights


Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarussian dictator, snatches a dissident from midair. Military strongman Assimi Goita launches another coup in Mali. Benjamin Netanyahu escalates a military conflict to save his own political skin in Israel. In the United States, the Republican Party launches a full-court press to suppress the vote.

Authoritarianism, like war, makes headlines. It’s hard for democracy to compete against political crackdowns, military coups, and unhinged pronouncements. Sure, democracies engage in periodic elections and produce landmark pieces of legislation. But what makes democracy, like peace, successful is not the unexpected rupture, such as the election of Barack Obama, but the boring quotidian. Citizens express their opinions in public meetings. Lawmakers receive constituents in their offices. Potholes get fixed. That’s not exactly clickbait.

Because the absence of war doesn’t make headlines, as Stephen Pinker has argued, the news media amplifies the impression that violence is omnipresent and constantly escalating when it splashes mass murder, genocide, and war crimes on the front page. Peace may well be prevalent, but it isn’t newsworthy.

The same can be said about democracy, which has been suffering for some time from bad press. Democracies have been dragged down by corruption, hijacked by authoritarian politicians, associated with unpopular economic reforms, and proven incapable (so far) of addressing major global problems like the climate crisis. After a brief surge in popularity in the immediate post-Cold War period, democracy according to the general consensus has been in retreat.

Judging from recent quantitative assessments, the retreat has become a rout.

The title of the latest Freedom House survey, for instance, is Democracy Under Siege. The report details how freedom around the world has eroded for the last 15 years, with 2020 featuring the greatest decline yet. The Economist Intelligence Unit, which produces a Democracy Index every year, promoted its 2020 report with the headline “Global Democracy Has a Very Bad Year.” The authoritarian responses to the pandemic contributed to the worst showing so far for the model, with the average global score plummeting from the previous year. Meanwhile, the Rule of Law Index for 2020 also registered a drop for the third year in a row.

If we extrapolate from the current trend lines, democracy will be gone in a couple decades, melted away like the polar ice. But it’s always dangerous to make such extrapolations given history’s tendency to move in cycles not straight lines. So, let’s look at some reasons why democracy might be in for a comeback.

The Pandemic Recedes in America

Much of the reason for democracy’s dismal record in 2020 was the expansion of executive power and state controls in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of those power grabs, such as Vladimir Putin’s constitutional changes in Russia, are still in place. Some countries, like India and Brazil, are still struggling with both COVID-19 and powerful authoritarian leaders.

But even with the continued high rate of infection in a number of countries, the overall trajectory of the disease is downward. Since peaking in late April, the reported number of global cases has dropped nearly in half. So, two trend lines are now intersecting: the lifting of pandemic restrictions and the backlash against hapless authoritarians.

Americans, for instance, are coming to terms with both the retreat of COVID and the removal of Donald Trump from the White House, Facebook, and Twitter. The Biden administration is undoing many of Trump’s undemocratic moves, including those imposed during COVID around immigration and refugees. The attempts by the Republican Party to tamp down voter turnout proved spectacularly unsuccessful in 2020, which despite the pandemic featured the largest-ever increase in votes from one election to the next. In terms of the voting-age population, you have to go back to 1960 to find an election with a higher percentage turnout than the 62 percent rate in 2020.

This surge in voters helped put Biden over the top. It has also motivated the Republican Party to redouble its efforts, this time at the state level, to suppress the vote. It is doing so under the false narrative that electoral fraud is widespread and that Biden’s victory is somehow illegitimate. And it is setting the stage to orchestrate an authentic election theft in 2024.

The backlash against these anti-democratic moves has been encouraging, however. When the state of Georgia passed its voting restrictions in April, pressure from voting rights advocates forced prominent Georgia corporations like Coca-Cola and Delta to reverse themselves and come out against the bill (though only after the bill had already passed). Major League Baseball pulled its all-star game from Atlanta, and Hollywood has also threatened a boycott.

These moves motivated Texas-based companies to protest that state’s version of voting restrictions before the legislature scheduled a vote. None of that stopped Texas Republicans from pushing ahead with the bill. So, this weekend, Texas Democrats had to deploy the nuclear option of walking out of the chamber to stop the vote suppression bill from passing. These courageous Texans, up against a powerful and determined state Republican Party, are now looking to the federal government to safeguard voting rights.

At the federal level, the Democrats have put forward for the second time a comprehensive voting reform bill, the “For the People Act” to expand access, reduce corruption, and limit the impact of money on politics. The House approved a version of this bill in 2019, but it died in the Republican-controlled Senate. The House passed the reboot in March, but it again faces a difficult road to passage in the Senate because filibuster rules require at least 60 votes to pass and Democrats can muster only 50 (plus the vice president’s).

A failure to find “10 good Republicans” for this bill, the cadre Joe Manchin (D-WV) naively expected to step forward to pass legislation creating a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, may finally push the Democrats to scrap or at least significantly modify the filibuster rules, which were famously used to block further enfranchisement of African-Americans in the twentieth century.

High voter turnout and efforts to secure voting rights are not the only signs of a healthy U.S. democracy. Last year, the largest civic protests in U.S. history took place as tens of millions of Americans expressed their disgust with police violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Civic organizations stepped forward to fight the pandemic and ensure more equitable access to vaccines. Young people in particular are engaged in large numbers on the climate crisis, gun control, and reproductive health.

After a long winter of discontent under Trump, perhaps it’s time for an American Spring.

Mixed Record Elsewhere for Democracy

Europe, meanwhile, is coming out of the pandemic in slightly stronger shape politically. The budget compromise that took place at the end of last year, which ended up providing considerable relief to the economically disadvantaged countries of the southern tier, effectively saved the European Union from disintegrating out of a lack of solidarity. Alas, the compromise also watered down the EU’s criticism of its easternmost members, particularly Poland and Hungary, for their violations of the bloc’s commitments to human rights and rule of law.

But there’s hope on the horizon here as well. Eastern Europe appears to be on the verge of a political sea change.

Voters brought down Bulgaria’s right-wing populist leader Boyko Borissov in elections in April, and the new caretaker government has begun to dismantle his political system of cronyism. In Slovenia, tens of thousands of protesters have massed in the capital of Ljubljana, the largest demonstration in years, to demand the resignation of the Trump-like prime minister Janez Janša. The near-total ban on abortion orchestrated by the right-wing government in Poland has motivated mass protests by women throughout the country, and even “Polish grannies” have mobilized in support of a free press and the rule of law. A finally united opposition in Hungary, meanwhile, is catching up in the polls to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán ahead of elections next year.

This far right, with its contempt for human rights, a free media, rule of law, and political checks and balances, is the greatest threat to democracy within democracies. Fortunately, it’s not doing very well in western Europe either. The anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland has witnessed a significant drop in support in Germany, while Lega in Italy has also declined in popularity. Golden Dawn has disappeared from the scene in Greece. Vox is still the third most popular party in Spain, but it hasn’t managed to rise much above 15 percent in the polls, which is the same story for the Sweden Democrats (stuck at around 19 percent). Only in Finland and France are the far-right parties continuing to prosper: Marine Le Pen currently leads the polls against Emanuel Macron ahead of next year’s presidential election while the Finns Party leads by a couple percentage points in the polls but with elections not likely before 2023.

Elsewhere in the world, the pandemic may result in more political casualties for far-right populists, as they get caught in the ebbing of the Trump wave. Brazilians are protesting throughout the country under the banner of impeaching Jair Bolsonaro, a president who like Trump has compiled a spectacularly poor record in dealing with COVID-19. Bolsonaro’s approval rating has fallen to a new low under 25 percent. The still-popular former leader Lula, recently cleared by the courts to run again for office, appears to be assembling a broad political coalition to oust Bolsonaro in the elections set for next year.

Hard-right leader Ivan Duque has achieved the distinction of being the least popular leader in Colombian history. Politically it doesn’t matter so much, since he can’t run again for president in next year’s election. But Colombians’ disgust with the violence in the country and the economic inequality exacerbated by the pandemic will likely apply as well to any of his would-be hard-right successors.

The extraordinary mishandling of the pandemic in India has had a similar effect on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, which has also recently fallen to a new low. However, after seven years in office, the Indian prime minister remains quite popular, with a 63 percent approval rating.

Modi’s Teflon reputation speaks to the fragility of democracy in many parts of the world. Many voters are attracted to right-wing nationalists like Modi—Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador—who promise to “get the job done” regardless of the political and economic costs. Such leaders can rapidly turn a democratic country into a putatively democratic one, which makes the step into authentic authoritarianism that much easier.

The coups in Mali and Myanmar, China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, the enduring miseries in North Korea, Venezuela, and Eritrea: these are all reminders that, however fragile democracy might be in formally democratic states, politics can always get a lot worse.

Lukashenko: Strong or Weak?

Take the example of Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has ruled supreme since 1994. Thanks to his own ruthlessness and the patronage of neighboring Russia, Lukashenko has weathered mass protests that would have ousted leaders of weaker disposition.

His latest outrage was to order the grounding of a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania as it was flying over Belarus—just so that he could apprehend a young dissident, Roman Protasevich, and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Virtually everyone has decried this blatant violation of international laws and norms with the exception, of course, of Vladimir Putin and others in the Russian president’s orbit. The editor of the Russian media conglomerate RT, Margarita Simonyan, tweeted, “Never did I think I would envy Belarus. But now I do. [Lukashenko] performed beautifully.”

Lukashenko indeed came across as all-powerful in this episode. But this is an illusion. Putin has not hesitated to assassinate his critics, even when they are living outside Russia. Lukashenko doesn’t have that kind of reach or audacity, so he has to wait until dissidents are within his own airspace to strike. I’d like to believe that the opposition in Belarus takes heart from this desperate move—is Lukashenko really so scared of a single dissident?— and doubles down on its efforts to oust the tyrant.

Outside of Putin and his toadies, Lukashenko doesn’t have many defenders. This elaborate effort to capture a dissident only further isolates the Belarussian strongman. Even putatively democratic states, like Poland and Hungary, have unequivocally denounced Lukashenko.

Anti-democratic actions like the Ryanair stunt capture headlines in ways that pro-democratic efforts rarely do. Honestly, had you even heard of Roman Protasevich before this affair? Along with all the other depressing news of the day, from Texas to Mali, this brazen move suggests that democracy is teetering on the edge of an abyss.

But all the patient organizing against the strongmen that doesn’t make it into the news will ultimately prove the fragility of tyranny. When it comes to anti-democrats like Lukashenko, they will one day discover that the military, the police, and the party have abandoned them. And it will be they who teeter at the abyss, their hands scrabbling for a secure hold, when along comes democracy to give them a firm pat on the back.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 2, 2021

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