O n August 15, India will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its independence from the British Empire. Although the fallout of freedom was chaotic and bloody, within four years every adult was allowed to vote in its first election as an independent country. Many observers thought this experiment was doomed to fail but India has proved the doubters wrong, holding 16 national ballots since 1951. Today it remains the world’s most populous democracy with more than 800 million registered voters – “a stunning achievement that makes India a standout in the developing world”, according to the Journal of Democracy.
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has marginalised Muslims and presided over a brutal crackdown in Kashmir, India’s votes are free and fair, the press is raucous and the judiciary relatively independent. Elsewhere, however, democracy is on the back foot.
After 30 years of progress, the world has grown steadily less free over the past decade. At least 25 democracies have broken down since the start of the millennium – including regional powers such as Turkey, Russia and Venezuela – and more countries have gone backwards than forwards in each of the past 11 years, according to Freedom House, an American NGO. Making matters worse, even established liberal democracies such as the US and France now look fragile. What has gone wrong, and could India lead the fightback?
Recession or depression?
If history is any guide, the current ‘democratic recession’ bodes badly for world peace and prosperity. Samuel Huntington, the late American social scientist, described the period after Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution as a “third wave” of democratisation that began in the Mediterranean and spread through Latin America and Asia in the 1980s before sweeping back through Europe in 1989. Months after Berliners breached the Wall, Nelson Mandela walked free in South Africa. Huntington noted that when the two previous periods of progress – from the 1820s to the 1920s and from 1943 to 1964 – came to an end, fascism took root and conflicts caught fire.
The current backlash has claimed casualties in every region. The Arab Spring briefly gave hope that the Middle East and North Africa would shake off decades of authoritarian rule but spawned worse dictatorships than before in Egypt and Bahrain while unleashing civil wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria, which Freedom House now ranks as the least free country in the world. So far at least, spring has only borne fruit in Tunisia.
There is not a single "consolidated" (well-established) democracy in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, notes Edward Luce in his recent book ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism’. Opposition leader Raila Odinga claimed that this week’s election in Kenya, which he lost, had been hacked by Uhuru Kenyatta’s government after the murder of Chris Msando, a senior electoral official. Neighbouring Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan are all regressing, as is Zambia to the south.
Nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland are attacking press freedom and judicial independence. The most democratic country in Central Asia is Kyrgyzstan, where human rights defenders are charged with defamation. And apart from Myanmar, Southeast Asia is backsliding. Most important of all, Xi Jinping is China’s most autocratic leader since Chairman Mao.
Indeed, of the 11 countries and territories that Freedom House said had seen major developments in 2016, only one was singled out for having made progress. That was Colombia, where voters rejected a peace deal with FARC rebels before accepting a revised version. The accord has since brought one of the world’s longest-running conflicts to a close.
Larry Diamond, a leading expert in democracy at Stanford University, told The World Weekly it is too early to know if this decline represents a blip or something more malignant. “But the recession is certainly deepening,” he went on. “There is no natural and inevitable stopping point, and Russia, China, and Iran would certainly like to arrest democratic progress anywhere in the neighbourhoods. It is a very vulnerable moment.”
Flickering city on a hill
Beyond bad governance and a human tendency to abuse power if unchecked, Professor Diamond blames economic inequality, exaggerated fears of immigration and waning American and European interest in promoting and supporting democracy overseas. Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics goes further, arguing that the US and its allies have aided and abetted dictators and “counterfeit democrats” by pursuing short-term interests such as gathering intelligence, especially since the catastrophic failure to impose democracy at the barrel of a gun in Iraq.
In September 2010, just over a year after Barack Obama spoke of his “unyielding belief that all people yearn for… the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed” in Cairo, the US announced its largest arms deal to date with Saudi Arabia, a country that has since bombed weddings in Yemen. Dr. Klaas bemoans the fact that no US administration has applied significant pressure on Riyadh to curb human rights abuses since John F. Kennedy encouraged the abolition of slavery in 1962. President Donald Trump is unlikely to buck that trend.
As the West has lost its voice, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has propounded the case for conservative autocracy and sought to destabilise democracies from within. He has reprised the tactics behind the Comintern, but whereas the Soviet Union appealed to communists, modern Russia supports any party or politician taking on the international order represented by the EU and NATO. France’s far-right Front National – whose leader, Marine Le Pen, came second in May’s presidential election – may not have survived without a €9.5 million ($10.1 million) loan from a Kremlin-linked bank in 2014.
“Led by the ‘Big Five’ authoritarian states of China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, the authoritarian powers have taken more coordinated and decisive action to contain democracy on a global level,” write Professor Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Christopher Walker. The authoritarians’ biggest asset, however, is Western weakness. The disaster in Iraq, the financial meltdown starting in 2007, gridlock in Washington and chronic dysfunction in the EU have all tarnished liberal democracy. Whereas the US and even more so the eurozone took years to recover from the financial crisis, China’s state-run economy continued to grow at a rapid rate.
As a result many countries that had looked west for inspiration now look east. Perhaps the most dramatic reversal has taken place in the Philippines, a long-time US ally in the Pacific that is now embracing Beijing and Moscow. Last October, President Rodrigo Duterte told Chinese business leaders: “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia.”
The threat from within
Mr. Duterte won the 2016 election by a landslide after boasting that he had not just sanctioned but physically taken part in extrajudicial killings while mayor of Davao. This is less surprising than it seems: according to the World Values Survey, almost 60% of Philippine citizens think a “strong leader who does not have to bother with Parliament and elections” is a good way to run the country.
More worrying is the fact that citizens in established liberal democracies are coming around to the Philippine point of view, not least because of high levels of inequality and a decade of stagnant living standards. Young people are particularly likely to feel let down and shut out by the current system.
In the US, where Mr. Trump made no secret of his contempt for the media and judiciary before defeating Hillary Clinton in November, a record 24% of young people said democracy was a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country in 2011. France, the UK, Turkey and South Africa are all showing the same trend. “The most mortal threat to the Western idea of progress comes from within,” writes Mr. Luce. “Donald Trump, and his counterparts in Europe, did not cause the crisis in democratic liberalism. They are a symptom.” These illiberal democrats claim to represent "the people" against "the elite". Set against them are undemocratic liberals who think recent populist victories show that "the people" cannot be trusted to make rational decisions.
For democracy to recover, citizens must regain faith in it. But the US and China have proved the importance of role models, the one democratic, the other dictatorial. India, argues Sumit Ganguly, Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at the University of Indiana, could provide the model of the future. “India’s success with democracy is living proof that that it is possible to embed democracy in a poor, multi-religious, poly-ethnic state,” he says. “Democracy has taken root despite seemingly impossible odds.”