Democracy Is Down, but Not Out

World Politics Review, 08.03.2021
Stewart M. Patrick, académico del Council on Foreign Relations

A woman kneels in front of riot police that blocks a rally of Belarusian opposition supporters in the center of Minsk. (AP)

A raging pandemic, an absent America and an emboldened China have exacerbated an ongoing global democratic recession. That is the message of “Freedom in the World 2021,” Freedom House’s latest status report on the fortunes of democracy. During 2020, democracy retreated for the 15th consecutive year, deteriorating in 73 countries and improving in only 28—a record margin according to Freedom House, which has been tracking these trends for more than 40 years. Reversing this decline will require established democracies to play both defense and offense, bolstering democracy where it is under siege and challenging the anti-democratic message of the world’s authoritarian powers.

Every year, Freedom House classifies nations into three categories—“free,” “partly free” and “not free”—based on the quality of their civil and political liberties. In 2020, the number of “not free” countries (54) was the highest and the number of “free” nations (82) the lowest since 2005. From a population perspective, the situation is even more dire. India declined to “partly free” status in 2020, meaning that fewer than 20 percent of the globe’s inhabitants now live in a “free” country today, by Freedom House’s measure.

Declining democracy is a worldwide phenomenon, as a few examples will attest. In East Asia, China imposed new restrictions to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement; Cambodia’s ruler Hun Sen expanded his ability to curtail dissent; and Thailand was reclassified as “not free,” because of the military-dominated government’s “crackdown on youth-led protests calling for democratic reforms” and “the dissolution of a popular opposition party that had performed well in the 2019 elections,” as Freedom House put it. In the Americas, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro used fraudulent elections to subvert the legitimacy of a democratically elected legislature, while Peru declined from “free” to “partly free” amid political turmoil. In Africa, Tanzanian President John Magufuli entrenched his autocratic rule, while Mali was reclassified as “not free” following a coup against its democratically elected government.

In Europe and Central Asia, meanwhile, dictator Alexander Lukashenko cracked down brutally on protesters in Belarus, while Kyrgyzstan experienced the biggest single drop in freedom of any nation following deeply flawed legislative elections that sparked violent demonstrations and led to the resignation of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. In the Middle East, Jordan deteriorated to “not free,” as the government severely curtailed freedom of assembly, while Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—Donald Trump’s self-professed “favorite dictator”—held farcical parliamentary elections and silenced independent media and civil society.

Although domestic factors typically have the largest impact on democracy in any given country, external ones can also influence its fortunes. Over the past year, three major international forces exacerbated the global decline in freedom: the COVID-19 pandemic, faltering leadership from major democracies, and anti-democratic campaigns by authoritarian states.

Many autocrats have used the worst pandemic in a century to enhance their repressive powers. A case in point is Hungary, where a set of emergency measures have allowed Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree, and even withdraw government assistance from opposition-led municipalities. Another is Sri Lanka, where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seized on the pandemic to delay parliamentary elections and, following a subsequent victory for his party at the polls, expand his powers.

The failure of established democracies to defend democratic norms themselves has reinforced these troubling trends. This United States is the most glaring example. While it remains a “free” country, by Freedom House’s metrics, the U.S. has seen its democracy fall by 11 points—on a 100-point scale—over the past decade, putting it in the company of Panama and Romania rather than allies like France and Germany. American democracy declined precipitously under Trump, culminating in his incitement of a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The crisis of American democracy has left the free world rudderless.

India’s downward trajectory has been another devastating blow, given its status as the world’s largest democracy by far, with a population nearing 1.4 billion. The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted incendiary rhetoric and discriminatory policies against the country’s Muslim minority, undermining faith in India’s commitment to political pluralism and religious tolerance—some of the very principles expressed in the preamble to the Indian Constitution. Given India’s authoritarian turn, the wealthy G-7 nations may think twice before inviting it to join Australia and South Korea into an expanded club of democracies—the “Democratic 10” or “D-10” that some strategists have suggested.

China has happily filled the vacuum left by all these faltering democracies, ramping up its global disinformation and propaganda efforts while redoubling censorship and repression at home. Following in Moscow’s footsteps, Beijing increasingly meddles in the electoral politics and political discourse of foreign democracies, while promoting a doctrine of sovereign noninterference within organizations like the U.N. Human Rights Council that are ostensibly dedicated to defending liberty and dignity worldwide. Seeking to deflect criticism about its failure to alert the world of a novel coronavirus, China has touted the efficacy of its draconian approach to curbing the contagion at home, ignoring the successes that democratic Taiwan achieved without such oppressive methods.

What might be done to reverse the autocratic tide? “Freedom in the World” offers commonsense recommendations on democracy promotion, calling on wealthy nations to increase relevant aid budgets, support civil society, promote free and independent media, help countries at “critical junctures,” and “invest in alliances with other democracies, and in multilateral institutions.” More originally, the organization implores democracies to “hold each other accountable for living up to democratic ideals at home,” hinting at a system of peer review, and to spend more on civic education. This last recommendation echoes another report last week, by the Educating for Democracy Initiative, which brings together academics, historians, teachers, school administrators and state education officials. They call for massive U.S. investment in teaching history and civics to American students, as a way to restore trust in U.S. political institutions.

Freedom House also exhorts the U.S. and its allies to counter the “threats to global democracy.” The Biden administration has many tools at its disposal. It should target human rights abusers with sanctions, building on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act; prioritize the fight against kleptocracy and corruption, including by creating a tiered list of countries linked to eligibility for foreign assistance; curtail aid to countries whose leaders evade term limits; require transparency for foreign-owned propaganda outlets operating in the U.S.; and curb foreign influence over U.S. government officials.

The most problematic recommendations in “Freedom in the World” are those designed to strengthen democracy in America. The authors call on the U.S. to “reduce political polarization and extremism by establishing independent redistricting commissions” that would make gerrymandering a thing of the past; to “bolster confidence in election integrity” by deploying a nonpartisan, nationwide system for election observation; and “to protect and improve voting access for all.” Any such agenda, of course, would require bipartisan backing. But that is precisely what is missing today in America, where the Republicans seem determined to restrict, and Democrats to expand, the franchise for American citizens. A country can’t truly be free if one of its major parties is committed to making it harder to vote because it didn’t like an election’s outcome.

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