Diagnosing Democracy in Decline

Courtesy of aier.org

By Billy Pierre, Staff Writer

In its report published earlier this year, Freedom House determined that at least 23 countries have become less free between 2005 and 2018. The share of countries classified as “not free” has increased to 26 percent, while the share of countries identified as “free,” or democratic, fell to 44 percent. While some progress has been made, these undemocratic developments still present a “consistent and ominous” pattern according to Freedom House. 2018 was the 13th consecutive year of decline in freedom in the world, which gives us reason to worry. Democracy faces the threats of populism and weakening economies.

The democratic system is often seen as the best human political system, as it is the only one that guarantees respect for the rights of the greatest amount of people. Democracy is more than free and fair elections. A democratic system implies the existence of the civil and political freedoms of speech, publishing, assembly, and organizing necessary for political debate and the conduct of electoral campaigns. Hence many world leaders have been working toward a more democratic world.

The American political scientist Samuel Huntington has described three periods of history where democracy ebbed and flowed. In Democracy’s Third Wave, Huntington wondered whether the growth of democracy beginning with the 1974 revolution in Portugal and ending in 1990 after the democratization of former members of the USSR would last. Huntington argued that democratic waves could be followed by a backward movement. In other words, a set of states that used to be democratic could later be led by autocrats or semi-autocrats.

At the end of 2010, and the beginning of 2011, the Arab world experienced a movement that was supposed to lead to a more democratic region. A few dictators were forced to leave power, such as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt. This was the Arab Spring! Some commentators attribute the Arab Spring to a “fourth wave” of democratization. Whether the Arab Spring is part of the fourth wave, we must notice that much of the progress made at the beginning of this decade is threatened. Tunisia is probably the country that has benefited the most from the Arab Spring. Though it has had its difficulties, elections were still held recently. However, in Libya, the end of the Gaddafi dictatorship

gave way to a civil war that continues today. One can, without hesitation, say the same about Syria. As a result, these two countries, like so many others, have never completed the democratic transition.

Ironically, while some countries are still struggling to make the transition toward democracy, some established democracies are going into reverse due to the emergence of populist leaders. An article published by The Atlantic states that political scientists fear that populists have a tendency “to be extremely corrupt.” The author added that they “perpetuate their hold on power by delegitimizing the opposition, and inflict lasting damage on their countries’ democratic institutions.” For example, Jair Bolsonaro, current president of Brazil, openly praised the brutal military dictatorship that prevailed in Brazil from 1964 until 1985.

A study conducted by Jordan Kyle and Yascha Mounk shows that populist leaders “are four times more likely to attack democratic institutions than non-populist governments.” Populist governments tend, on average, to suppress individual rights. Indeed, freedom of the press decreases by 7 percent, civil liberties by 8 percent and political rights by 13 percent, according to the same study. All these data present the danger that populist governments pose to democracy.

The decline of democracy is also explained by economic turmoil. In an age of rising inequality, citizens blame their democratic leaders for poor performance in the economy. A Pew Research poll of many of the former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states finds that many people think they were better off under communism, according to Joshua Kurlantzick in Democracy in Retreat. That perception can be explained by the fact that we can sometimes see a more stable economic performance or distribution under some dictatorships. Many dictatorships have an indefinite lifespan. Therefore, they are relatively stable from a political standpoint. And besides, to legitimize their power, dictators have an interest in producing wealth in the country. Moreover, even when some democratic countries show a positive economic performance, most of the population does not always benefit from that wealth. The inequalities caused by globalization are unsettling in democracies.

In sum, since 2005, democracy has begun a gradual descent. Although slow and not very significant for the moment, the situation remains worrying about our world. The growing rise of populist governments threatens the respect of civil and political rights. It is now the responsibility of the democratic leaders to implement some economic reforms. Strong economies will rebuild the confidence of the people in the democratic system. This work is crucial since democracy is the only system that guarantees respect for the rights of the population.

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