The Challenges Faced by Democracies Today
In 1989 as the Berlin Wall crumbled, totalitarianism, as devised by Lenin for Russia in 1917, appeared to be gone; a more peaceful and just world seemed achievable. Francis Fukuyama of the U.S. State Department penned an article and later a book, “The End of History,” indicating that liberal democracy was the final form of government.
Liberal democracy, respecting voters and human dignity, political and gender equality and the rule of law, was then thought by many to have won the great ideological battle of the 20th century.
Today surprisingly, it is democracies that find themselves under siege. For the 12th consecutive year, according to “Freedom in the World” recently published by the 76-year-old Freedom House in the United States, nations that suffered democratic setbacks last year outnumbered those that registered gains.
States that a decade ago were promising success stories—Turkey and the Philippines, for example—are sliding into authoritarian if not totalitarian rule. The military in Myanmar, which after half a century allowed a limited democratic opening in 2010, committed a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing against approximately a million Rohingya in Rakhine state and then rebuffed international criticism of its actions.
Meanwhile, the world’s longest-established democracies are mired in seemingly intractable problems at home, including rapidly widening social and economic disparities, partisan fragmentation, terrorist attacks, and an influx of refugees that have strained alliances and increased xenophobia.
Challenges in democracies have fueled the rise of populist leaders, who appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment and provide short shrift to basic civil and political liberties. Right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017.
While they were kept out of government in all but Austria, their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties from across the political spectrum. Centrist newcomer and staunch supporter of the European Union, Emmanuel Macron handily won the French presidency, but in Germany, the Netherlands, and Cyprus mainstream parties struggled to create stable governing coalitions.
The key findings from the 2018 Freedom House report:
- Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades during 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the media, and the rule of law—came under attack and went into retreat globally.
- Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Over the period since the 12-year global slide began in 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline, and only 62 have experienced a net improvement.
Meanwhile, two of the world’s leading dictators in China and Russia not only increased internal repression, but exported malign influences to other countries, some of which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democratic governance.
The Chinese regime recently proclaimed that China is “blazing a new trail” for developing countries to follow–one that would no doubt seek to include endemic official corruption, no rule of law, no dissent, crony capitalism, state violence against citizens and single party elections.
Carl Gershman, president of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, recently noted, “Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries are using sophisticated soft power techniques and multilateral coalitions like the Shanghai Cooperation organization to subvert the global norms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to replace them with the norm of unlimited state sovereignty…They are using trackers, trolls, and other instruments to subvert the integrity of the media space and to spread confusion and divisions and to undermine the institutions of the West.”
The global spread of anti-democratic practices is not just a setback for fundamental freedoms. It also poses economic and security risks. When more nations are free, all countries are safer and more prosperous. When more are autocratic and repressive, treaties and alliances weaken, nations and regions become unstable, and violent extremists have increased room to operate.
Democratic governments allow people to set the societal norms while protecting the rights of minorities to be different. This fosters a broader respect for peace, fair play, and compromise. Autocrats, in contrast, impose arbitrary rules on their citizens while ignoring constraints themselves, spurring a vicious circle of abuse and radicalization.
Most worrisome for the future is that some young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against totalitarianism in various forms, might be losing faith in the democratic project. The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished, contributing to a dangerous apathy. Former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers is correct in saying, “Democracy works when people claim it as their own.” A determined struggle to reclaim it must begin immediately.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”