Protests in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo by andresAzp via flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dark Days for Democracy?

Democracy and the rule of law are suffering in many countries, with the rise of “illiberal” democracies or even outright dictatorships. Why is that? And what makes it a cause of serious concern for the global community?

News-watchers are by now long-familiar with the narrative of the steady rise of populism in Western countries. What is sometimes less noticed is that liberal-democratic norms and practices have also been declining in much of the rest of the world, outside of Western Europe and North America. According the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2018 Transformation Index (BTI) report, there has been “increasing political instability and a rapid decline in the acceptance of democratic institutions” across the world. More generally there has been “a continuous and increasing erosion of democratic standards.” Remarkably, as the BTI report observes: “For the first time, more than three billion people are governed autocratically.” Citizens of democratic societies still make up the majority of the world’s population, but their proportion is declining.

Admittedly, this has occurred at varying paces and degrees. As of 2017, some new (fragile) democracies have emerged, notably in Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka. However, the overall pattern is a negative one. Several states, namely Syria, Libya, Yemen, and South Sudan, face brutal conflicts or have even collapsed entirely as states. In the Muslim World, democratic success stories such as Turkey and Bangladesh have since descended into violence and authoritarianism. In Bangladesh, recent elections have been marked by killings and the ruling party has removed inconvenient judges from office. There has been a slower but no less corrosive democratic decline in other countries, such as Macedonia, Mexico, and South Africa. Much of southern Africa in general has seen a resurgence of clientelist politics and ethnic conflict.

Causes behind the trend

It is difficult to generalize about such a widespread and diverse trend. We can make some general observations however. A decline in commodity prices has put many developing economies, who otherwise lack high-value industries, under severe strain, as seen in Mexico, Brazil, and most catastrophically Venezuela.

We should emphasize that there has been great economic growth and reduction in absolute poverty across the world over the past decades. However, the former “Third World” has largely failed to reduce inequality, social exclusion, and corruption.

The decline in liberal-democracy is also no doubt a side effect of the decline of both Western influence and of the West’s own adherence to liberal norms. The decline of liberal-democracy in Macedonia, Turkey, and Moldova is tied to Brussels’ waning ability to set standards in the European Union’s neighborhood (or even, in the case of Hungary, within the bloc).

Wealthy dictatorships are being courted

The new autocratic politics is often tied to populist and xenophobic discourse condemning foreign influence. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has blamed the country’s drug problems on human rights, promoted among others by the United Nations.

While the policy performance of most autocracies has been mediocre or bad, some “developmental dictatorships” have known considerable economic success, namely Rwanda and China. Furthermore, many of newly and very wealthy countries happen to be dictatorships, such as Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.

The oligarchs and ruling classes of many developing countries will no doubt ask why they should bother with the trouble of democratic elections and accountability, when so many (often corrupt) autocracies are accepted as legitimate “partners” in the new global economy.

More than a constitutional principle

In actual fact, the give-and-take of democratic elections, the rule of law, and respect for individual rights have been quite rare throughout history. These are originally modern Western practices which require a certain social consensus and restraint, especially among elites but also in the wider citizenry. We may consider the resurgence of arbitrary rule, “tyranny of the majority,” corruption, clientelism, and in some cases outright dynastic autocracy as a decline in modern north-western European norms and a reversion, in the rest of the world, to traditional local patterns of behavior. The rule of law is not something which is simply written in a constitution but must actually deeply reflect a society’s culture and behavior.

These trends, often little-noticed in the West, which has its own problems, will have global consequences. As the BTI report notes: “Deficient domestic consensus-building generally goes hand-in-hand with a lack of cooperation with international organizations and other states.” This means that policymakers may have to be creative to maintain international cooperation in the face of global challenges such as environmental collapse, migration, and economic development.

First published on the Global Policy Journal Blog.

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