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Democracy's Retreats and Tentative Advances in 2015

It has been frequently said that democracy is in retreat around the world, and it’s not difficult to understand why so many people feel that way. Resurgent authoritarians in Russia, China, Iran and other countries are expanding their reach and influence. Political space for civil society is shrinking in scores of countries, as states pass increasingly repressive laws that restrict their citizens’ freedoms domestically as well as cut them off from international support.  

Democracy is backsliding in important countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand, as well as in new EU member states like Hungary and Poland. Most worrisome of all, the United States and other advanced democracies are so overwhelmed by their own internal problems, including the rise of illiberal populism and the growing fear of terrorism, that they seem unable to muster a coherent response to the authoritarian challenge. Their passivity in the face of mounting international threats has emboldened the opponents of liberal democracy, which are rushing to fill the vacuums created by Western weakness and retreat.

It is, therefore, almost counter-intuitive to note that democracy made some important gains in 2015 in a series of critical elections.  The first was the startling victory on January 8 of the opposition in ethnically divided Sri Lanka, where the illiberal and nepotistic President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted in a relatively peaceful election that was followed by a surprisingly smooth political transition. Nigeria, also a deeply divided and exceedingly corrupt country, held successful elections the following March that The Economist called “a watershed for Africa’s biggest and most populous country.” An incumbent president was defeated for the first time, and the violence that many feared the election might trigger was averted as the result of a massive civic mobilization for peace and electoral integrity.

Other elections in 2015 also represented important advances for democracy. A peaceful and credible presidential election in Cote D’Ivoire on October 28 stabilized the country’s democratic recovery after years of civil war and electoral violence. The vote in Burma on November 8 represented a historic landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the beginning of a process of negotiated transition with the country’s long-ruling military. A historic election was also held in Burkina Faso later the same month. It followed a popular democratic uprising in 2014 and led to the election for the first time in the country’s history of a non-incumbent, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, who was also the first president in half a century to take office without launching a coup.

Elections also brought about democratic gains in Argentina and Venezuela, two important Latin American countries that have fueled the rise of illiberal populism in the region. The New York Times called Mauricio Macri’s upset victory over a Peronist candidate in Argentina “a stunner that is likely to set in motion a transformational era at home and in the region.” The “transformational” trend picked up momentum two weeks later in Venezuela when the democratic opposition achieved an equally stunning victory in parliamentary elections over a Chavista regime that had brought the country to economic ruin and whose leader, Nicolas Maduro, had threatened “massacre and death” if the ruling party lost.

These gains are encouraging, but they are not sufficiently widespread and sustained to represent a new democratic wave, and they are fragile and could easily be reversed. While illiberal forces and corrupt interests have suffered setbacks, they still retain the ability to block reform and frustrate meaningful, institutional change. This is especially true in Burma, where the military controls key ministries and has a guaranteed quarter of the seats in parliament, enough to block constitutional reform; and in Venezuela, where the Maduro regime remains in power and is methodically taking steps to reverse the opposition’s gains, even if he cannot undo the mandate the people have demanded. In Nigeria the challenge of rooting out corruption and promoting genuine economic development is formidable, to say the least.  

But there are encouraging lessons in these changes that are worth noting at this time of democratic pessimism. The first is that democratic civil society activists and grassroots social forces, which were chiefly responsible for the electoral gains made in 2015, have impressive resilience and staying power, not just in semi-open autocracies but also in backsliding and repressive authoritarian countries. In Africa they include bloggers in Ethiopia, youth activists and trade unionists in Zimbabwe, investigative journalists in Angola, and human rights defenders and peace activists in Burundi and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where leaders are preventing reform by manipulating election schedules, creating tensions that could erupt into violence. In Russia, where the government has passed repressive laws to intimidate and control NGOs and where democratic leaders like Boris Nemtsov have been murdered, activists continue to work fearlessly to expose elite corruption, defend human rights, and offer independent news and information to counter the regime’s steady drumbeat of nationalist propaganda. In China, despite the harshest political crackdown since the death of Mao Zedong, a Freedom House study reports that more people are joining rights-defense activities, information is spreading despite censorship, the fear of repression is waning, and the disillusionment with party corruption is growing.  These examples are just the tip of a massive iceberg of civic activism that exists in all regions of the world and that may at this moment be preparing the way for new democratic breakthroughs in the future.

This leads to the second lesson, which is that the world’s resurgent autocrats do not sit securely on their thrones. They repeatedly warn about the danger of foreign-instigated “colored revolutions.” This is actually an implicit admission by the world’s authoritarians that their greatest fear is the popular revolution that would be triggered by the regime’s inevitable attempt to reverse the unacceptable results of a reasonably free election. The gains made by democrats in the elections of 2015 should only increase that fear. Thus, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has tried to deflect pressure for a genuine election by engaging in what Leon Aron has called “patriotic mobilization” against alleged enemies in Ukraine and the West. But Russia’s deepening economic crisis, exacerbated by the sharp drop in oil prices, his failure to subdue Ukraine militarily, and sanctions expose his vulnerability. 

China’s tactic has been to use its economic performance to shore up its legitimacy, but that performance looks much less convincing as the economy slows and in the wake of last summer’s stock market crash that eviscerated $4 trillion in share value and accelerated capital flight. The Castro regime in Cuba also has reason to worry. In the past it has based its legitimacy on “the revolution” and anti-Americanism. These ideological props no longer work after the normalization of relations with the United States, and the developments in Argentina and Venezuela make the Cuban dictatorship look increasingly anachronistic.

The third lesson is that the leadership to advance democracy around the world is no longer coming from the democratic West now absorbed in its own problems. Rather, a homegrown and indigenous democracy movement has taken root in one country after another among people and organizations in the global south and the post-communist world fighting to defend their rights and human dignity. This is not to say that these people and organizations don’t need the political and moral support and solidarity of the world’s leading democracies. They do, and no effort should be spared to enhance that support, such as it may be, from non-governmental organizations and advocates, as well as from parliaments and government leaders and officials. It is simply to recognize that at the moment, the energy and determination needed to sustain democracy’s advance is going to come from the people on the frontlines of democratic struggles.  

Their courage will no doubt inspire many people in the advanced democracies, and it is even possible that their example will spark a revival of democratic commitment in the countries where democracy, after many trials, first became rooted. But for now, the leadership of the fight for democracy will have to come from the people who are in that fight. That may not be enough to meet all the challenges we face in our troubled world, but it is where we are today. And after a year when democracy has made some surprising gains, it is even a source of hope.

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