A leaderless struggle for democracy

A leaderless struggle for democracy

Democracy and pluralism are under assault

By Sarah Repucci

Democracy and pluralism are under assault. Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world. At the same time, many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest. In fact, such leaders are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.

As a result of these and other trends, Freedom House found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The gap between setbacks and gains widened compared with 2018, as individuals in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties while those in just 37 experienced improvements. The negative pattern affected all regime types, but the impact was most visible near the top and the bottom of the scale. More than half of the countries that were rated Free or Not Free in 2009 have suffered a net decline in the past decade.

Ethnic, religious, and other minority groups have borne the brunt of government abuses in both democracies and authoritarian states. The Indian government has taken its Hindu nationalist agenda to a new level with a succession of policies that abrogate the rights of different segments of its Muslim population, threatening the democratic future of a country long seen as a potential bulwark of freedom in Asia and the world. Attacks on the rights of immigrants continue in other democratic states, contributing to a permissive international environment for further violations. China pressed ahead with one of the world’s most extreme programs of ethnic and religious persecution, and increasingly applied techniques that were first tested on minorities to the general population, and even to foreign countries. The progression illustrated how violations of minority rights erode the institutional and conventional barriers that protect freedom for all individuals in a given society.

The unchecked brutality of autocratic regimes and the ethical decay of democratic powers are combining to make the world increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance. A striking number of new citizen protest movements have emerged over the past year, reflecting the inexhaustible and universal desire for fundamental rights. However, these movements have in many cases confronted deeply entrenched interests that are able to endure considerable pressure and are willing to use deadly force to maintain power. The protests of 2019 have so far failed to halt the overall slide in global freedom, and without greater support and solidarity from established democracies, they are more likely to succumb to authoritarian reprisals.

A world without democratic leadership

The same trends that have destabilized major democracies and pulled them away from their founding principles have also pulled them apart from one another, creating a vacuum on the international stage. Where once democracies might have acted in unison to support positive outcomes to global crises, disparate authoritarian states now frequently step into the breach and attempt to impose their will.

In the Middle East and North Africa, lack of consistent international leadership from democracies has encouraged authoritarian powers to engage in devastating proxy wars, which sometimes feature nominal US partners fighting on opposite sides. In Syria, which has languished as the world’s least free country for the past seven years, the precipitous withdrawal of US troops from the northern border area in late 2019 left Russia and Turkey to fill the void, unleashing a fresh wave of abuses against the Kurdish population and imperilling the campaign against the Islamic State militant group.

An even more perplexing conflict unfolded in Libya, where Russia joined Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and others in supporting a local warlord’s assault on the capital, which was defended by militias with backing from Turkey and Qatar. As with Syria, the extended chaos has contributed to the global migration crisis and allowed terrorist groups to organize in ungoverned areas. Another wantonly destructive war dragged on in Yemen, with Iran and Saudi Arabia pursuing their regional rivalry through local proxies. The Trump administration continued to support the Saudi-led air campaign in the country despite bipartisan opposition in Congress and a partial withdrawal by the Saudis’ main partner, the UAE.

Public demands for democratic governance

The mass protests that emerged or persisted during 2019 in every region of the world are a reminder that the universal yearning for equality, justice, and freedom from oppression can never be extinguished. In countries rated as free and unfree, people took to the streets to express discontent with existing systems of government and demand changes that would lead to better, more democratic outcomes. While striking in their numbers, the protests have frequently floundered in the face of resistance from defenders of the status quo. Progress is evident in some cases, but the ultimate outcomes are unclear, and the protests in general have yet to usher in a new period of global democratic progress.

The dramatic protests in Hong Kong erupted in response to a proposed extradition bill that underscored the erosion of civil liberties in the territory under Chinese rule. Even when the bill was eventually withdrawn, the public continued to press for other key demands, including universal suffrage. But Beijing has refused to yield any more ground, and despite a sweeping opposition victory in neighbourhood-level elections in November, Hong Kong has suffered more repression to date than it has gained in freedom.

In Algeria, demonstrations broke out following President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fifth term. Although he resigned in April and a new president was elected in December, protesters dismissed the electoral process as a bid by entrenched military and economic elites to perpetuate their rule, and the movement has continued into 2020.

Courageous protests in Sudan that began in December 2018 led to the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in April, ending a 30-year reign that featured multiple civil wars and alleged genocide. The demonstrators, not satisfied with the military junta that replaced al-Bashir, continued to demand systemic reform and civilian rule, enduring horrific crackdowns by the armed forces as democratic powers largely stood by. The protest leaders eventually secured a power-sharing deal in August, raising hopes for justice and free elections in the future, though military and paramilitary commanders retained enormous influence and valuable support from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE. Sudan’s Freedom in the World score received a five-point net improvement for the year, reflecting real gains that may or may not lead to broader political transformation.

In Bolivia, leftist president Evo Morales left the country amid protests in November after ignoring national referendum results and attempting to secure a fourth term in office through a fraudulent election. However, the interim president who succeeded him, conservative senator Jeanine Áñez, proved to be a polarizing figure and relied on the military to curb counter protests by Morales’s supporters. New elections are scheduled for May, and there are hopes that democratic governance will be fully restored in Bolivia after years of increasingly heavy-handed rule.

A wave of protests with diverse origins that took place in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador were initially met with unacceptable force. However, they soon led to dialogue on political reforms, including an agreement by the Chilean government to hold a referendum on constitutional revisions in April 2020. This sort of response shows that while governance problems may touch off protests in any political environment, democracies should have the flexibility to address popular grievances without resorting to repression or extra-legal measures.

In Ethiopia, years of futile attempts to repress mass protests finally convinced the authoritarian government to opt for reform. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018 with a mandate to overhaul the system, pressed ahead with his agenda during 2019, revising excessively restrictive laws on elections, terrorism, the media, and civil society organizations. The country has earned a 12-point improvement over the past two years in Freedom in the World. However, as the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front—recently reorganized to form the Prosperity Party—has loosened its authoritarian grip, various ethno-nationalist elements have contributed to political and communal violence, and the government has responded with a partial return to repressive tactics like internet shutdowns and arrests of journalists.

Urgent need for democratic solidarity

Local movements of citizens should not be expected to confront entrenched power structures—often backed by powerful foreign autocracies—without some form of assistance. International democratic actors can help these movements achieve their goals, blunt authoritarian reprisals, and convert breakthrough moments into long-term gains.

Unfortunately, instead of consistent and constructive engagement, the world’s democratic powers in 2019 offered only fitful support, frequent indifference or ambiguity, and at times outright abandonment.

Those who doubt the value of a foreign policy designed to advance human freedom should realize that no one’s rights are safe when tyranny is allowed to go unchecked. History has shown that the chaotic effects of authoritarian misrule abroad are not confined by national borders, and that authoritarian powers will seek to expand their control by subverting the democratic sovereignty of other states. The same is true in domestic affairs: attacks on the rights of specific groups or individuals in a given country ultimately imperil the liberty of the entire society.

Today, as authoritarians fortify themselves at home and extend their international reach, and as some elected leaders adopt a myopic, self-serving, and discriminatory view of their official responsibilities, the world is becoming less stable and secure, and the freedoms and interests of all open societies are endangered. The tide can be reversed, but delay makes the task more difficult and costly. Rather than putting international concerns on hold while they address problems in their own countries, the citizens and genuine public servants of democracies must apply their core principles simultaneously in both domestic and foreign policy, and stand up for fundamental rights wherever they are threatened.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Democratic backsliding in West Africa accelerated in 2019. Benin, previously one of the continent’s top performers, held legislative elections from which all opposition parties were effectively excluded. The flawed process, which featured an internet shutdown and violence against anti-government protesters, contributed to a remarkable 13-point decline. Senegal’s presidential election went forward without two of the country’s most prominent opposition figures, who were barred from running due to criminal cases that were widely viewed as politically motivated, leading to a one-point decline.

Opposition parties were able to compete in Nigeria’s general elections, but the balloting was marred by major procedural irregularities and a rise in violence and intimidation, driving the country’s scores down in all three election-related indicators. The manipulation of online content during the electoral period and the government’s increasing hostility toward the media threatened free expression throughout the year. In Guinea, which was set to hold a presidential election in 2020, protesters turned out in an attempt to block President Alpha Condé’s drive to change the constitution and run for a third term. The country suffered a three-point decline as legislative elections were postponed and civic groups faced harassment for opposing the third-term effort.

East and Southern Africa presented more of a mixed picture. In Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Uganda, the space for independent civic and political activity continued to shrink as incumbent leaders worked to silence dissent. All three countries experienced declines in their scores. However, there was notable progress in some authoritarian states as they proceeded with tenuous reforms. While it remains to be seen whether the military in Sudan will abide by its power-sharing agreement with prodemocracy protest leaders and cede control to civilian leadership ahead of elections in 2022, the Sudanese people have already experienced initial improvements in political rights and civil liberties.

Ethiopia also made notable strides under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, reforming restrictive laws and allowing previously banned political groups to operate openly. Still, internal conflict threatened the durability of these gains, and the 2020 elections will be an important test. Angola’s early progress after a change in leadership in late 2017 was fairly dramatic, but the momentum slowed in 2019, and the results of President João Lourenço’s reform agenda, with emphasis on battling corruption, are yet to be fully realised.

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