Nepal | May 25, 2020

Challenge to democracies: Elected autocracy on the rise

Mukti Rijal
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Freedom of expression and the media are under most severe attacks by governments around the world, followed by closing space for civil society, and an erosion of the rule of law

The triumph of liberal democracy was celebrated worldwide during the Nineties, which was highlighted by the renowned political scientist, late Samuel Huntington, as the wave of democratisation sweeping across the globe. Francis Fukuyama had gone a step ahead to describe the ascendancy of liberal democracy as the end of history to presage and predetermine the prospective decadence and demise of authoritarian politics in the world.

However, the euphoric celebration of the expanding march of liberal democracy could not last long as the liberal wave is being reversed today due to what is called the illiberal winds blowing across the democratic countries. A study carried  out by Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, titled “Global Democracy Facing Challenge”, has  concluded that  instead of democratisation, the   trend of autocratisation continues to jeopardise democracy worldwide.

According to the study, 24 countries are now severely affected by the “third wave of autocratisation.” Among them are populous countries such as Brazil, India and the United States, as well as several Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Serbia. Almost one-third of the world’s population lives in countries undergoing alleged autocratisation, surging from 415 million in 2016 to 2.3 billion in 2018. The report presents the model for forecasting autocratisation and lists that many democratic countries, including India, the US and Russia, are on the way towards sliding into elected autocracy.

The report has identified and pinpointed three major challenges to democracy. They include government manipulation of the media, civil society, rule of law and elections. The report further mentions that freedom of expression and the media are under most severe attacks by governments around the world, followed by closing space for civil society, and an erosion of the rule of law.

Another challenge mentioned in the report is the toxic polarisation in the public sphere, characterised by the division of society into distrustful, antagonistic camps. This presents an increasing threat to democracy. Moreover, political leaders’ intolerance and disrespect for the opponents, factual reasoning and engagement with society are declining in many more countries. Political leaders are increasingly using hate speech and disinformation to foul the political environment. The third challenge to democracy, as mentioned in the report, is presented by abuse of digitalisation, which is being misused for the spread of disinformation campaigns and propaganda.

According to the report, the decline of democracy is much steeper and of substantially greater magnitude in Western Europe and North America and Latin America. With the conspicuous decline in Western Europe and North America, by this indicator, the region is back to the level of democracy, for the average citizen, seen 40 years ago, in 1978, the time shortly after Southern European countries, especially Portugal and Spain, came out of long periods of authoritarian rule and dictatorship. The regional average of democracy for Latin America is down to 0.51 in 2018, bringing the region back to about 1996-levels.

By 2018, Eastern Europe and Central Asia’s population-weighted democracy had declined by almost one third from its peak in 1994. By the population-measure, the decline in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is not only much more substantial, it also started much earlier. This is, according to the study, due to the influence of illiberal and alleged authoritarian rule of Putin in Russia, which had already started in the 1990s and which is home to one third of the region’s population. While these are worrisome facts, it is also noted that democracy levels plateaued and remained static, and did not progress in all regions between 2017 and 2018 AD.

Despite the highly worrying reverses meted out to liberal democracies in certain parts of the world, it is not a free-fall around the world. In fact, according to the report, 21 countries have made progress on democracy over the past ten years. Among them are Armenia, Burkina Faso, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tunisia. This testifies and presents further evidence to the continued appeal for democratic values and freedom in the world.

Democracy still prevails in majority of the countries, that is, in more than one hundred countries around the world, which accounts for more than 55 per cent of the countries of the world.

The world is thus unmistakably more democratic and liberal compared to any point during the last century. However, threats and challenges to liberal democracies have mounted due to rise of soft authoritarian rule in the garb of democracy.

In Nepal’s case too, the incumbent government of the Nepal Communist Party, headed by K.P. Sharma Oli, has been criticised for what many see as an authoritarian turn, stifling freedom of speech and steadily encroaching on human rights.

The present government has been also blamed for attempting to push through a number of controversial bills, including the Media Council Bill and Information Technology Bill, among others, to clampdown on the civic rights and freedoms. Though the Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has  expressed commitment  not to  transgress and infringe upon  the human freedoms and rights of the citizens, the incumbent government initiatives to centralise power and institutionalise authority at Singha Durbar  has given room for doubts on its  democratic  federalist credentials.

A version of this article appears in print on June 18, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.

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