Monday, 24 January, 2022

Democracy Slides Globally

Democracy Slides Globally

Mukti Rijal

US President Joe Biden is going to preside over a virtual summit for democracy during these weeks in which the prime minister of Nepal Sher Bahadur Deuba is also invited to speak out to the world leaders. It is reported that more than 100 leaders from across the globe have been invited to the summit. The summit is catapulted, according to the announcement of the US government, to be an occasion to endorse the need to forge a principled commitment to strengthen, renew, and enforce democratic and human rights values across the globe.

Democratic solidarity
The summit for democracy is also claimed to offer an opportunity to strengthen cooperation among democratic actors, institutions and a chance to commit to continue providing global support to democratic and pluralistic political parties and independent civil society organisations. The US expects the democracy summit to lend voice, visibility, and support to individuals and communities across the globe to build and strengthen democratic solidarity.

The state of democracy in the US itself has not been in good form and shape during the contemporary times. Long after Joe Biden assumed the presidency, Freedom House, a democracy-watchdog group ranked the state of democracy in the United States well below that many countries like Chile, Costa Rica, and Slovakia. Freedom House cited gerrymandering, the influence of money in politics, and the disenfranchisement of people of colour among the reasons for the poor showing of the US democracy.

It is against this backdrop that the Biden administration is hosting the virtual Summit for Democracy. When the US president Biden announced the summit during the last August, the goal seemed to be to reestablish America’s standing in the world by championing human rights and democratic values. However, a prestigious US newspaper The Atlantic writes a critique on the planned summit remarking: "There is something deeply wishful about hosting a summit to bolster democracy around the world when democracy in the US is, at best, floundering. One of the central premises of American exceptionalism is the belief that, against all odds democracy will endure in the US. Yet the paradox at the core of all democracies is that they can be legislated out of existence".

It is pertinent to note that International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, (IDEA) - an inter-governmental organisation based in Stockholm, added the United States to its list of “backsliding” democracies. The US received this label, according to the report issued by the IDEA, in part because of Trump’s insistence that the 2020 presidential election in which Joe Biden got elected was fraudulent. In fact, the International IDEA's global state of democracy report 2021 has received more attention and captured a wide discursive space this year in comparison to the similar reports released during the previous years.

The reason behind the spotlight on the report can be attributed in part to the battle cry raised by the Western democracies, especially the US, during these days to promote and reenergise what they call the “democratic values, ideals and norms” and save them from the growing threats of the non-democratic regimes in the world. The threat has been especially noticed and taken cognizance of due to the enhanced resilience and capacity of what the US and its trans-Atlantic partners dub as the nondemocratic regimes to deal with and respond to the global crises and pandemics. Needless to say, China and Russia have succeeded to fight the pandemics and demonstrated the state capacity to deliver.

This has provided a strong rebuttal to the criticisms coming from the Western powers, and vindicated that the political systems that do not conform and align with the Western democracies can be as efficient and effective to deliver development and realise the economic and social aspirations of the people. In fact, the 21st century was hailed optimistically as the century of democracy by the Western powers. The future looked bright, as many erstwhile authoritarian and hybrid regimes, such as Armenia, the Gambia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Tunisia, became democracies. The will of the people as the only legitimate form of authority seemed to be a popular and rapidly spreading ideal. However, the trend seems to have got reversed.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a trend of increasing authoritarianism, across the globe, with many countries sliding down the democratic scale. Myanmar, which had been a democracy just beginning to recover from decades of military rule, fell victim to a military coup. Significantly, the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself.
As in many other aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and magnified pre-existing political trends while adding a whole new plethora of unprecedented challenges to democracies that were already under pressure. Virtually overnight, all democratic systems found themselves dealing with enormous obstacles to hold minimally adequate elections and secure the functioning of legislative and judicial institutions.

Human victory
More importantly, according to the report, executives all over the world felt compelled — and also tempted — to deploy wide-ranging emergency powers to confront the calamity that had befallen the world. The results have been problematic. The monumental human victory achieved when democracy became the predominant form of governance now hangs in the balance like never before, states the global state of democracy report.

Nepal does not find any mention in the global state of democracy report which indicates that the country has not achieved any worthwhile gains in enhancing and strengthening democratic institutions and practices nor has gone backsliding like Myanmar, among others. Nepal should, therefore, improve its democratic scores and profile through reinvigoration of the federal democratic institutions, ethos and practices so that her standing in the democratic world does not go downgraded.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.