Warnings of the imminent collapse of global democracy and the rise of authoritarianism are becoming a daily banality. But the analysis masks a fundamental point: democratization is a process and not an end state.
The gloom from commentators such as political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa — who predict the end of Western liberal democracy — is certainly not unfounded. Last year was the 12th consecutive year of global net democratic decline, according to US-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, while countries rated “not free” by the human rights watchdog reached one-third of global income compared with just 12% in 1990.
Asia symbolizes the trend. Cambodia has fallen into dictatorship, democratic uplift in Myanmar is not matching the West’s sky-high expectations. In the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte continues a campaign of extra-judicial executions of supposed drug users. In China, its anti-democratic brand of state capitalism grows. Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have been fomenting Hindu nationalism.
Trump’s bombast encourages despots
Indeed, since the 2008/9 financial crisis, weak economic growth has precipitated political turmoil in established Western democracies, and has delivered a hammer-blow to the moral — and even practical — credibility of the open, liberal-democratic nation-state model. What’s more, US President Donald Trump’s anti-democratic bombast has legitimized copycats elsewhere, with India’s BJP nationalist and Cambodia’s ruling party drawing justification for their autocratic policies from the new leader of the free world.
China now rivals the US in foreign aid and loans, dolling out some US$362 billion across the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia from 2000 to 2014. The lure of Chinese and Russian funding has only grown with the leaders of developing countries more willing to forgo the power-limiting democratic reforms and economic liberalization that comes with the West’s conditional aid. That’s only been accelerated by the US and European Union’s increasing preoccupation with challenges closer to home, cut against China’s rapid economic growth.
There’s no reason to assume liberal Western democracies will be unable to solve their domestic economic malaise, either through institutional reform or political upheaval, and return to the world stage.
So, firstly the snapback in global democratic progress is partly one of shifting geopolitical sands. As such, it may just be temporary. There’s no reason to assume liberal Western democracies will be unable to solve their domestic economic malaise, either through institutional reform or political upheaval, and return to the world stage. Nor is there reason to assume that authoritarians will grow their global influence. China is facing major societal and financial challenges while moving toward a market economy.
Secondly, the dramatic calls sounding the death knell of democracy overlooks how democratization in many currently backsliding states was only ever skin-deep to begin with. That helps to put current developments in perspective.
Through the UN, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, developing countries are promised aid, free trade, and other beneficial ties with the West on condition they push toward democratic reform and free-market ideals. Yet while we may see the rise of anti-corruption bureaus, independent media outlets, and a growing private sector, the values of democracy are not always nurtured by leaders themselves.
The opportunity to gain concessions from the West and create wealth from the free market — for elites or otherwise — means there is often an incentive to develop an aesthetic of liberalism without fully embracing it — with incomplete checks and balances. And beneath the surface, porous constitutions and vulnerability to populism have always left the door open to illiberalism.
For example, in Cambodia, multi-party democracy continued if only in name with support from the international community for two decades until Prime Minister Hun Sen recently gave up the facade completely, and dismantled all major opposition, as unconditional aid flowed in from China. And in Myanmar, despite US-backed liberalizing reforms and a transition to a civilian-led government, its junta-drafted constitution still enables the military to pull the strings.
Thirdly, we must not forget the power of citizens in driving reform. Hun Sen faces a generation who have come of age in a globalizing world. Indeed, many autocratic rulers face the challenge of governing citizens exposed to global developments who increasingly seek change, and are less tolerant of inept and corrupt rulers. Malaysia’s recent shock reelection of Mahathir Mohamad, against an electoral system favoring the graft-ridden ruling party, is reflective of that.
A false sense of security to blame
Democratization is an ongoing process, both in the West and East, that need not proceed in linear fashion. So, while we should be concerned about backsliding, we shouldn’t be surprised. Instead, we ought to reflect on how we lulled ourselves into a false sense of security about the stability and forward momentum of democracy around the world.
Firstly, liberal democracy needs fixing before it can be resold as a value across the world. Reforming institutions to tackle the myopia and political interference on effective policy-making would help dent the appeal of circumventing democratic checks. Western democracies needn’t be in retreat; they could be recalibrating.
Secondly, the West must develop a level-headedness when observing developments across the world. Exuberant celebrations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election win in Myanmar in 2015 overlooked the many challenges the country still faced en route to becoming a democracy. Similarly, recent demonstrations in Armenia were met with jubilant comparisons to Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution. Democratic development is a long, complex, and non-linear process, and maintaining that perspective is key.
Lastly, the West must consider how it promotes democracy. Incentives are important but they must work alongside stronger grassroots initiatives to build democratic values within the citizenry, and also in leadership, in fitting with local cultural and ethnic values. Indeed, Western institutions must be careful not to develop democracies in their present image, particularly when Western-style democracies is itself in crisis.
The outlook for democracy looks gloomy, but it needn’t be viewed in black-and-white terms.