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THE DECLINE OF DEMOCRACY

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By Joshua Kurlantzick

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The Montréal Review, March 2013

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"This book offers a very well-informed and global exploration of political developments over the past decade, with a particular emphasis on the state of democracy. Kurlantzick brings it all together in a unique, original, and compelling manner."

-Brian Joseph, Senior Director, Asia and Global Programs, National Endowment for Democracy

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Over the past two years, the world's attention has been captured by previously unimaginable changes throughout parts of the Arab world, Africa, and Asia, political openings in some of the most repressive societies on earth. In Myanmar, where only five years ago a thuggish junta ordered the shooting of red-robed monks in the streets, the past two years have seen a formal transition to a civilian government. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and potentially Syria, longtime autocrats were toppled by popular revolutions, and soon citizens in these states seemed to be becoming accustomed to the trappings of freedom.

Yet these events are a smokescreen. In reality democracy is actually going into reverse worldwide. While some nations in Africa, the Arab world, and Asia have opened slightly in the past two years, in other countries once held up as examples of political change, democratic meltdowns have become depressingly common. In its annual international survey, Freedom House, which uses a range of data to assess freedoms in each nation, found that global freedom dropped in 2012 for the sixth year in a row. At the same time, most authoritarian nations have become more repressive. The decline, Freedom House has noted, was most pronounced among what it called the "middle ground" of nations, primarily in the developing world-nations that have begun democratizing but are not solid democracies. This truculence actually was only made stronger by the Arab Spring, which has led autocratic regimes like China to crack down harder on their own populations. The International Federation for Human Rights, an organization that monitors abuses around the world, found in its annual report that the Arab uprisings had little impact on a dire, deteriorating climate for human rights defenders worldwide.

Beyond five years, going back to 2000 democracy has stagnated, Freedom House noted-the period between 2000 and 2005 was one in which democracy gained little ground around the world, before sliding backward after the mid-2000s. "Since they were first issued in 1972, the findings in Freedom in the World have conveyed a story of broad advances," Freedom House has reported. "But freedom's forward march peaked around the beginning of the [2000s]."

Beyond five years, going back to 2000 democracy has stagnated, Freedom House noted-the period between 2000 and 2005 was one in which democracy gained little ground around the world, before sliding backward after the mid-2000s.

Even as some democrats were celebrating the Arab Spring, and hoping that, as in 1989, its revolutions might spread to other parts of the world, a mountain of other evidence supported Freedom House's gloomy conclusions. One of the other most comprehensive studies of global democracy, compiled by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation, uses data examining democracies' ability to function, manage government, and uphold freedoms, to produce what it calls the Transformation Index. And the most recent Index found "the overall quality of democracy has eroded [throughout the developing world]. The key components of a functioning democracy, such as political participation and civil liberties, have suffered qualitative erosion. These developments threaten to hollow out the quality and substance of governance." The Index concluded that the number of "highly defective democracies"-democracies with institutions, elections, and political culture so flawed that they no longer qualified as real democracies-had roughly doubled between 2006 and 2012. By 2012, in fact, nearly 53 of the 128 countries assessed by the Index were categorized as "defective democracies."

Sixteen of these fifty-three, including regionally and globally powerful states like Russisa and Kenya and South Africa, qualified as "highly deficient democracies," countries that had such a lack of opportunity for opposition voices, problems with the rule of law, and unrepresentative political structures that they were now little better than autocracies. The percentage of "highly deficient democracies" in the Index has roughly doubled in just four years.

Even nations that have been held up as democratic models have regressed over the past five to ten years. When they entered the European Union, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were considered success stories. But in their decade inside the E.U, all of these new entrants actually have deteriorated. Populist and far-right parties with little commitment to democratic norms gained steady popularity; public distaste for democracy in these supposed success stories skyrocketed, so much so that in one recent survey publics in Central Europe showed the most skepticism about the merits of democracy of any region of the world. Hungary has deteriorated so badly that its press freedoms reverted to almost Soviet-type suppression.

[...] Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were considered success stories. But in their decade inside the E.U, all of these new entrants actually have deteriorated. Populist and far-right parties with little commitment to democratic norms gained steady popularity...

The third major international study of democracy, the Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy, only further confirms the decline. The EIU 's annual survey of the entire world analyzes democracy using categories for electoral process, pluralism, political participation, political culture, functioning of government, and civil liberties including press freedom and freedom of association. In its most recent study, released this winter, it found that democracy was in retreat across nearly the entire globe. "In all regions, the average democracy score for 2011 is lower than in 2008," it found. In 91 of 167 countries it studied, the democracy score had deteriorated in that time period, and in many others it had only remained stagnant.

Old-fashioned coups also have returned. In Latin America and Africa and Asia and even most of Africa, coups had become nearly extinct by the early 2000s. But between 2006 and 2012, the military grabbed power in Guinea, Honduras, Mauritania, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Bangladesh, Thailand, Fiji, and Madagascar, among other states. In many other developing nations, such as Mexico, Pakistan, Ecuador, Thailand, and the Philippines, the military did not launch an outright coup but still managed to restore its power as the central actor in political life. The civilian Thai prime minister in the late 2000s, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power in 2008, owed his survival in office to the military's backing, and senior army officers made clear to him, in private, that if they withdrew their support, his government could easily collapse. His successor, Yingluck Shinawatra, was initially viewed as more independent, but in office she too soon allowed the military to control many aspects of policy-making outside of national defense. Similarly, in Pakistan, though General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup in 1999, eventually returned leadership to a civilian government nearly a decade later, Pakistan's army re-established itself as the central power in policy-making. After interludes of civilian control in the 1990s, the army has again "assumed control as well as oversight of public policy," reported military analysts Siegrfied Wolf and Seth Kane. In 2011 and 2012, when the Pakistani leadership held talks in Washington on the future of the bilateral relationship with the U.S. , there was no doubt about who was the key player on the Pakistani side: not civilian president Asif Ali Zardari but army chief of staff Ashfaq Kayani.

Old-fashioned coups also have returned. In Latin America and Africa and Asia and even most of Africa, coups had become nearly extinct by the early 2000s. But between 2006 and 2012, the military grabbed power in Guinea, Honduras, Mauritania, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Bangladesh, Thailand, Fiji, and Madagascar, among other states.

Across the Middle East, armed forces also have dominated the Arab spring and summer, putting the lie to the idea that the Arab uprising is going to bring democracy to the region. Instead, in the near term the Arab uprisings appear to be entrenching the power of militaries in the region, sparking massive unrest, scaring middle class liberals into exodus, and potentially empowering Islamists. Protestors may have challenged leaders from Yemen to Egypt, but the loyalty of the military has determined whether these rulers stay in power. In Bahrain, the military's willingness to continue to support the regime of Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa allowed the royal family to crush protests, to enlist the support of armies from other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, and to maintain a tight grip on power after anti-government protests flared in early 2011 and 2012.

The strengthening of military rule in many developing nations has been disastrous for reform, despite the militaries' contention that they are the only institutions standing in the way of civil strife or Islamist rule. Indeed, human rights groups such as Amnesty International found that, since the winter of 2010-2011, human rights abuses actually have increased in nearly every Middle Eastern nation.

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Despite the fact that militaries could hardly be called agents of reform, middle classes in many developing nations often continue to support the armed forces as potential antidotes to popular democracy - democracy that might empower the poor, the religious, and the less educated. Overall, in fact, my analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past twenty years, found that in nearly fifty percent of the cases, drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup, or, in polls or prominent media coverage after the coup, expressed their support for the army takeover.

What's more, with the uprisings in the Middle East leading to unrest, civil strife, and renewed military rule, they have had little impact on other parts of the world, a sharp contrast to 1989, when the revolts in Eastern Europe helped catalyze change in other regions. Picking up from the Tunisian uprising, a small group of Chinese liberals in early 2011 attempted to launch their own "jasmine revolution." But their numbers likely never exceeded a few hundred people, and the Chinese government quickly squashed their movement. In sub-Saharan Africa , protests broke out in places from Malawi to Burkina Faso to Uganda , but none succeeded in toppling rulers. Overall, concluded Northwestern's Richard Joseph in a survey of the current state of politics in sub-Saharan Africa , "the electoral authoritarian regime," with faux elections fronting autocracy, has become the most prevalent political system in Africa.

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Add to these studies showing the return of coups to the fact that opinion polling from many developing nations shows that not only is the quality of democracy declining but also that public views of democracy are deteriorating. The Barometer series uses extensive questionnaires to ask people in a range of Latin American, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations about their views on democracy. The regular Afrobarometer survey has found declining levels of support for democracy throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa; in Nigeria, support for democracy has plummeted over the past decade. In Central Asia , the story is the same. Several polls only sixteen percent of Russians said that it was "very important" that their nation be governed democratically. Even in Kyrgyzstan, which despite its flaws remains the most democratic state in Central Asia, a majority of the population did not believe that a political opposition is very or somewhat important.

[...] opinion polling from many developing nations shows that not only is the quality of democracy declining but also that public views of democracy are deteriorating.

Latinobarometro polls show similar dissatisfaction with democracy. In Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Colombia, Peru, Honduras, and Nicaragua, either a minority or only a tiny majority of people think democracy is preferable to any other type of government. In the most recent polling, less than forty percent of Latin Americans said they were satisfied with the way that democracy works in practice in their country. Many Latin Americans now say they do not even have a functioning democracy at all.

The global economic stagnation only has weakened public support for democracy in new democracies. A comprehensive study of Central and Eastern Europe by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, released in 2011 and 2012, found that the crisis had severely lowered people's support for democracy. "The more people were personally hit by the crisis, the more they turned away from democracy," it found. Support for democracy had declined, since 2006, in all of the new European Union nations except Bulgaria. In some of these countries, such as the Slovak Republic and Hungary, support for democracy fell, in the EBRD's surveys, by as much as twenty percentage points compared to 2006. This decline provided an opportunity for stronger, even authoritarian leaders. "Those who enjoyed more freedoms wanted less democracy and markets when they were hurt by the crisis," the EBRD report noted.

Even in East Asia, one of the most economically vibrant and globalized regions of the world, polls show rising dissatisfaction with democracy. In fact, several countries in the region have developed what Yu-tzung Chang, Yunhan Zhu, and Chong-min Park, who studied data from the regular Asian Barometer surveys, have termed "authoritarian nostalgia." "Few of the region's former authoritarian regimes have been thoroughly discredited," they write, noting that the region's average score for commitment to democracy, judged by a range of prodemocratic responses to surveys, has fallen in the most recent studies. "An upward trend [of authoritarian nostalgia] is unequivocal," Park wrote. "In times of crisis these halfhearted citizens may not be mobilized to defend democratic institutions and processes."

Even in developing nations where democracy has deeper roots, disillusionment with its political processes, and democratically-elected leaders, has exploded in recent years, as these leaders have seemed unable to develop effective solutions for global and local economic crises, other than biting austerity measures. From Indians demonstrating in Delhi in support of hunger strikers attacking corruption in Indian politics to Israelis camping in the streets of Tel Aviv in the biggest demonstrations in the country's history to protest their leaders' lack of interest in basic economic issues, people in even more established democracies are increasingly turning to street protests to make their points, since they believe they cannot be heard at the ballot box. They have become convinced, they say, that the democratic process has become so corrupted and so disassociated from popular issues, that they can only change their countries through massive rallies, even if those protests use the street to bring down leaders fairly elected. "Our parents are grateful because they're voting," one young woman told reporters in Spain, where tens of thousands of young people also have launched full-time street protests. "We're the first generation to say that voting is worthless."

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Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he studies Southeast Asia and democratization, as well as global views on human rights and democracy. He is a frequent contributor to publications including Time, The New Republic, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Portions of this essay are adapated from BOOK LINK and from an essay that appeared in the March issue of Foreign Policy.

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