Global reversal

Published June 11, 2024
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

THIRTY years of history since Francis Fukuyama pronounced the end of history, given the apparent triumph of Western democracy, show democracy in retreat even in the West. The Economist’s Democracy Index score has fallen since 2000, globally, including in the West. It now even calls the US, the oldest one, a flawed democracy. It is not just autocracy, but also populism and religious extremism that undermine liberal tenets. The 15 largest states by population, each numbering over 100 million people and together accounting for nearly two-thirds of the global population, show a sharp reversal towards autocracy after some democratic gains.

India has seen autocracy rising, especially against the minorities, under Narendra Modi since 2014. It’s too early to see his recent electoral setback as a permanent reversal. China’s one-party autocracy has become a personalised populist one under Xi Jinping since 2013. Xi has nixed the term limit for presidents and cemented his philosophy into the constitution, while cracking down against minorities. The US, too, fell prey to a xenophobic populist autocracy under Donald Trump who may yet win a second term, in which he promises to be more autocratic. Staunch US support for Israel’s brutal genocide have undercut its democratic claims.

We next have five states in post-army transitions. After Suharto’s fall in 1997, Indonesia has had regular elections and steady democratisation. But the 2024 elections were won by Prabowo Subianto, an ex-army man accused of serious past abuses, thus raising fears he will rule autocratically. Pakistan moved towards democracy with two free elections in 2008 and 2013 after a decade of army rule, but since then has had two controversial polls and autocracy under hybrid regimes led by the populist Imran Khan and then PML-N.

Nigeria has had regular elections since 1999, but many of them, including the 2023 one, were seriously flawed, The Economist calls Nigeria a hybrid regime with illiberal governance. Brazil, too, has broken from its military past to hold regular elections but saw five years of rule by the xenophobic Jair Bolsonaro who ruled autocratically. He lost to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last year. But it is too early to write off populist autocracy. Bangladesh has become a one-party autocracy with its third rigged polls after it ended its neutral caretaker system.

Democratic gains are being lost.

Russia has become a personal fiefdom for the populist Vladimir Putin who may rule for another decade. Mexico bucks the trend in at least not showing a sharp autocratic shift though it is still a hybrid state for the Economist. Five years of relatively successful rule by the leftist (seen by some as a bit populist) Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the recent win of the feminist Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo augur well for Mexico. Ethiopia made promising democratic moves under Abiy Ahmed, which won him a Nobel Prize. Bu since then, it has seen autocracy with the brutal war in Tigray.

Japan has kept its bearings and escaped even populism. The Philippines has held regular elections since the fall of Ferdinand Marcos but had a populist autocracy under Rodrigo Duterte, who has now been replaced by Marcos’s son as president and his own daughter as vice president. Egypt is back to a military-backed autocracy after a brief period of elections won by the Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, Congo, after Mobutu Sese Seko’s fall, saw one to two free elections but has since seen a series of rigged elections and autocratic rule.

Thus, 13 of the 15 states have seen de­­mocratic reversals, about half have seen the rise of populist politics, and about a quarter the rise of religious extremist politics. The trend affects developed as well as underdeveloped states, Western and non-Western ones, states of multiple faiths, and the three largest regions — Asia, Africa and the Americas. The widespread scope suggests that global factors, too, are feeding the trend beyond national ones.

A key factor has been the failure to democratise capitalism and the increasing inequality it has given. After triumphing against communism, capitalism vanquished the gains of even welfare democratic states for the lower classes. A second factor has been the failure to institutionalise democracy globally as the internally democratic West maintains brutal autocracy outside its borders. Thirdly, increased uncertainty spawned by globalisation and new technology has also made it easier for autocrats to stoke fear and consolidate power. Against all this is the absence of a new global progressive ideology to address current global challenges. Only such an ideology can reverse the global reversal of democracy and attract the masses.

The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

murtazaniaz@yahoo.com

X: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2024

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