Ailing democracy

Published June 24, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

AT a time when democracy across the world is under challenge, there have recently been a number of developments, some that may shape its future trajectory.

Elections in India saw the BJP lose it majority and its leader Narendra Modi cut down to size — a verdict widely viewed as voters salvaging India’s democracy from the authoritarian, autocratic direction a populist demagogue was taking the country in. India may have started to buck the global trend of democratic erosion but elsewhere developments have reinforced this trend.

Europe has just seen far-right parties make stunning gains in the European Parliament polls at the cost of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s parties.

This prompted Macron to call snap legislative elections in a high-stakes effort to contain Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party by turning it into a referendum on the far right. But the spectre looms of Le Pen’s party winning power. Opinion polls now show that less than half of French voters see that as a threat to democracy. In the US, former president Donald Trump is the front-runner in the presidential election due in November. Barring any legal impediment, he is poised to regain the presidency. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s Reform party is expected to make gains in next month’s elections at the expense of the Conservative party.

The resurgence of the far right in the West comes at a time when democracy is already under threat across the world. Democratic regression is now a worldwide phenomenon. Democratic backsliding has been pervasive in countries facing challenges from polarisation, intolerance, anti-minority sentiment and toxic politics. This global trend has been recorded by many international organisations.

In its annual Democracy Report 2024, the Swedish V-Dem Institute finds democracy has declined in almost all regions of the world with “the wave of autocratisation” becoming more pronounced. Its research shows a rollback of democratic rights and institutions. It says the level of democracy enjoyed by citizens worldwide is down to levels last seen in 1985 — almost 40 years ago. According to the report 71pc of the world’s population — 5.7 billion people — live in autocracies — an increase from 48pc 10 years ago.

Similarly, the latest edition of the Global State of Democracy 2023 report by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance sees democracies continuing to contract globally with erosion in checks and balances and constitutional freedoms in nominally democratic states. It finds that for six consecutive years “more countries experienced net declines in democratic processes than net improvements”.

Like many other countries Pakistan has also seen democratic regression in recent years.

Democratic weakening is also the finding by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which conducts an annual survey of the health of democracy in 165 countries, assessing them across five measures. Its report, published earlier this year, says conflict and polarisation have driven a new low for global democracy. Its democracy index shows less than 8pc of the world’s population now reside in full democracies, and that 39pc are under authoritarian rule — up from 37pc in 2022. It designates Pakistan as a country under authoritarian rule, downgraded from the previous year when it was classified as a hybrid democracy. The report classifies India and America as flawed democracies. It finds 37pc of people living in a flawed democracy and 15pc in hybrid regimes.

The rise of the far right or ultra-nationalist populist leaders has much to do with democratic reversals. In countries witnessing this phenomenon elected leaders have acted with impunity to erode civil liberties, curb freedom of expression, suppress dissent, persecute minority groups and undermine any check-and-balance system that holds governments to account. They have shown disregard for democratic institutions and norms, engaged in authoritarian conduct and used hyper-nationalism to rally support, orchestrating anti-minority sentiment that often triggered violence. This has turned their political systems into illiberal or flawed democracies and deeply divided their societies.

In a recent op-ed in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman makes a distinction between the far right and the right, which is helpful to keep in mind. The dividing line is their attitudes to democracy. He writes, “If a political leader refuses to accept the results of an election and wants to smash the ‘deep state’ (in reality, the state itself), then he or she is clearly on the far right.” But leaders who pursue reactionary, even racist policies (he includes Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni) but “within the framework of democratic politics and the rule of law”, cannot be regarded as far right. Sometimes, he argues, the line between a new form of authoritarian conservatism and the far right becomes “blurry.”

The global trend of democratic regression in the last decade or more raises the question of the underlying factors responsible for this and for the rise of far-right populist leaders. This cannot be attributed to any uniform set of reasons as each country’s case is different with distinct factors shaping its political trajectory.

Some common features can still be identified although this is not an exhaustive list. They include the failure of traditional political parties and their policies to meet heightened public expectations, growing disconnect between political elites and the people, poor governance, increasing inequality, lack of responsiveness by institutions to public concerns, political polarisation, as well as economic and social discontent spawned by globalisation and the cost-of-living crisis. Many analysts ascribe the far right’s surge in Europe to public discontent with soaring inflation, fallout of the war in Ukraine, anti-immigrant sentiment and the cost of green policies.

Pakistan too has seen democratic decline, but for reasons different from those challenging de­­mocracy elsewhere. The 2018 election led to a form of hybrid democracy that increasingly shif­ted the civil-military power balance and gave way to a greater establishment role in governance, the political system and even economic management. This has been accompanied by po­­larised politics and an unbroken political deadlock that has marginalised parliament and ruled out resolution of disputes by political means.

While efforts to curtail the freedom of expression have been resisted, the media is still subject to ‘informal’ controls. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to face coercive actions. This makes the outlook for democracy in Pakistan as cloudy as it is in other parts of the world.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2024

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