Is democracy on ventilators?
The American think tank Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report “Democracy under siege,” noted that since 2005, their democracy score declined for 15 years in a row. Swedish V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2021 “Autocratization Turns Viral” noted that autocracies are now home to 68 percent of world population and that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to levels last found in 1990.”
The British Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which published its latest Democracy Index 2020, divides countries into five categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Based on these, countries are divided into four types: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime, and authoritarian regime. In 2020, the EIU found that 75 out of 167 countries live in some sort of democracy, of which only 8.4 percent of the world live in full democracy. Not surprisingly, the rich countries of North America and Western Europe are in the category of full or flawed democracies, but since 2016, the US has been classified under flawed democracy along with France, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal.
In essence, all three studies suggest that democracy has been declining across Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, with India rated by V-Dem as an “electoral autocracy.”
What should be done to keep democracy alive in the 21st century? Japanese Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry visiting fellow Yusuke Narita, in “The Future of Democracy: Superiority is waning and headed for collapse,” considered two possibilities: “struggle with democracy” or “flight from democracy.”
The struggle with electoral democracy is aptly summed up by former EU commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker in dealing with the 2007 European debt crisis: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” In essence, politicians in electoral democracies are deeply aware of the need for painful structural reforms, but are reluctant to bite the bullet for fear of losing the next general elections.
The real threat to democracy in any form, therefore, is the inability to tackle truly tough structural problems that complex and globalized society faces daily. As political economist Thomas Piketty and others have repeatedly pointed out, even though the gap between rich and poor countries has narrowed, social inequalities in terms of growing income and wealth losses by the middle class within almost all countries have worsened in the last two decades. Corruption, climate warming, technological disruption, money politics, power concentration, and pandemics all come together to demand very painful system-wide structural reforms. However, because democratic elections depend on money from vested interests, almost all democratic governments have postponed tough reforms to avoid the Juncker curse of losing elections when doing the right thing.
Small wonder that citizens everywhere either choose someone from outside the establishment, thus the rise of populist leaders, or prefer strongmen who offer different alternatives to the status quo.
The word crisis comes from the Greek word “krisis,” meaning decision-making. The crisis of democracy, however you define it, is a crisis of leadership in decision-making and how different societies choose their leaders to make these tough decisions. Electoral promises are meaningless if there are no deliverables in an accountable manner.
According to the climate doomsters, we only have two decades to deal with climate change and get to carbon Net Zero, plus the pandemic, stagnation, inflation, and myriad social injustices. Can electoral democracy get all these done before we blow up in either nuclear conflict, social collapse, or climate disasters?
That is the existential question facing all democrats or otherwise.
—Asia News Network
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Andrew Sheng is former chair of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.
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