Democracy under assault

Democracy under assault

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Democracies across the world are in trouble and in a state of disrepair. They face a plethora of challenges never experienced before in an environment of economic distress. Polarization, intolerance and toxic politics are a worldwide phenomenon now. Democracy is increasingly being challenged by the rise of right-wing nationalist populism. This has entailed elected leaders acting with impunity to erode civil liberties, curb freedom of expression, suppress dissent and violate democratic norms.

Findings from a new report by a global Think Tank reinforce the global trend of democratic erosion. The Global State of Democracy 2022 report by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) finds a record number of democracies are in decline. It attributes the current wave of democratic erosion to the political consequences of the economic crisis that began with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine especially the cost-of-living crisis. In Europe, half of democratic states or 17 countries are in decline. The report’s list of backsliding countries includes the US, which faces “problems of political polarization, institutional dysfunction and threats to civil liberties.” India, Brazil and Hungary are listed among the rest. It says authoritarian governments have intensified repression with the outgoing year being the worst on record. Over two thirds of the global population now live in backsliding democracies, authoritarian or hybrid regimes.

Earlier assessments by other institutes drew similar conclusions. Freedom House found that across the world, democracy was under assault by populist leaders and groups that rejected pluralism, attacked minorities and sought unbridled power to promote the interests of their supporters. In its Democracy Report 2022, the V-Dem Institute said the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen had dropped to 1989 levels. It described India as an elected autocracy and said ‘autocratization’ there was being driven by an ‘anti-pluralist party’ – a reference to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Intensifying polarization and political deadlock is undermining the democratic system by marginalizing parliament and ruling out resolution of political disputes by political means.

Maleeha Lodhi

In fact, India provides one of the most egregious examples of democratic erosion. Indian democracy has in recent years been challenged by the rise of right-wing nationalist populism, which has distinctive features that set it off from others elsewhere. The perversion of Indian democracy and its descent into authoritarianism has involved the assault on the state’s formal secularism by BJP’s Hindutva ideology and its willful and active mobilization of anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiment. This has fueled religious violence and the most brutal mob attacks on minorities, especially Muslims. The bulldozing of homes and businesses belonging to Muslims suspected of taking part in anti-government protests by BJP authorities has also exposed the ruling party’s repressive tactics. When opposition leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted some months ago that “democracy is a memory” in India, it was no exaggeration. Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, assaults on the freedom of expression and association, civil liberties, academic freedom and attacks on minorities have accelerated. As Debasish Roy Chowdhury wrote in an August essay in the New York Times, “In his eight years in power, Mr. Modi’s BJP government has profaned Indian democracy, espousing an intolerant Hindu supremacist majoritarianism over the ideals of secularism [and] pluralism.”

The global trend of ailing democracy is also prominent in Europe, where leaders such as Andrzej Duda in Poland and Giorgia Meloni in Italy represent the Far-Right, that has manipulated xenophobic nationalism and mobilized anti-immigration sentiment to secure power. In elections in Sweden earlier this year the Far-Right Sweden Democrats party (which has neo-Nazi antecedents) made significant gains that enables it to exercise influence over the ruling coalition government. In Latin America’s largest democracy, Brazil, Far Right populist leader Jail Bolsonaro recently lost the presidential election but by a narrow margin, which means right-wing populism continues to enjoy significant support.

The US has also seen democratic erosion and regression. The national security strategy announced by the Biden Administration earlier this year acknowledged that America needed to fix its damaged democracy to be able to compete abroad. The rise of Trumpian populism in recent years has posed formidable challenges to American democracy. Rightwing populism has seen the mainstreaming and empowerment of racist and white supremacist groups and sentiment which deeply divided the country. Polarization has produced partisan gridlock and made even minimal consensus to run the political system difficult, leaving democracy in a dysfunctional state. Lack of respect for democratic norms and institutions associated with Trump has spread more widely while social and cultural divides have deepened. The next presumptive leader of America’s rightwing populist movement, Ron DeSantis, described as Trump ‘without the drama’ is expected to continue Trumpian-style politics.

The trend toward authoritarianism in the last decade or more raises the question of the underlying factors responsible for the phenomenon and rise of anti-pluralist populist leaders. This cannot be attributed to any uniform set of factors as each country’s case is different with specific dynamics and variables shaping its political trajectory and landscape. Some common features can nevertheless be identified. They include the failure of established 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 polarization, economic and social discontent spawned by globalization and now the cost-of-living crisis.

Pakistan too is witnessing an erosion of democracy but for reasons different from those challenging democracy elsewhere. Intensifying polarization and political deadlock is undermining the democratic system by marginalizing parliament and ruling out resolution of political disputes by political means. When searing divides make it impossible for the political impasse to be overcome, democracy is rendered dysfunctional. The shell of democracy remains but it is increasingly shorn of substance.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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