Day By Day

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Retreat From Democracy

The media today is filled with news of the "Arab Spring" which they portray as a pro-democracy movement spreading through the Muslim world and to some extent this is true. The popular movements that have overthrown or threaten to depose strongmen throughout the region has the potential to advance democratic values, but such a felicitous outcome is by no means assured and hopeful characterizations of the disturbances as an advance for democracy mask a far broader, and far more disturbing trend -- a global retreat from democracy.

Back in January Freedom Watch issued a report that stated:
A total of 25 countries showed significant declines [in freedom] in 2010, more than double the 11 countries exhibiting noteworthy gains. The number of countries designated as Free fell from 89 to 87, and the number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, far below the 2005 figure of 123. In addition, authoritarian regimes like those in China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela continued to step up repressive measures with little significant resistance from the democratic world.
With regard to the Arab world the report noted:
The Middle East and North Africa, which has long been the region with the lowest levels of democracy in the world, continued its steady decline in 2010. In addition to a reduction in Egypt resulting from the country’s sham elections, declines were seen in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iran. There were no status or ratings improvements in the region.
Of course things have changed since then and it might be argued that the revolts currently troubling regimes throughout the region were a direct response to the anti-democratic trends noted in the report, but this optimistic take must be considered within a far more depressing wider context.

Bertelsmann Stiftung recently released a report titled A World of Change: New Challenges for Economic and Political Transformation that observes:
The “democratic retreat” thesis has resurfaced in the context of several trends, including the autocratic tendencies observed in Russia and Venezuela, the erosion of rule-of-law standards in Nicaragua and South Africa, and the violent ousting of democratically elected governments, as happened in Thailand and Mauritania.
It is not so much that countries are shifting from "democratic" to "non-democratic" systems of government, but that an alarming number of nominally "democratic" countries are displaying authoritarian tendencies.
Over the last four years, the proportion of moderately defective democracies among all democratic systems has fallen from 62 percent to 49 percent, while the share of highly defective democracies climbed from 10 percent to 20 percent in the same period. In other words, although the number of democracies may have remained almost unchanged, the quality of several political systems outside of a highly stable top group is showing significant erosion.
These authoritarian tendencies include significant restrictions on freedom of the press and of rights of assembly, as well as disregard for the rule of law, widespread corruption, abuse of office, the weakening of stable and representative parties, and a general breakdown in trust and social capital in the national societies.

Some of these, you may note, are becoming problems in our own society.

So, celebrate the Arab Spring if you will, but keep in mind that the outcome is already becoming problematic and that it is set against a much broader trend that threatens to reverse the dramatic democratic gains that were made in the two decades after the end of the Cold War.

1 comment:

gary said...

Perhaps we could better move in the direction of democracy if we took world politics seriously and stopped pretending that dictators represent people...