For democracy, it’s time to swim against the tide – .

For democracy, it’s time to swim against the tide – .

The old Nicaraguan revolutionary, with his bald hair and the goatee he had finally let go gray, spoke calmly into the camera as police walked towards his house, hidden behind a high wall in a leafy area of ​​Managua. Surveillance drones, he said, watched the skies.

Decades earlier, Hugo Torres had been a revered guerrilla in the fight against right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza. In 1974, he took a group of senior officials hostage, then traded them for the release of fellow jailers. Among these prisoners was Daniel Ortega, a Marxist bank robber who would become Nicaragua’s elected president and later its authoritarian ruler.

And on this hot Sunday in mid-June, in the midst of a week-long crackdown to erase almost any suspicion of opposition, Ortega had his former savior arrested.

“The story is on our side,” Torres said in the video, which was quickly uploaded to social media. “The end of the dictatorship is near.

But history – at least recent history – is not on Torres’ side. In recent months, the growing ranks of dictators have tensed their muscles and freedom has receded.

The list is grim: a draconian crackdown in Nicaragua, with laws now allowing the government to portray almost any critic as a traitor; a military takeover in Myanmar, with a bloody crackdown that the United Nations says has killed more than 850 people since February 1 and more than 4,800 arbitrarily detained; Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous enclave where activists and journalists have been harassed and jailed under a sweeping national security law.

In mid-June, Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper closed its doors after police froze $ 2.3 million of its assets and arrested five editors and senior executives, accusing them of foreign collusion.

“Why does it have to end like this?” Apple Daily graphic designer Dickson Ng asked.

The decline in democracy, however, dates back long before 2021, with a long line of countries where democratic rule has been abandoned or reformed, or where democratically elected leaders no longer hide their authoritarianism.

2020 was “another year of decline for liberal democracy,” said a recent report from the V-Dem Institute, a research center based in Sweden. “The world is still more democratic than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but the global decline of liberal democracy has been brutal over the past 10 years. “

Countries like Sweden, Germany and the United States may appear to be democratic outliers in a world increasingly dominated by authoritarian rulers.

“It is an open question whether we, as a democratic group, can push the Russias or the Chinas out of the world and” win “the 21st century,” said Torrey Taussig, an expert on authoritarianism and large-scale politics. powers at Harvard Kennedy School. “Can democracies mobilize to push back this authoritarian tide that we have seen resurface?

It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century saw country after country move to democratic rule. The Soviet Union collapsed amid Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at political and economic reform. The nations of Eastern Europe that had long been controlled by Moscow became independent. In Latin America, decades of military dictatorships have given way to elected governments. A wave of democratization swept through Africa, from South Africa to Nigeria to Ghana.

“We had the largest number of democracies that ever existed in the world. It was unprecedented, ”said Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University. “It seemed that liberal democracy was the way of the future.

But in just a few years, the cracks started to appear.

Maybe the world was just too optimistic. Democracy is a mess.

“It takes a lot for democracy to work,” Berman said. “Getting rid of dictators is not the end. It’s the beginning. “

As a result, many scholars are not too surprised when countries like Nicaragua or Myanmar fall into authoritarianism. Both are very poor, with little history of democracy.

Hard times and turmoil are the mother’s milk of bosses.

The experience of democracy in Russia, for example, was short-lived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Plummeting living standards, a weak leader in Boris Yeltsin, rogue businessmen and budding oligarchs fighting for control of state-owned enterprises have paved the way for Vladimir Putin.

Then came the 2007-2008 financial crisis, which started in the United States and spread around the world. Banks in the United States were on the verge of collapse and senior officials worried about another Great Depression. In the European Union, America’s problems contributed to a debt crisis that ravaged Greece, Ireland and other countries in need of external economic bailouts.

These financial woes, later combined with the political storms of the Trump administration and years of angry negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union, made liberal democracy risky.

“The more attractive the United States and Europe are, the better it will be for people fighting for democracy,” said Berman. And the reverse is also true.

Frustration has increased, with a 2019 Pew Research Center survey in 34 countries showing a median of 64% of people believing elected officials don’t care.

Today, a man like Viktor Orban can appear very attractive to many voters.

Orban, the Hungarian nationalist prime minister who returned to power following the financial crisis, feeding off an electorate that distrusted the traditional elite, spoke proudly of leading an “illiberal democracy”.

He is now talking about Hungary’s “national cooperation system”, a process that has hampered the judiciary, rewritten the constitution and given immense power to himself and his party. The country’s media is now largely a factory producing pro-Orban content.

Rival parties are regularly investigated by government auditors and are sometimes fined on the verge of bankruptcy.

“We have replaced a wrecked liberal democracy with a 21st century Christian democracy,” Orban proudly told lawmakers after a landslide victory in the 2018 election.

The world has a chain of such leaders.

Some are authoritarians in varying degrees of power, from Putin in Russia to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Others are in the politically hazy wilderness between a one-party state and a strong democracy, like Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who heads the ruling party in Poland and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose father ruled the country for three decades and turned it into a wealthy city-state.

The pandemic has accelerated democratic decline in Africa, academics say, with elections postponed or opposition figures silenced from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe.

But in a world where democracy often swims against the political tide, academics also see good news. It just requires a longer view of the story.

Eighty years ago there were perhaps 12 fully functioning democracies. Today, the Democracy Index released by the Economist Intelligence Unit indicates that there are 23 full-fledged democracies and that almost half of the planet lives in some form of democracy.

Then there are the protesters, perhaps the most visible sign of a thirst for democratic government.

Thousands of Russians took to the streets earlier this year after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed. Neighboring Belarus has been rocked by months of protests sparked by the 2020 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, which were widely seen as rigged. Political protests are common in Poland and Hungary.

Such protests regularly fail. Protests in Russia and Belarus, for example, ended in brutal repression.

But political scientists say even suppressed protests can be major political sparks.

In addition, they sometimes succeed.

In Sudan, mass protests in 2019 against autocratic President Omar al-Bashir led to his ouster by the military. The country is now on a fragile path to democracy, led by a transitional government.

In a recent report, the US rights watchdog Freedom House saw signs of hope in EU sanctions against the Belarusian regime, with the exile of Central Asian journalists and bloggers continuing their work at abroad, and the way a series of governments slowed down trade relations with China, concerned with transparency and national security. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Orban faced surprisingly united opposition.

Some academics also see hope in the way President Joe Biden has reached out to longtime European allies of the United States, reversing the Trump administration’s approach.

Biden’s recent trip to Europe, said Taussig, the Harvard Kennedy School scholar, was “an attempt to rally America’s democratic partners” against the tide of authoritarianism.

So maybe this old Nicaraguan revolutionary arrested has reason to be optimistic.

“These are the desperate blows of a regime that feels like it is dying,” Torres said in the video before his arrest.

Maybe. As the summer progressed, he remained in prison.


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