Testing times for democracy

Published On: November 28, 2018 01:30 AM NPT By: Dinesh Bhattarai

While in opposition communists make nationalism their sole agenda. When they lead the government they tend to attack democracy and lean toward authoritarianism

Reading political news and articles these days one gets this impression: The crisis of democracy has emerged as the defining political story of contemporary times. Liberal order has come under assault, coming it as it does from populists, demagogues, nationalists, xenophobes, protectionists, dictators and fundamentalists. Democracy—the last best hope of earth as Abraham Lincoln called it and a way of life as Alexis de Tocqueville argued it is—is under threat of racism, corruption, tribalism, identity politics and jingoism.  

While they sing to the gallery in the name of people, working for them and for them alone, they spread falsehoods and misleading contents which portray these populists in positive light and progressively put values and virtues into vices and oppressiveness. Populist authoritarian tendencies are heading toward aggressive reversal of both domestic and international efforts on issues of common concerns such as multilateralism and ecological sustainability. 

Mainstream politics, political systems and parties are not seen operating as smoothly as they should.  This has yielded space to what Yascha Mounk of Harvard University calls both ‘undemocratic liberalism’ and ‘illiberal democracy’. They are presented as alternatives to liberal democracy.  In their scheme of things, they threaten the elements of liberal democracy including the rule of law, free and fair elections, institutions of checks and balances, judicial independence, protection of civil and human rights of all citizens,  press freedom and public opinion.  It leads to erosion of social fabric, threatening unity in diversity. The New York Times has rightly characterized the situation as “global season of far-right politics.”  

Several reports put Victor Orban, an elected Hungarian Prime Minister and a far-right nationalist leader, alongside Russia and China.  New York Times columnist David Leonbardt warns of “increasing multiple signs of early Orbanism in the Republican Party of the USA that is seen willing to change the rules and customs of democracy for the sake of raw power.” 

European rightwing populists are now joined by Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who on the campaign trail fiercely advocated torture and threatened to destroy, jail or drive into exile his political opponents.  He praised Donald Trump and promised his electorate to pull Brazil out of Paris Climate Pact and move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On the campaign trail he said “the Chinese are not buying in Brazil. They are buying Brazil itself.” 

Foreign affairs commentator and political analyst Gideon Rachman says that strongman leaders tend to become more, not less autocratic.  He argues that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has earned a reputation for strongman leadership together with President Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. In his style, says Rachman, Modi is similar to Donald Trump or Rodrigo Duterte.   

An independent US watchdog Freedom House that conducts research and advocacy on democracy says: civil liberties and political rights have declined in 113 countries and improved in only 62 countries since 2006. A 2018 survey of opinion in 18 countries by Santiago based pollster Latinobarometro shows the proportion of people dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy has jumped from 51 percent in 2009 to 71 percent. The percentage of satisfied has dropped from 44 percent to 24 percent—its lowest in two decades. A quick look across the globe shows political center eroding, and the share of votes going to center left and center right political parties declined from 1980s and accelerated after the financial crises. 

As democracies provide equal space and opportunities for all, the spiral of populism goes unabated. Unhappy voters easily fall prey to populists’ rhetoric. Populist wave seems unstoppable rolling across several continents, manifested in different forms and styles, mostly in campaigning style. 

Populists—both on the right and left—have increased their share of votes by portraying mainstream parties, leaders and elites as corrupt and indifferent to people’s problems. Short-sighted populists have replaced generation of experienced and pragmatic leaders.  Countries that have faced extremism and grappled with a variety of challenges have witnessed the rise of right/left wing populists. Populists have smartly exploited income inequality, economic and social insecurity and political ineffectiveness. They operate within the democratic electorate system, propagate a kind of exclusionary nationalism, and project themselves as being capable of solving these problems. 

As they cannot win on their own, they form opportunistic and unprincipled alliance. These characters undermine legislature and rush without debate and show utter disregard for the institutions of checks and balances. Even if they have obtained majority, it has not been sustainable.  In this increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, demagogues make their nations look inward. The hidden costs of politics of populism and jingoism, impacting all spheres of national life, are accelerating and multiplying.

Case of Nepal   

In 2017 elections, current Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli played nationalist card, presented himself as a symbol of political stability and prosperity, and secured two-thirds majority for the communist alliance that he led. It generated huge hope as instability was blamed for slow development and inequality, corruption scandals and political unrest. 

However, nine months of Oli government have become a depressing experience for people with no signs of direction toward much-touted prosperity. Instead, threats are emerging over democratic norms. It reflects on government’s desire to control judiciary and key institutions of governance, wishing media, civil society, academics and human rights activists to conform to its political ideology. 

Double standard and lies are the part of modus operandi of communists. At a time when democracy was taking roots in the country after 1990, Maoist communists raised arms against nascent parliamentary democracy in 1996 and caused the loss of over 17,000 lives during a decade long armed conflict. Not a single word of remorse is heard from them. Marxist-Leninist and Maoist communists are in charge of implementing an inclusive federal democratic constitution, achieved after seven decades of people’s incessant sacrifices and struggle. But this does not seem to be the priority of the ruling party. Instead, the prime minister is bringing all vital offices and projects under him, undermining the prime ministerial system. Anti-democratic rot has reached the center. This was evident in scraping of Falgun 7 a national democracy day as a holiday.  It was this day that made the country enter into the comity of democratic nations and modernity. This demonstrates prime minister’s lack of faith and trust in the system he is presiding.   This sets an ominous trend for democracy.

Communists’ congenital contempt for democratic pluralism is a matter of worry.  While in opposition their agenda is nationalism. When they lead the government they tend to attack democracy and lean toward authoritarianism. They argue that democracy has run its course and alternative is needed to replace it.  

History has shown that preserving democracy lies in the hands of democrats who are visionary, forward-thinking reformers and politicians, not in the populists who run deceptive campaigns to reach power. To defend democracy, we need to come forward and recognize its fragility. The alternative to democracy is more democracy and stronger institutions. 

Defending democracy requires constant vigilance and resolute strength of state institutions. Time calls for all democrats to unite and defend the democracy.

The author was foreign relation adviser to former Prime Ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala

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