Democracy's Deepening Recession

Around the world, the advance of freedom hinges on "swing states." And they're swinging in the wrong direction.
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Pictures of Egyptian army chief and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, on a computer screen. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

While the world’s attention has been riveted on Ukraine and what move an emboldened Vladimir Putin will make next, diverse threats to democracy have intensified on other fronts as well. The story is not new. According to Freedom House, 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which more countries experienced declines in political rights or civil liberties than improvements. Since 2005, democracy has ceased its decades-long expansion, leveling off at about 60 percent of all independent states. And since the military coup in Pakistan in 1999, the rate of democratic breakdowns has accelerated, with about one in every five democracies failing.

The downfall of several Arab autocracies in 2011 seemed to augur a new burst of democratic progress, but that progress has not materialized. While Tunisia has emerged as the first Arab democracy in 40 years, Egypt is more repressive now than at any time in the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Since the end of 2010, more Arab countries have regressed in freedom and political pluralism than have advanced.

The democratic recession we’re witnessing has been particularly visible in big “swing states”—the non-Western countries with the largest populations and economies. Since the late 1990s, democracy has broken down in Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Kenya. The Philippines is the one relative bright spot in the group today, with a democratically elected president, Benigno Aquino, committed to serious governance reforms. Russia has become not just a venal and despotic state, but a neo-imperial menace to its neighbors as well. Nigeria has reverted back to tragic levels of political kleptocracy and fraud, feeding political polarization, ethnic resentment, citizen alienation, and an increasingly virulent Islamic terrorist movement in the north. The grip of “Bolivarian socialism” has weakened in Venezuela as governance has deteriorated, violence has exploded, and the opposition has unified behind a liberal challenger first to Hugo Chávez and then to his designated successor. But it will be a pyrrhic victory for democrats if the Chavista regime falls and social order collapses alongside it.

In January, democracy in Bangladesh suffered a major setback when the principal opposition party boycotted parliamentary elections after the ruling party abandoned neutral arrangements for electoral administration, and trust between the two parties collapsed. While Freedom House judges that democracy has returned to Pakistan, Kenya, and Thailand, these governments are so illiberal and corrupt that it is difficult to say what exactly they are.

A protester waves a Thai national flag atop a truck at the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok, during protests in November 2013. (Kerek Wongsa/Reuters)

In Thailand, enmity between the “yellow shirt” urban, middle-class backers of the monarchy and the “red shirt” partisans of populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has paralyzed the government and increasingly veered toward violence. Instability has been a chronic issue since the military ousted Thaksin in 2006, suspending the country indefinitely between resilient majority support for Thaksin’s party and the yellow-shirt camp’s continuing control of key levers of the “deep state.” Since November, more than 20 people have been killed and over 700 injured in fevered street confrontations between the two camps. And the worst may be yet to come. In January, one Red Shirt militant vowed, “I want there to be lots of violence to put an end to all this…. It’s time to clean the country, to get rid of the elite, all of them.” As in Nigeria, renewed military intervention won’t solve the country’s problems. Yet if things continue to degenerate, the military is waiting in the wings.

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Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. More

Diamond is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and serves as senior consultant (and previously was codirector) at the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy. At Stanford, he also directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

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