Democracy's Deepening Recession

Around the world, the advance of freedom hinges on "swing states." And they're swinging in the wrong direction.

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.

During his 11 years in power, Turkey’s domineering prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed to politically neutralize the military and the independent press, along with many other countervailing forces in politics and society. Those who hoped his authoritarian drift might be slowed by local elections in late March were severely disappointed, as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a convincing victory across Turkey’s municipalities. Erdogan’s victory speech that night was anything but magnanimous. He threatened those who had exposed the mounting corruption of his government (and reportedly his own family), assured his supporters that “we are the owners of this country,” and portrayed his victory as a “full Ottoman slap” to all his opponents.

As Erdogan prepares to run either for prime minister or president (if he can amend the constitution to enhance the latter’s powers), Turkey is in deepening trouble. Journalists fear to report the truth, and with good reason; more of them are jailed in Turkey than in any other country. Businesses fear to support opposition parties, judges fear to rule against the ruler, and the AKP—long hailed in the West for its success in reconciling Islam and democracy—is increasingly looking like an old-fashioned hegemon bent on securing its dominance. With every passing day, Turkey looks more like the fake democracy of Malaysia than any real democracy in Europe. Meanwhile, Malaysia failed to record the democratic breakthrough many expected in 2013. Even though the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, won a clear majority of the vote in general elections, brazen gerrymandering and over-representation of ruling-party strongholds nullified the preference of most Malaysians.

Nor should we take India, the world’s biggest democracy, for granted. In the parliamentary elections that are rolling across the sub-continent between early April and mid-May, a great pageant of democratic choice and accountability is once again unfolding on a scale never before seen in human history. It is happening largely free of violence, and with impressive administrative skill. And it will do what democracy should: Punish the corrupt, under-performing incumbents by evicting them from power. But the likely victory of the opposition BJP will bring to power a paradox. In his 12 years as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi has not only delivered vigorous economic development, but also a style of politics so intolerant of criticism, so demanding of fawning obedience, that many Indian liberals now shudder at the prospect of his becoming prime minister.

The news is not all bad. 2014 is a year of critical elections in many places. In Indonesia, many democrats are pinning their hopes on the dynamic reformist mayor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, who is the odds-on favorite to win the presidency. In South Africa, the spiraling corruption and lackluster performance of the ANC and its leader, President Jacob Zuma, is spawning more pluralistic politics and growing support for the liberal opposition, the Democratic Alliance. Even Afghanistan seems to be in the midst of a reasonably credible and popular electoral process that will produce a significantly more purposeful president than Hamid Karzai.

In the long run, economic development, globalization, and the growth of civil society will induce democratic change in a number of autocracies, including China and Vietnam, and, well before them, Singapore and Malaysia. But if democracy cannot be reformed and revived in the world’s key swing states, the “long run” will be a lot further off than it need be—and the near term won’t be hospitable to the advance of freedom.