We Should All Be Worried About Democratic Backsliding

We Should All Be Worried About Democratic Backsliding
When Winston Churchill said, ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’, he was appealing to the notion that despite its supposed failings, there is no system better equipped for governance than a liberal democracy. Nearly seven decades later, the wisdom of this statement is less and less clear to the masses around the world, as democratic backsliding continues to afflict polities around the world.

In September 2022, voters in Italy elected a coalition government led by the far-right Georgia Meloni, who leads a party that traces its roots back to Benito Mussolini. On January 6, 2021, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to undo the results of the Presidential election by force, and in the December 2022 midterm elections, many such election-result deniers were backed by the Republican Party for key races. In Brazil, on January 8th 2023, Bolsonaro supporters showed their contempt for the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s President elect, by storming and destroying government buildings. In next year’s Lok Sabha elections, PM Narendra Modi’s BJP is projected to win 284 seats, despite his party’s blatant stifling of free speech and muzzling of criticism. It is to be noted that Modi, the ex-Chief Minister of Gujarat, once faced a US travel ban for his alleged involvement in the Gujarat riots that killed more than 2,000 Muslims.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has masterminded an ‘illiberal democracy’ born out of an erosion of political freedoms, human rights, civil liberties, bypassing of the judiciary and a redesign of the electoral system in a way that favours the incumbent. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, after a fraudulent election in 2020, severely repressed protestors and silenced the opposition.

Only recently, The Economist reckoned that Pakistan was a ‘hybrid democracy,’ where politicians often collaborated with unelected elements in the state machinery to hold onto power at the expense of the country’s fragile democracy, and where no democratically elected Prime Minister has ever been able to complete the full five-year term in office.

The statistics are disappointing. According to V-Dem, today there are only 34 liberal democracies and the share of the world population that has been living in liberal democracies has fallen from 18% to 13% in the last decade. This ‘third wave of autocratization’ is characterized not by coups or bloody revolutions, but by erosion of democratic norms, actions of democratically elected politicians and frustrated citizens.

According to International IDEA, half of the 173 countries surveyed have faced democratic erosion and backsliding. In Europe, almost half of all democracies are less democratic than before and in Asia Pacific, only 54% of people now live in a democracy.

But what explains this widespread democratic backsliding across the East and West? The entrenchment of antidemocratic norms and practices within society, stifling of opposition and state control of the media, increased societal polarization, and reaction to social and demographic change, breakdown of state machinery, mistrust of mainstream leaders, repressive practices and intolerance within society are all to be blamed. This provides the perfect opportunities to populist elements, the supposed ‘outsiders’ who ascent to office with promises to eradicate corruption or cleanse the political arena in a bid to politically alienate the opposition, fight the threat within and without, and most fundamentally, demarcate society into the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’.

The entrenchment of ‘authoritarian counter-norms’, political victimization and institutional capture all serve one purpose: to further strengthen the incumbent’s hold on power. These practices are always accompanied by increased instances of state brutality, massive violations of human rights and silencing of civilian rights groups.

When Imran Khan opened up NAB cases on the opposition in order to ‘eradicate corruption’ and make Pakistan pure again, while his own ranks were made of the very people who were once the ruling elite in different parties at different times, or when during the Nawaz government, the police apparatus was severely misused to target opposition and culminated in the unforgivable Model Town incident, Pakistani democracy was already on its knees. For in the 21st century, all it takes are the very proponents of democracy to use electoral means to come to power and then bypass and oppress the very democratic institutions and people they were meant to serve.

However, what is most worrisome is not that these would-be-autocrats win power or influence, but the prevalence of antidemocratic discourse in these societies. Just like the political space, society is also demarcated into two: those who are supposedly on the right side of history and those on the wrong.

But when has intolerance been in the right? Only a decade ago, the Arab Spring Uprisings that swept Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Bahrain were people’s reaction to decades of repression and political patronage at the expense of effective governance. These grassroots movements demanded more social freedoms and increased popular participation in the political process and culminated in Tunisia having its first parliamentary elections after 20 years of a repressive autocratic rule.

While these people’s movements demanded a shift to more democratic practices, a decade later people around the world are less and less convinced of the wisdom of democratic governance. According to a 2019 survey by Pew Research Center, more dissatisfaction with democracy was found among those who found politicians to be uncaring and corrupt.

In Europe, for instance, the increase populist wins can be attributed to a greater distrust of globalization, immigration and the European Union, which the populist leaders across the political spectrum are very adept at exploiting.

When Muhammad Iqbal painted democracy as ‘a system where people are counted, not weighed’, he was referring to the notion that democracy is not just a political end in itself, but rather a way of governance characterized by deliberation, popular dissent and equality of opinions, where the majority protects the minority and political compromise yields the best policies.

Is democracy failing us? Is democracy dying? The answers to these questions would have unprecedented consequences that transcend the political sphere and redefine the social contract as we know it. It is in our hands to save the system of democratic governance, especially in a country like Pakistan, where the strength of democratic institutions is inextricably linked to the country’s survival, now more than ever.

The writer is a BSc Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She can be contacted at: maheenrasul@gmail.com.