The New Age Destroyers

In recent times liberal democratic governments have become fragile and autocratic regimes are getting more powerful. Dictatorships are on the rise and harbour 70 percent of the world population.

By Geeta Singh
  • Dictatorship has changed its nature and face in the 21st century
  • According to Democracy Index 2020, as low as 9% of the world population lives in a “full” democracy
  • Putin is showing dream of the glorious past of the USSR, but in his skin-deep dream, secret ambitions are hidden
  • More than 6 million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela and are hosted by 17 countries across the Americas

FAMOUS American President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Democracy is a rule of the people, for the people and by the people” and it is true also that democracy is the best way to make the world better. But in recent times liberal democratic governments all over the world have become fragile and autocratic governments are getting more powerful. Dictatorships are on the rise and harbour 70% of the world population – 5.4 billion people. According to the report, liberal democracies peaked in 2012 with 42 countries while there are only 34 in 2021. 

According to the latest report by the Variety of Democracy (V-DEM) at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, the level of democracy held by an average citizen globally in 2021 has dropped from 1989 levels. The last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated. The increasing number of closed autocracies – up from 25 to 30 countries with 26% of the world population –contributes to the changing nature of autocratization. 

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

Electoral autocracy remains the most common regime type and harbours 44% of the world’s population or 3.4 billion people. V-DEM produces the largest global dataset on democracy with over 30 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2021. There are signals that the nature of ‘Autocratization’ is changing. A signal of toxic polarisation, respect for counterarguments, and associated aspects of the deliberative component of democracy got worse in more than 32 countries – another increase from only 5 nations in 2011. 

Putin is not Stalin. Stalin was a Marxist; Putin is a 21st-century tyrant, who, while homogenised characters of Romanov and Soviet imperialism, is a populist and nationalist, a practitioner of modern-day identity politics

Last year in December, US President Joe Biden appealed for strengthening democracy and protecting human rights and freedom of citizens at the first Summit for Democracy. He said, “this gathering has been on my mind for a long time for a simple reason: In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights, and — all around the world, democracy needs champions.” He added, “ democracy doesn’t happen by accident.  We have to renew it with each generation.  And this is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view.  Because the data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.”

 Biden did not point a finger directly at countries like China or Russia, but many experts believed that the summit was a way to build public opinion against such forces. Even the leaders of Russia and China were not invited to this conference. According to Democracy Index 2020, as low as 9% of the world population lives in a “full” democracy.

LEADERS FIGHTING AGAINST DICTATORS

Ordinary human beings, those have a dare to vehemently oppose oppressive Authoritarian regimes. They are charismatic leaders and grassroot activists who motivate millions to go out into the streets and protest

Alexei Navalny
Alexei Navalny

IN the recent past, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appeared by video link in his first court session since he was transferred to a high-security prison. He has faced near-total isolation since his arrest last year. But the court rejected his appeal that his lawyers be allowed recording equipment while visiting him in custody. It was a rare appearance for the Russian opposition leader, who has been sentenced to more than a decade in prison in a series of cases that appear designed to keep him behind bars indefinitely.

He has said that he expects to be in prison as long as Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is alive. Allies say that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s international isolation make it even less likely he will emerge from jail shortly. Navalny opposed a referendum on Putin’s provision for re-election, but the coronavirus pandemic reduced his ability to rally or garner public support. At the same time, the inclusion of 206 constitutional amendments in a referendum—including social and economic welfare measures that garner the support of the people—has made it difficult to emphasise an issue. 

Navalny also exposed Putin’s corruption. He uncovered a raw bag of Putin’s dark business, black empire and black ambition that remains unfulfilled. He was decided a year ago to submit to the custody of the regime that stood accused of trying to murder him. The poison had failed to kill him. It hadn’t even really changed him.  Besides Navalny, Ilya Yashin, an ally and prominent anti-war activist and Vladimir Kara-Murza, another Russian opposition figure, are jailed with hundreds of other commoners who raised their voices against Putin.

Leader of the opposition in Venezuela,  Leopoldo López, now living in exile in Spain whereas the opposition leader of Belarus is in Lithuania and many other dissidents are in Belarusian jails as political prisoners.  All of them are charismatic leaders and dedicated grassroots activists who have persuaded millions of people to go out into the streets and protest. If their only enemy was the corrupt, bankrupt Venezuelan regime, they might win. But Lopez and his fellow dissidents are in fact fighting multiple autocrats, in multiple countries. 

So many ordinary people were propelled into politics by the experience of injustice—like Sviatlana and Siarhei Tsikhanouski in Belarus; like the students of the extraordinary Hong Kong protest movement; like the Cubans and the Iranians.  And the Burmese pushing for democracy in their country. They all are fighting against tyrants who control the state, its institutions, companies and can make investment decisions worth billions of dollars for purely political reasons. 

Another Belarusian activist Maria Kolesnikova has been held behind bars for more than two years in a Minsk penitentiary.  In 2020, Kolesnikova coordinated Viktor Babariko’s campaign in the run-up to Belarus’ Presidential election and when Babariko, a prominent banker, was arrested on money-laundering charges, Kolesnikova became a key figure in the opposition’s Coordination Council and soon rose to become one of the country’s most prominent women dissidents. In September 2020, Belarus authorities arrested her along with her lawyer, Maxim Znak, another leading member of the Coordination Council,  for “inciting action aimed at harming national security” and “extremism.” They have given jail terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively.

First and foremost, these courageous leaders are challenging brutal autocrats who have money to buy sophisticated surveillance technology from China or bots from Russia and with that help have fortified themselves in power. 

Alexei Navalny opposed a referendum on Vladimir Putin’s provision for re-election, but the coronavirus pandemic reduced his ability to rally or garner public support

ROAD TOWARDS AUTOCRACY

Many International forums like The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA),  an organisation working on democratic values, claims that the number of countries in which democratic values are in danger has never been as high as it is now. In a report, IDEA says that the coups in Myanmar, Afghanistan and Mali have damaged democracy fully. Hungary, Brazil, and India are also among the countries where democracy has been weakened. Besides Latin and South American countries, military coups in Myanmar, Tunisia, and Sudan are testimonies of the steady rise of anti-democratic forces.

The number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction. Myanmar, which had been a fledgling democracy just beginning to recover from decades of military rule, fell victim to a military coup, the leaders of which even cited faulty elections as the justification for their course of action. Myanmar, which has embarked on a fragile democratisation path since 2015, the military used false claims about a rigged election to justify a coup in February 2021, which deposed the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Burmese junta is unashamed of having murdered hundreds of protesters, including young teenagers, on the streets of Yangon.

Many ordinary people propelled into politics by the experience of injustice—like Sviatlana and Siarhei Tsikhanouski in Belarus, like the students of the extraordinary Hong Kong protest movement, like the Cubans and the Iranians and the Burmese pushing for democracy in their countries—are fighting against people who control state

Perhaps the greatest blow to democratic ideals was the fall of the people’s government in Afghanistan, which has seen war being waged for the sake of preserving democratic principles. 

Significantly, the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale. The individual countries that have experienced declines between 2015 and 2020 are Benin, Brazil, Poland and Yemen. Benin lost its democratic status in 2019. In this period, four other countries have lost their democratic status due to severe declines:  Côte d’Ivoire, Honduras, Serbia and Turkey.

Hong Kong protest movement
Hong Kong protest movement

Democratically elected governments, including established democracies, are increasingly adopting authoritarian tactics. This democratic backsliding has often enjoyed significant popular support. Some of the most worrying examples of backsliding are found in some of the world’s largest countries like Brazil and India. The United States and three members of the European Union (EU) — Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, which holds the chair of the EU in 2021, have also seen concerning democratic declines. 

A total of 10 democracies have experienced declines in clean and fair elections since 2015 — Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Czechia, Hungary, India, Mauritius, Namibia, Poland and the USA. According to a report, democracy is at risk due to factors such as populist politics, the use of the Covid-19 pandemic to silence critics, the practice of adopting undemocratic methods of other countries, and the use of social media platforms to spread fake information to divide the society.

REPERCUSSIONS

IDEA has prepared this report based on data collected from 1975 till now. The Coronavirus pandemic has prolonged this existing negative trend for five years, the longest such period since the start of the third wave of democratisation in the 1970s. However, the pandemic has emboldened several governments to double down on popular expression, and push for more direct control. An example of this tendency is Hungary, which passed several ordinances limiting citizens’ rights and giving more power to Viktor Orbán’s government—under the pretext of bringing the pandemic under control.

Beijing was long focused on building a “Great Firewall” to prevent the people of China from being exposed to any criticism of the government from abroad

The Chinese government has constructed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism. Abroad, it uses its growing economic clout to silence critics and to carry out the most intense attack on the global system for enforcing human rights since that system began to emerge in the mid-20th century. Beijing was long focused on building a “Great Firewall” to prevent the people of China from being exposed to any criticism of the government from abroad. Xi Jinping has marshalled the military and diplomatic means to threaten Taiwan forced territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, thrown millions of Uyghur Muslims in confinement camps, curbed political freedom in Hong Kong, and launched influence operations to curb Taiwan.

China media censorship

The report says, ‘Crackdowns on the opposition, high levels of crime, violence, corruption, environmental degradation and endemic poverty have driven the current migration crisis. The situation is particularly dire in El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, providing the largest influx of immigration to other countries in the region.’

More than 6 million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela and are hosted by 17 countries across the Americas. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that more Nicaraguans were seeking protection in Costa Rica as of February 2022 than the total number of refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing violence during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. Similarly, the US Coast Guard registered the largest number of Haitian and Cuban refugees at sea since 1994. 

The Ninth Summit hosted by the United States of America on 6-10 June 2022, with a focus on ‘Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future’ failed to bring everyone to the table and was marred by controversy about Biden’s decision to exclude the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the gathering. This was widely criticised by several Latin American governments and prompted a boycott led by Mexico’s left-wing populist President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, followed by leaders of Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While Biden had hoped to display American strength and leadership by isolating Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the backlash revealed a wavering US influence and failed regional diplomacy.

Instead, the US isolated itself as the trend of rifts and weakening commitment to democracy in Latin America remains. After Ex-President Trump decided to skip the 2018 Summit, many had hoped that Biden would continue on the path taken by the Obama administration in 2015, where Cuba’s participation in the Summit of the Americas was encouraged and supported by the US. 

Rising threats stemming from the steady rise of authoritarian powers, such as China, is a major concern. At a time when the West, particularly the US, has considerably ceded its global commitment to protect democratic values, China has set its eyes on re-defining global human rights and democratic norms.

Right now, these autocrats don’t much care if their countries are criticised, or by whom. These strongmen are willing to pay the price to see their country enter the category of a failed democratic state, and are ready to accept economic collapse, isolation, and mass poverty if that’s what it takes to stay in power.

Geeta Singh

Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music, and society giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

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