The Decline and Fall of Democracy Worldwide

By Thalif Deen*
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 2022 (IPS) – A head of state who presided over an authoritarian regime in Southeast Asia, was once asked about rigged elections in his country.
“I promised I will give you the right to vote” he said, “but I didn’t say anything about counting those votes.”
That infamous quote, perhaps uttered half-jokingly, was rightly described as an unholy combination of despotism and democracy.
In a report released last week, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) said half of the democratic governments around the world are in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections.
The number of backsliding countries –-those with the most severe erosion of democracy– is at its peak, and includes the established democracy of the United States, which still faces problems of political polarization, institutional disfunction, and threats to civil liberties.
Globally, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double the number moving toward democracy.
“This decline comes as elected leaders face unprecedented challenges from Russia’s war in Ukraine, cost of living crises, a looming global recession and climate change”.
These are some of the key findings in the report titled “The Global State of Democracy Report 2022 – Forging Social Contracts in a Time of Discontent” – published by International IDEA.
Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS the new assessment is alarming as it confirms that democracy continues to stagnate or decline in most countries.
In addition, non-democratic regimes are becoming more repressive, he added.
“It is clear that stronger efforts are needed to counter these trends. People all over the world actually want democracy”.
And current protests in China and Iran are a testament to this, to name just two examples. International IDEA refers to surveys that indicate a growing sentiment in favor of authoritarian leaders.
But there are other surveys, too, that show consistently high popular support for democracy as a principle of government, he argued.
“Lack of confidence mainly relates to the actual performance of democratic governments. Most importantly, they must do more to ensure that their policies benefit the majority of people in a tangible way”.
They need to fight corruption and lobbyism in their own ranks and beyond, he noted. Innovations are needed so people have more opportunities to be heard.
‘Democracy Without Borders’ suggests that convening a transnational citizens’ assembly should be considered that looks into common root causes of democratic decline and how they can be addressed. Democracies need to collaborate better and step up internationally, too.
“They need to help strengthen democratic representation and participation of citizens at the UN. Another proposal we are currently looking into is establishing the mandate of a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy”, declared Bummel.
Meanwhile, the 193-member United Nations was no better– where buying and selling votes were a common practice during UN elections mostly in a bygone era.
When UN member states compete for the presidency of the General Assembly or membership in the Security Council or in various UN bodies, the voting was largely tainted by bribery, cheque-book diplomacy and offers of luxury cruises in Europe– while promises of increased aid to the world’s poorer nations came mostly with heavy strings attached.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, voting was by a show of hands, particularly in committee rooms. But in later years, a more sophisticated electronic board, high up in the General Assembly Hall, tallied the votes or in the case of elections to the Security Council or the International Court of Justice, the voting was by secret ballot.
In one of the hard-fought elections many moons ago, there were rumors that an oil-soaked Middle Eastern country was doling out high-end, Swiss-made wrist watches and also stocks in the former Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), one of the world’s largest oil companies, to UN diplomats as a trade-off for their votes.
So, when hands went up at voting time in the Committee room, the largest number of hands raised in favor of the oil-blessed candidate sported Swiss watches.
As anecdotes go, it symbolized the corruption that prevails in voting in inter-governmental organizations, including the United Nations — perhaps much like most national elections the world over.
Just ahead of an election for membership in the Security Council, one Western European country offered free Mediterranean luxury cruises in return for votes while another country dished out — openly in the General Assembly hall— boxes of gift-wrapped expensive Swiss chocolates.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to boost democracy worldwide, the US hosted its first ‘Summit for Democracy’ in December 2021.
And on November 29, the Biden administrations announced that the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of Zambia, and the United States will co-host the second ‘Summit for Democracy’ on March 29-30, 2023.
Building on the first Summit, the upcoming gathering is expected to demonstrate “how democracies deliver for their citizens– and are best equipped to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”
“We are living through an era defined by challenges to accountable and transparent governance. From wars of aggression to changes in climate, societal mistrust and technological transformation, it could not be clearer that all around the world, democracy needs champions at all levels”.
Together with other invitees to the second Summit, “we look forward to taking up this call, and demonstrating how transparent, accountable governance remains the best way to deliver lasting prosperity, peace, and justice”, said a statement from the US State Department.
The link follows: https://www.state.gov/summit-for-democracy/
Meanwhile, the Secretary-General of International IDEA, Kevin Casas-Zamora, says the world faces a multitude of crises, from the cost of living to risks of nuclear confrontation and the acceleration of the climate crisis.
“At the same time, we see global democracy in decline. It is a toxic mix. “Never has there been such an urgency for democracies to respond, to show their citizens that they can forge new, innovative social contracts that bind people together rather than divide them.”
Regionally, the findings, according to the report, are as follows:
ASIA AND THE PACIFIC
# Democracy is receding in Asia and the Pacific, while authoritarianism solidifies. Only 54 per cent of people in the region live in a democracy, and almost 85 per cent of those live in one that is weak or backsliding. Even high- and mid-performing democracies such as Australia, Japan and Taiwan are suffering democratic erosion.
AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
# Despite myriad challenges, Africa remains resilient in the face of instability. Countries including The Gambia, Niger and Zambia are improving in democratic quality. Overcoming a restricted civic space, civic action in several countries has created opportunities to renegotiate the social contract; outcomes have varied by country.
In Western Asia, more than a decade after the Arab Spring, protest movements continue to be motivated by government failures in service delivery and economic opportunities—key aspects of social contracts.
THE AMERICAS
# Three out of seven backsliding democracies are in the Americas, pointing to weakening institutions even in longstanding democracies.
# Democracies are struggling to effectively bring balance to environments marked by instability and anxiety, and populists continue to gain ground as democratic innovation and growth stagnate or decline.
# In the US, threats to democracy persist after the Trump presidency, illustrated by Congress’s political paralysis, counter-majoritarianism and the rolling back of long-established rights.
EUROPE
# Although democracy remains the dominant form of government in Europe, the quality of democracy has been stagnant or in decline across many countries.
# Nearly half of the democracies—a total of 17 countries—in Europe have suffered erosion in the last five years. These declines affect 46 per cent of the high-performing democracies.
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This article contains excerpts from a recently-released book on the UN titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote me on That.” Available at Amazon, the book is a satire peppered with scores of political anecdotes—from the sublime to the hilarious. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
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*UN Bureau Chief and Regional Director IPS North America, has been covering the U.N. since the late 1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was a senior editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily, The Standard.