Viewing the Donald Trump-instigated mob attack on The Capitol in Washington DC as a US-centric event alone could amount to belittling the growing signs of danger to democracy elsewhere.
In the last decade, there is growing disquiet over the gradual but steady encroachment of democratic practices around the world. Who could have imagined that a US president, even Donald Trump, would actually have had the gumption to mount a tacky, rag-tag and an apology of an insurgency on what is popularly regarded as the world’s most powerful and vainglorious democracy.
As one Indian-American physician in a television show on the event, reflecting this thinking, commented, “four decades ago I left India for the US thinking I would enjoy more freedom and democracy in that country” only to be shocked at what he witnessed on Wednesday.
If the siege of the Capitol proved a loss of face for the US, more crucially it forcefully brings home the point that democracy is in a crisis elsewhere and has not spared the “land of the free and home of the brave,” as Americans like to describe their country.
The signs have been there for a while now and this is probably a good time to cast a glance on the deterioration of democracy in various parts of the world.
In Tunisia, at the end of 2010, the unexpected upsurge of people demanding democratic rule sparked off a series of similar uprisings across the Arab world. When the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and the country turned into a democracy it proved so infectious that the streets of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and other nations in the region exploded in protests, demanding an end to dictatorships.
Ten years later, instead of bustling democracies in the Middle-East what we see are broken hopes, near-anarchy, civil wars and the restitution of authoritarian governments. Except for Tunisia which has managed until now to hold on to a fledgeling democracy in the face of attempted subversions, the rest of the region starting with Egypt is worse off than when the uprisings started. ‘Arab Spring’ has turned into ‘Arab Winter,’ as some scholars have chosen to describe the situation. Syria has come apart at its seams and so has Yemen. Libya too is in a state of anarchy while Bahrain has barely managed to shut out demands for democracy.
In the case of India, after the 2014 elections that brought the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power, there is a widely acknowledged dilution in democratic practices. The overarching reach of the government and its intrusion into the personal lives of citizens have had a debilitating impact on the functioning of its institutions while stigmatizing the individual’s right even to choose what to eat and whom to marry.
Since taking over as Prime Minister, Modi has not held a single media conference. There have been one-to-one interviews with select journalists and news channels but not an aggregated meet where reporters typically ask unscripted questions. Apologists for the government say that the Prime Minister communicates directly through radio and via social media platforms, but they miss the point that media conferences are par for the course in a democracy, and those in power are accountable to the people.
It has become fairly routine for the ruling BJP to come to power even without having to necessarily ‘win’ the mandate in state Assembly elections. The subversion of results has become so routine that it no longer attracts attention. Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and a failed attempt in Rajasthan are among the most recent of instances.
Interestingly, there have been no protests or opposition from civil society as it is divided along party lines. Those backing the BJP have no problems that the party has come to power using subterfuge. That it dilutes democracy and the ‘people’s will’ do not appear to matter.
Similarly, the sitting of the monsoon session of Parliament was cancelled on the grounds of the COVID pandemic. Again, though some opposition politicians and a section of the media criticised the decision, it has not helped. Parliament is the only institution where the government can be openly held to account for its decisions but that does not seem to matter any longer.
Legitimate protests by civil society groups are termed as anti-national and seditious by official agencies and sections of the media backed by the government. Dissenters including academics and human rights activists are accused as terrorists and jailed for years on end without trial. Student agitators and the universities they study in have been attacked by hoodlums while the police have looked on, while fake narratives are spun by agencies backed by the state to discredit the opposition.
The list of moves that indicate disdain for democratic processes is much longer and the country is in danger of losing out on the many gains it has accrued with great difficulty and sacrifice since independence. Many fear that the country’s Constitution which stands for various freedoms as part of democracy is being undermined.
In their recent book titled ‘How Democracies die,’ Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have been quoted by the media as saying a ‘democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms.’
Turkey is another country where democracy has nosedived steeply, where the ruling AK Party of President Recept Tayyib Erdogan has cracked down severely on the opposition. Using the excuse of an attempted coup d’etat in 2016, the Erdogan government has jailed thousands of journalists and opposition activists. A secular democratic nation could be turning into an Islamic theocratic state.
In Latin America which saw a wave of popular governments some 20 years ago, democracies including in Brazil and Venezuela have come under threat. Using questionable means the previous government of Dilma Rousseff was removed and is now governed by President Jair Bolsonaro who has shown scant respect for democracy. In Venezuela, the US made several attempts to undermine the elected government of Nicolas Maduro and declare the opposition leader Juan Guaido as president. It is another matter that it has not succeeded.
In Russia, after the break up of the erstwhile Soviet Union, a large section of people hoped for a democratic setup, but the incumbent President Vladimir Putin has managed to subvert democracy and get around the rule that no president can continue in office for more than two successive terms by becoming prime minister the third term and returning to power after that as president – using a glitch in the wording of that law. Thereafter, by enforcing constitutional changes approved by the court and a referendum to boot in July 2020, Putin will stay on as president until 2036.
In post-Mao China which had brought in reforms to ensure that no president stayed on after two terms in office, President Xi Jinping managed to influence the Communist Party into amending that rule and declare him president for life, snuffing out the semblance of a democratic transition for the top job.
The threat to democracy is a throwback to the decade of the 1930s in Europe when fascism was openly promoted as an alternative to parliamentary democracy. Though fascism was discredited due to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the runup to the Second World War, it has returned seven decades later, mostly camouflaged as a combo of nationalism and theocracy around the world.
Though the attack on the US Capitol on Wednesday ended in failure, the fact that something like that was even attempted shows that the danger to democracy is far deeper and unless democrats wake up to it the world may have to suffer yet another liberal dose of authoritarianism and all the pain and suffering that go with it.