Democracy in retreat?


Despite the current democratic regression, there are three reasons why democracy advocates should maintain hope for the future, says Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy. The first is that the autocracies have their own problems, he tells Gazeta Wyborcza, in an interview reproduced by World Affairs:

  • They face a legitimacy crisis. They are terrified of popular rebellions like the Tiananmen uprising or the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.  These uprisings have met with harsh repression, but they nonetheless demonstrate the continuing appeal of the democratic idea. Authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing frequently point to the danger of “colored revolutions.” Their fear of such uprisings betrays their lack of confidence, because while they can marshal force to repress democratic movements, they know that they rule without democratic legitimacy and that their power is not secure, and their stability lacks resilience.  
  • The only legitimacy they have is based on their economic performance, and here they are not doing very well today. That’s the second reason there’s hope. The China model has lost its luster with the crash of the Shanghai stock market, record capital outflows, severe problems of air pollution and water contamination, rising levels of corruption and inequality, and an inability to undertake any real economic reform, such as ending corrupt and inefficient state monopolies in critical sectors. The economic crisis in Russia is even worse, and it’s deepened by the sanctions over Ukraine, as well as by the sharp drop in the price of oil, which has also affected Iran and Venezuela. So dictatorships are also in crisis today, not just democracies. But the global tide won’t turn if democracy has few advocates and democratic countries are mired in internal troubles.
  • This is why the resilience and determination of civil society—the third reason for hope—is so important. Activists in backsliding and repressive authoritarian countries are showing extraordinary courage, just like Solidarity under martial law. I have in mind, for example, bloggers in Ethiopia, journalists in Azerbaijan, the “umbrella” movement in Hong Kong, students in Venezuela, and lawyers and human rights defenders in China. It amazes me that in Russia, where the government has passed harsh NGO laws and democratic figures like Boris Nemtsov have been murdered, activists have continued to work fearlessly to expose kleptocracy and to offer independent news and information to counter the regime’s steady drumbeat of nationalist propaganda.

These examples are just the tip of a massive iceberg of civic activism that exists in all regions of the world and that may now be preparing the way for new democratic breakthroughs, Gershman suggests.


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