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Is democracy going backwards?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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January 19, 2008

LONDON - After the surge are we losing the fight? - the fight for democracy that is. For fifteen years I have watched, fascinated, curious, and exulted, as the New York-based organization, Freedom House, has chronicled each year the rise and spread of democracy. Even when the Cold War was still our principal preoccupation democracy and freedom were on the up. At the onset of World War 2 there were but five fully fledged electoral democracies in the world. By the time the Berlin Wall came down they were heading for nearly 100. Today it is 121 out of 193 sovereign countries. 64% of the world's population live in countries that are either "free" or partly "free". If we take out China only 18% of the world's people live in countries that are "not free", ruled by a dictator with the press and the courts under his thumb.

But then a year ago Freedom House reported that there were signs of a setback and this year in its new report it confirms it. The world is slipping back. In major country after major country- Russia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt and now Kenya, democracy and liberty are under attack. One fifth of the free and partly free countries have experienced some reversal, especially so in South Asia. Particularly worrying is Africa, a continent that the last few years has deservedly received much adulation both for its political and economic progress. The economic advance continues but politically 15 countries have gone backwards the last year and only 6 have improved.

Latin America is the continent that shines the most. Twenty years ago it was dominated by dictatorships. Now it almost entirely democratic, although Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua have centralised power. Even Haiti is finally going forward.

Indonesia excepted, the Muslim world which chalked up some noticeable advances over the last decade, seems to have badly slipped- Malaysia partly because of a court ruling outlawing the right of Muslims to convert to Christianity, in Bahrain because of increased discrimination against its majority Shias and, more seriously, in Bangladesh because of the military stepping back into government, and in Palestine because of corruption and the propensity towards violence and autocracy.

Democracy has had its great moments before and then regressed, as in pre-war Europe with the rise of fascism and subsequently the spread of communism

In Iran, in the early 20th century, democracy was the constitutional order but then the monarchy reasserted itself and since then Iran has never known real democracy. In Egypt in 1923 there was universal suffrage and a parliament with considerable power. But it didn't last long, and as is made clear the last couple of years, any democratic force that gains two much momentum is harshly treated.

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No one influence can be singled out for the present day regression. It is certainly nothing to do with anti-Americanism, although Chavez has had a good try at playing that card in Latin America. Nevertheless, it does make the Bush administration look foolish, particularly in the Middle East where President George W. Bush announced a mission to democratize the dictatorships. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even made a speech in Cairo in 2005 saying that the U.S. would no longer support stability over democracy - a policy quickly re-juggled seven months later when Hamas won the elections in Palestine.

There is certainly no innate reason why Muslim countries shouldn't become vibrant democracies over the next two decades. The Christian world was autocratic for its first 1750 years. Even twenty years ago academics were writing tomes explaining that the Catholic countries would have a hard time becoming democratic, given the nature of traditional hierarchies. Today we have the rapid advance of Indonesia, the Muslim world's most populous country. The country's two largest Muslim organizations now seem to operate rather like Europe's Christian Democrats. This indeed is the announced intention of Turkey's ruling party - a goal in which it is largely succeeding, having won the election for president of its former foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, who, with a headscarf wearing wife appears to be fulfilling his responsibilities with scrupulous fairness.

All this suggests that the slippage can still be contained, especially in the Muslim world. In Russia it is time for the Communists and the rightists to combine and fight on a common platform of democracy at the forthcoming election. That would wake the country up. In China, with its signs of growing academic freedom and more militant peasant unrest, one can still find reasons to hope that democracy could arrive by 2035 - the year that Deng Xiaoping promised.



Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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