KIM WINGEREI. Democracy in Decline – Part 2.

Jan 25, 2019

The Economist’s Democracy Index is not all doom and gloom – there is hope, but it requires that we engage. Democracy is about much more than the next election!

In part 1 I outlined some of the findings of the report showing how the numbers of “full” democracies are in decline as the “strongmen” are on the rise, exploiting the gulf in trust and offering popular solutions whilst weakening the pillars of democracy.

Political Participation.

This is the only measure on the Democracy Index that shows a sustained upward trend. Despite the ultimate disappointments of the “Arab Spring” it demonstrated that when given hope, people in dysfunctional countries rose up and made their voices heard. History has shown us that this is often how change eventually happens: the first revolution fails after a fiery start, the embers keep on burning and people power eventually prevails.

Participation is measured on factors such a voter attendance (hence the US scores low), membership in political parties and preparedness to partake in political rallies and demonstrations. (France, a democracy laggard in other respects, scores high here, even before “des gilets jaunes”.)

The EIU report concludes:

“In a context of disillusionment with democracy in practice and in principle, and of declining civil liberties, the rise in political participation is remarkable. Clear disenchantment with formal democratic institutions is not preventing the population from participating in them.”

The other driver of the political participation index is the still slow, but steady increase in the number of women elected. That said, we’ve got a long way to go when top score is measured at more than 20% of representatives. It’s clearly not just the Australian LNP that have yet to get that memo.

Civil Liberties.

This is the area of most concern and where the cracks to democracy invariably first appear. It covers basic human rights, including the freedom of media, freedom of association, freedom from discrimination, the independence of the courts and degree of secularism.

As we have seen in Turkey over the past decade, Erdogan has used his majority to erode democratic rights by removing Parliament’s control over the executive, neutered the courts and generally eroded civil rights. He has curbed press freedoms, prosecuted journalists and persecuted minorities – defined as anyone who either don’t agree with his views or are not of the “correct” Islamics faith.

It is a similar story in Hungary where Victor Orban, who clearly got so tired of being in opposition that when he finally became Prime Minister for the second time, he had sufficient majority to make constitutional changes to prevent amendments to legislation enacted by his government – including weakening the role of the courts. The Hungarian Constitution protects freedom of speech in theory, but state owned media and new laws introduced over the last few years have, if not completely silenced opposition voices, significantly curbed their capacity to report freely.

Australia and many of the other “full democracies” score a perfect 10 in the Civil Liberties category, suggesting it is a somewhat defective measurement as no country this side of Utopia can claim to be squeaky clean on human rights.

Our treatment of refugees may technically not be deemed “undemocratic”, but they are certainly inhumane. And as the EIU report was compiled before the draconian cyber security legislation was approved, I’d suggest it is a score we will not maintain when the next report is published in 12 months time.

Democratic Political Culture.

We should be proud of – and thankful for – being a “full democracy” – it’s a privilege a majority of the world’s nations don’t enjoy and mostly never have. It is easy for us to forget that most countries don’t have a culture of free elections, a well functioning government, high degree of participation in the public discourse and strong protections for civil rights.

Establishing a strong democratic political culture takes generations, but it can be quickly dismantled.

India is the world’s largest democracy and does have a relatively strong political culture, maybe the most valuable legacy of British colonial rule. As does our nearest neighbour Indonesia. Both countries have their own challenges in maintaining that status as they have elections coming up this year.

India’s Prime Minister Modi has been criticised for heavy handed tactics against a fractured opposition and corruption is on the rise in a country that despite its economic growth, is a very long way away from according equal rights to all its poor and all its minorities. A re-elected and emboldened Modi may well go down a less democratic path.

Indonesia has come a long way since the fall of Suharto in 1998, but it remains a country divided by religious fervour and dogma, still a fair way away from a secular democracy with equal rights for all.

China, the world’s most populous country – and arguably most powerful – scores a predictable zero on electoral processes and not much better on civil liberties, but relatively high on the political culture scale. The EIU attributes that to the Chinese people having little desire for a democracy – a form of government they have never experienced and thus have little reason to believe in. Many like what they’ve got.

In Australia we may believe that improvements in our national fortunes is no further away than the next election. But that is a fallacy as our democracy is also under threat by politicians putting their self interest first, heavily influenced by lobbyists, special interest groups and donors, increasingly blurred lines between the legislature and the executive, and a senate that no longer serves as a house of review, but as a chamber of obfuscation.

We cannot afford to be complacent. It is not a far stretch to think of Peter Dutton and others of his ilk as people who share not just some of the beliefs of an Erdogan, Orban or a Bolsonaro, but also their ambition.

The huge chasm of distrust between the electorate and our representatives is growing, and will only be narrowed by increased and sustained participation of engaged voters.

That’d be us.

Kim Wingerei is a former business-man, turned writer and commentator. Passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’. Follow @ / Twitter @kwingerei

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