The re-emergence of nationalism, anti-immigrant tendencies and authoritarianism in Europe and America over the last decade raises an alarm about the threats to liberal democracy and its institutions.
Samuel Huntington suggests that the expansion of democracy – from the 1970s with the Portuguese Revolution and the end of the Franco regime in Spain to the end of the Cold War – ultimately led to it becoming the most popular form of governance in the world. Similar movements of democratisation swept through the Philippines and Sub-Saharan Africa, and democracy as a form of government soon became a universal phenomenon. Over the next decade, popular uprisings at China’s Tiananmen Square, in Russia, Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine challenged authoritarian regimes.
New authoritarian order
Since the global debt crisis of 2008, though, the world has witnessed a gradual decline in civil liberties and democratic values. Authoritarian regimes, once challenged during the process of democratisation, are going strong: China gaining new economic and political strength by spearheading initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank; Iran reintegrating with the international community after accepting restrictions on its nuclear weapons programme; and Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin winning praise from far-right politicians in Europe and President Donald Trump in the United States are indicators of the increasing support gained by these regimes in the international system.
The success of any modern democratic state or system requires a fine balance between the popular mandate given to a leader and the rule of law that prevails in the state. In recent years, though, some leaders attract wide followings that provide electoral success and then misuse that immense popular mandate with blatant manipulation of laws.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is currently putting to vote, through referendum, constitutional changes, which if passed will bring about a complete overhaul in the Turkish system of governance. The change will abolish the office of the prime minister and concentrate power in the president’s hands. If the referendum is successful, Erdoğan could stay on as president for two terms, until 2029, uncontested. Due to the systematic crackdown against dissent in Turkey, many Turks are reluctant to protest the anti-democratic move.
A similar situation unfolds in Poland where the Law and Justice Party, which came to power in 2015, has brought about constitutional changes in the country’s highest court. These bring into question the court’s neutrality and ability to be an institution devoid of state influence. The government also increased control over state media and politicised the bureaucracy. Large-scale public protests in Poland have had no effect.
A people’s mandate is meaningless in a democratic system without the parallel functioning of the rule of law with transparency and accountability.
End of collective efforts
The belief in collective efforts for resolving global challenges emerged after the two devastating world wars of the last century, eventually resulting in the establishment of institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations. But that belief in collective strength may be eroding. Increasingly, politicians in Europe and across the world – including Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Jimmie Åkesson in Sweden, Frauke Petry in Germany – appeal to nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. Brexit is the most obvious symptom of such erosion.
Meanwhile, Europe has shut its doors to the increasing influx of refugees from Syria, Yemen and other conflict zones. Germany’s Angela Merkel has faced severe political repercussions in terms of a sharp decline in popularity ratings due to her open-door policy for refugees. And Viktor Orbán of Hungary has put forth the idea of carving out a space in besieged Libya for refugees from Syria, horrifically reminiscent of colonial behaviour such as the Balfour Declaration by the British or the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and England, the repercussions of which are still felt in the Middle East today. Orbán has also sealed Hungary’s southern border and refuses refuge for Muslim migrants out of fear they will dilute European culture or Christian values.
The protection of the rights for all under the rule of law is an essential pillar of democracy, one under great threat. If not protected, immense discrimination and suffering will ensue and contribute to expanding conflicts. Alienating and blaming others will not solve the institutional problems of European and American democracy, but will only further vicious cycles of anger and injustice. Societies cannot easily avoid the multiculturalism that comes with globalisation, and instead must analyse, understand and adjust their own procedures to come to terms with inequality, trade imbalances, terrorism, a changing climate and other factors that drive migration and economic challenges.
The anger in public discourse has some legitimacy, but the targets are misplaced. Democracy coupled with globalisation has become a process that caters to certain interest groups and divides the poor and working-class with shared interests around the globe. A sense of resentment and helplessness has emerged over the abilities of state institutions to resolve problems. Consider the rhetoric of national campaigns. For the US presidential election, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, representing the right and the left, focused on specific interest groups such as the corporate sector or powerful lobbies that often have a disproportionate share of influence. As Francis Fukuyama argues in his essay “The End of History”, governance has become a technical process devoid of imagination.
A few rare moments of hope and conviction continue to emerge and invite new followers for liberal democracy including the Arab Spring, the Obama campaign of 2008, the rise of Mateo Renzi in Italy or Alexis Tspiras in Greece – all promising change and equitable development. But in terms of governance, each fell into the trap of technocracy. Liberal leaders with the exception of Justin Trudeau seem to display a sense of fatigue. The best example is Angela Merkel, who after the exit of Barack Obama has emerged as the leader of the liberal west. However 11 years in power, Merkel seems to be isolated in a battle against the likes of Orbán, Trump, Erdoğan and Putin all at once.
The general fatigue of liberal leaders is evident and translating into their inability to garner trust in their voters. In contrast, Trump and other populists strive to give voters quick fixes and a collective societal ideal in the form of nationalism, anti-migration, Islamophobia and so on. By focusing on the alienation of the other, such issues become tools for encouraging the ordinary working class to believe that they are the primary interest group. Naturally, such populists and their supporters must oppose all outside influences and forces of globalisation – namely, an interconnected and fluid international system, a process that has not benefited the working class as much as elite insider groups.
Without active and educated voters, an inclusive political culture, accountability and transparency, democracy may not survive in the coming years, and no viable alternative seems ready to take its place. Amid the many threats to the institutions of liberal democracy, a sense of uncertainty has engulfed public discourse, and there is also an immense sense of foreboding at what the future holds.
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.