Last week, Vladimir Putin airily contended that, “the idea of liberalism is obsolete”, having “outlived its purpose”. Even those who reject this notion can see liberalism is embattled at the present moment. A number of recently published books attest to it, carrying ominous titles like The Road to Unfreedom, How Democracies Die and How Democracy Ends.

There are, however, enough signs that the quest for greater democracy and individual autonomy remains vital across the globe. Voters in Istanbul and protestors in Prague sent a very different message from Putin’s in past weeks and, on the streets of Khartoum and Hong Kong millions are marching, at great personal risk, to preserve their rights and expand their freedoms.

To start with the case of Istanbul, the increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan annulled a prestigious mayoral election three months ago, after Ekrem Imamoglu of the secular Republican People’s Party or CHP narrowly defeated the candidate of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party Party or AKP. Thousands of Istanbul’s citizens changed plans, cancelled vacations or flew back home just to vote in the re-run on June 23, which produced a far more convincing victory for Imamoglu. It was like a line drawn demarcating the limits of Erdoğan’s power in the city where he first rose to prominence.

The Czech Republic is ruled by a Trump-style populist billionaire named Andrej Babiš, mired in a series of scandals over many conflicts of interest. After the police moved to prosecute him over an illegal European Union subsidy to one of his hotel projects, he appointed a new justice minister, raising fears of political interference in the investigation. On the day when Istanbul voted against the AKP, some 250,000 protesters gathered in Prague’s Letná park holding up messages like, “We won’t give up democracy.” Babiš rules a stable government and is likely to stay in the prime minister’s seat, but the size of the rally, which brought to mind 1968’s Prague Spring and 1989’s Velvet Revolution, must have unsettled him and fellow populists across Central and Eastern Europe.

The Umbrella movement

Hong Kong witnessed massive protests in 2014 after changes to electoral rules signalled greater control from Beijing. It came to be called the Umbrella movement after the waterproof devices protesters used as defence against police pepper spray. That movement collapsed after months of demonstrations, emboldening Chinese President Xi Jinping to throttle democracy a little more, bringing it that much closer to Chinese-style dictatorship.

In February this year, a bill was tabled by Hong Kong’s government which would facilitate the extradition of fugitives from Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China to face trial under Chinese law. Protests started up again, and gradually gathered momentum, attracting 12,000 people in March, over 100,000 on April 28, one million on June 9, and a stunning two million on June 16. Considering the city’s total population is some 7.5 million, of which 40% are over 50 or under 15, it is a safe estimate that one in every two young Hong Kong citizens marched on that day.

It wasn’t enough for them that the extradition bill was placed in suspended animation, they wanted it withdrawn completely and also demanded the resignation of the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lim. Last Sunday, on the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China by Britain in 1997, a faction of demonstrators stormed and occupied the city’s legislative chamber. Chinese media, which had avoided mention of the protests for months, covered that incursion in a bid to paint the entire protest as violent and anarchistic.

A protestor in Sudan. Credit: AFP

In Sudan, the stakes for freedom marchers are higher than anywhere else. Their movement began at the end of 2018, sparked by the rising cost of living and sustained by a determination to end the thirty-year-long dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. The army clamped down at first, then removed Al-Bashir while resisting an immediate transition to civilian administration. On June 3, members of a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, headed by a strongman named Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, already indicted by the International Criminal Court for his actions in Darfur, massacred 118 protestors and raped 70 at a sit-in.

The usual suspects, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are bankrolling hardliners in the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces, for the last thing the sheikhs want is democracy rising in the Arab world. Sudanese civilians are aware, after the June 3 slaughter, that each demonstration could be their last, and yet they march in the tens of thousands, shouting, “Freedom, peace and justice”. The slogan is virtually identical to one that animated the French Revolution and became the national motto of France and Haiti: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. It is as relevant today as it was in 1789, almost as difficult to actualise, and will not grow obsolete in Vladimir Putin’s lifetime, or ours.