Democracy, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. When US President Biden called the virtual Summit for Democracy last month, he recognized in his closing speech that “Democracy is what makes it possible for hope and history to rhyme”, but also that democracy must deliver and be accountable. This last view coincides with China’s White Paper on China: Democracy that Works – “there is nothing wrong with democracy per se.
Some countries have encountered setbacks and crises in their quest for democracy only because their approach is wrong.” So who is right? The American thinktank Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report “Democracy under siege”, noted that since 2005, their democracy score declined for 15 years in a row. Swedish V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2021 “Autocratization Turns Viral” noted that autocracies are now home to 68 per cent of world population and that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to levels last found in 1990.”
The British Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which published a Democracy Index 2020, divides countries into five categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Based on these, countries are divided into four types: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime and authoritarian regime. In 2020, the EIU found that 75 out of 167 countries live in some sort of democracy, of which only 8.4 per cent of the world live in full democracy.
Not surprisingly, the rich countries of North America and Western Europe are in the category of full or flawed democracies, but since 2016, the US has been classified under flawed democracy, with France, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal in the same category. In essence, all three studies suggest that democracy has been declining across Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, Latin America, with India rated by V-Dem as an “electoral autocracy”.
Japanese Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (REITI) visiting fellow Yusuke Narita recently examined “The Future of Democracy: Superiority is waning and headed for collapse.” He noted that since the Arab Spring democratic movement in the Middle East fizzled out after 2011, democracy has suffered defeat after defeat. Using the V-Dem Institute’s democracy index, he correlated democracy with mean GDP growth rate between 2001-2019 and found that democracies have remained stagnant in growth, whereas non-democracies have achieved remarkable growth.
He concluded that “the lost two decades of democracies” is a truly global phenomenon.” Furthermore, he also looked at the impact of Covid and found that “in democratic countries, the number of deaths from Covid-19 are higher, and the economic downturn in 2020 compared with 2019 was steeper in democracies than in autocracies.” What he feared was that “democracies are malfunctioning in crises as well as in normal times.”
What should be done to keep democracy alive in the 21st century? Mr. Narita considered two possibilities – “struggle with democracy” or “flight from democracy”. The struggle with electoral democracy is aptly summed up by former EU Commissioner JeanClaude Juncker in dealing with the 2007 European debt crisis: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” In essence, politicians in electoral democracies are deeply aware of the need for painful structural reforms but are reluctant to bite the bullet for fear of losing the next general election.
The real threat to democracy in any form therefore is the inability to tackle truly tough structural problems that complex and globalized societies face daily. As political economist Thomas Piketty and others have repeatedly pointed out, even though the gap between rich and poor countries has narrowed, social inequalities in terms of growing income and wealth losses by the middle class within almost all countries have worsened in the last two decades.
Corruption, climate warming, technological disruption, money politics, power concentration and pandemics all come together to demand very painful system-wide structural reforms. However, because democratic elections depend on money from vested interests, almost all democratic governments have postponed tough reforms to avoid the Juncker curse of losing elections when doing the right thing.
Small wonder that citizens everywhere either choose someone from outside the establishment, such as the rise of populist leaders, or prefer strongmen who offer different alternatives to the status quo. Hoover Institute right-wing historian Victor Davis Hanson blames the Left-wing Democrats who are “fearful not because democracy doesn’t work, but because it does despite their efforts to warp it.” Views on political governance are today more polarized than ever.
Centrists like former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta put the finger on the worst US national security threat as “dysfunction in Washington. It’s the inability of both parties – and the president – to be able to deal with issues.” “In a democracy, you can govern either by leadership or by crisis.”
The word crisis comes from the Greek word “krisis”, meaning decision- making. The crisis of democracy, however you define it, is a crisis of leadership in decision-making and how different societies choose their leaders to make these tough decisions. Electoral promises are meaningless if there are no deliverables in an accountable manner. Hong Kong’s recent elections are therefore less about the democratic form of governance, but more about the substance of accountability whether the new Administration delivers on all the housing and structural imbalances that the city faces.
According to climate doomsters, we only have two decades to deal with climate change and getting to carbon Net Zero, plus the pandemic, stagnation, inflation and myriad social injustices. Can electoral democracy get all these done before we blow up in either nuclear conflict, social collapse or climate disasters? That is the existential question facing all democrats or otherwise. Happy New Year!
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong and a former financial regulator.)
Special to ANN.