Withering away of democracy?

5 Mins read
Source: International IDEA, Global State of Democracy Report 2021

It was quite common back then to hear some Marxists assert that when a classless society has been achieved and the State as a coercive institution, interfering in social relations, ceases to be necessary, the State simply withers away. It dies out.

It did not happen in Russia, or anywhere else. It has not happened today. What used to be the Soviet Union disintegrated into independent republics after 69 years from its foundation in 1922. Totalitarian dictatorship was repu-diated; the hammer-and-sickle flag yielded to the pre-revolutionary white-blue-red flag.

Ironically, the trend that is most evident today, as reported by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), is that “a greater number of countries are sliding toward authoritarianism, while the number of established democracies under threat has never been so high.”

Are we seeing the withering away of democracies?

International IDEA is an intergovernmental organization formed to “promote and advance democracy worldwide.” It aims to see democracy flourishing, rather than dying out. It is driven by its vision to see a world in which democratic processes, actors and institutions are inclusive and accountable.

Three impact areas are the focus of International IDEA: electoral processes, constitution-building processes, and political participation and representation. Based in Stockholm with regional and country offices in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, it has gravitas. International IDEA is a permanent observer at the United Nations and is accredited by the European Commission and the European Parliament.

There has been a sea change in democratic space across the world over time.

Source: International IDEA, Global State of Democracy Report 2021

In its retrospective report 2012-2017 entitled “Supporting Democracy Worldwide,” International IDEA documented the implementation of its “Strategy” in the time of citizens-led uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, culminating in the downfall of autocratic regimes of long standing. In more established democracies, populism held ground due to the failure of democracies and the ruling class to deliver fair access to opportunities, employment, and education. Great advances in information and communication technology helped in the cause of demanding accountability from policy makers. What was essential was championing the centrality of the citi-zenry in a democracy.

It was correct for International IDEA to shift the public debate away from the “perception that democracy can be built by occupying a central space like Cairo’s Tahrir Square or protesting on Wall Street.” Instead, democracy thrives when citizens are mobilized into institutions and processes that can influence real policy action. By sharing country experiences globally in upholding democracy, International IDEA has contributed to increasing democ-racy’s capacity, legitimacy, and credibility.

Of late, 33 countries have signed up with International IDEA including Asia-Pacific countries, namely Australia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines which joined in 2013. Japan participates as an official observer.

But in the last few years, International IDEA recently observed that “the world is becoming more authoritarian as autocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression. Many democratic governments are back-sliding and are adopting authoritarian tactics by restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This is the key message of International IDEA last Monday with the release of its latest assessment, “The Global State of Democracy 2021 (Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era).” The Report was released three weeks before US President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9-10. About 100 countries will gather to discuss the challenges of keeping democracy alive.

International IDEA’s report is indeed an alarm bell.

Authoritarianism has been observed to be rising in every part of the world. Universal values of democracy are under threat. Backsliding now seems to be the norm as it has doubled in the last 10 years, covering about a quar-ter of the world’s population. The US is the prime example of a backslider as well as some European member states like Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. What happened in the US Capitol after the Trump defeat was everything that a democracy should not be.

The democracy organization noted that there were more countries in 2020 that moved to more authoritarianism than to more democracy. We are not surprised that as shown previously by press reports, four democracies were lost to fraudulent electoral exercise or military coups. Using various indices, the Report disclosed an increase in state repression, the worst in years.

Not all the democratic losses were due to political factors. The health pandemic has actually entrenched the trend of democratic descent. As of August 2021, around 64 countries “have taken an action deemed to be dispro-portionate, unnecessary or illegal to curb the pandemic.”

What drive democracies to swing to the other side are slippages in political processes and, in International IDEA’s words, social fault lines unmasked by the pandemic. We are all witnesses to how the Philippines’ pandemic response was shaped. Easy-to-implement policies were resorted to like lockdowns and prohibitions of personal mobility. Establishing a more sophisticated, science-based centralized and digital database system was more chal-lenging but that could have enabled the granular community quarantine with a manageable hit on economic growth. Blanket tagging of individuals as insurgents on mere suspicion was even enacted into law.

In addition, as Dindo Manhit of the Stratbase Group recently wrote, “another pandemic threatens to destroy our way of life. Disinformation is an insidious instrument that deprives people of their right to credible information. It dispossesses them and diverts their attention from pressing public issues.” This is anti-democracy. It happened in Myanmar, Peru, and even in the United States.

The only good news is that there are newly observed contrary movements. Some democracies proved to be more resilient despite all the odds. They introduced or broadened democratic innovations and adaptability of their practices and institutions.

It is good civic activism that continues to strengthen, defying state repression especially in Belarus, Cuba, and Myanmar. In addition, issues of global sustainability like climate change and racial justice have creeped into public debates. The democracy organization also reported that over 80 countries went through various forms of protests and mass actions during the pandemic despite repressive state actions.

For democracy to continue to thrive, International IDEA recommends “embracing more equitable and sustainable social contracts, reforming existing political institutions, and shoring up defenses against democratic backslid-ing and authoritarianism.”

What does the Report have to say about the Philippines and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region?

In the press release issued on Nov. 22, International IDEA noted that “democratic erosion is also widespread, including in India, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka with many of them suffering from rising internationalism and the militarization of politics.” The Philippines has remained as a mid-range (green) performing democracy compared to either weak (light green), high-performing (dark green), hybrid (blue) and authoritarian (orange). The chart accompanying this piece shows in no uncertain terms the growing dominance of orange, pointing towards authoritarianism.

One interesting finding of International IDEA is that Vietnam’s authoritarian regime did not prevent it from getting popular support and people’s trust in, for instance, pandemic management. It delivered, and delivered well. China, Singapore, and Taiwan also received good feedback despite their democratic performance. Singapore has a hybrid regime while Taiwan, like the Philippines, is a mid-range performing democracy.

The clear challenge for the next President of the Republic is to ensure democracy work well especially in the areas of electoral reforms, fighting corruption, upholding the rule of law, defense of our sovereignty, strengthening of our public health system, restructuring of the Philippine economy and mainstreaming of marginalized sector, ensuring universal education, promoting social justice, and building resilient communities.

We cannot afford to see democracy wither away.

Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former deputy governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was alternate executive director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.

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