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Global decline of liberal democracy: calls for new governance models ~ by Paul Ejime


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Pro-democracy activists and scholars are concerned about the global decline of freedom, erosion of the rule of law, and the growing threats to Western-style liberal democracy, and rightly so.

In a lecture he delivered recently, Dr Larry Diamond, America’s renowned political scientist and a leading scholar on democracy studies, observed that “democracy globally has been in a prolonged recession since about 2007.

American renowned political scientist and democracy studies scholar, Dr. Larry Diamond
American renowned political scientist and democracy studies scholar, Dr. Larry Diamond

In the inaugural Distinguished Guests Lecture Series jointly organized by the Fixpolitics Movement, established by former Nigerian Education Minister and World Bank Africa Vice President, Dr Oby Ezekwesili and its affiliate, School of Politics, Policy, and Governance (SPPG), Senegal, Dr Diamond noted that there might be “many new (third wave) and old democracies (that) have been resilient, but many others (are) deteriorating.”

There are as many definitions of democracy as there are classifications by hardliners and followers of the liberal school of thought, but the definition credited to former British Prime Minister Winston Leonard Churchill finds accommodation even among anti-democracy advocates.

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…,” declared Churchill in 1947.

Experience has shown that other systems of government, such as oligarchy or autocracy, often lead to oppression and tyranny, and despite its flaws or imperfections, democracy has demonstrated a resilience for collective decision-making and efforts at striking a balance between freedom and responsibility.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is among those who believe that Western-style liberal democracy has failed in Africa and does not suit the continent’s culture and traditions.

At a recent forum on rethinking democracy in Nigeria, held in Abeokuta, Western Nigeria, he therefore, advocated for the development of what he calls “Afro democracy,” and charged a gathering of academics and politicians to clinically analyze the flaws of liberal democracy and proffer systems that are more effective and beneficial to Africa.

Whether it is liberal democracy that has failed, or the operators/practitioners (political actors) that have failed the people and the system is open to debate.

But from evidence-based analysis, the erosion of freedom, deterioration of the state of the rule of law, and threats to liberal democracy, though gradual, started around 2007, after the euphoria and celebrations that greeted the wave of multiparty democracy of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

There was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions, across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s, known as the first Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in response to corruption, followed by political upheavals in the region called the second Arab Spring coupled with “people power” incidences against liberal democracy.

By 2022, virtually all parts of the World including Eurasia, Asia Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas, had witnessed one form of decline of freedom, or worrisome threats to the rule of law and democracy. Not even America, the “mother of democracy” was spared.

What is considered a retreat from liberal democracy and growing instability in West Africa and the wider African continent today is within the context and dynamic of the global landscape characterized by an unprecedented convergence of multiple threats and opportunistic vectors, such as geopolitical and strategic shifts, economic downturns, currency fluctuations, climate and environmental ecosystem changes, sociocultural dynamics, and digital advancements, especially the “invasion” of social media.

Welcoming Diamond, Ezekwesili emphasized the necessity for Africa to create a conducive political climate in her search of solutions to its governance challenges.

In the same vein, the Dean of SPPG, Senegal, Professor Emeritus Alioune Badara Fall, of the University of Bordeaux explained that the democratic project in Africa was complex and vulnerable to several influences.

As the Convener of Fixpolitics, Senegal, Adama Gaye, a seasoned Senegalese journalist and former Director of Communications of ECOWAS underscored the need “to build a disruptive massive class of African leaders with character, capacity and competence.”

In the online lecture entitled “Power, Performance, and Legitimacy: Renewing Global Democratic Momentum,” attended by more than 300 participants, Diamond, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, U.K., warned that: “We (the World) remain in a volatile and uncertain period – democracy globally could sharply gain or contrast.”

The key trends identified in his thesis include “horizontal accountability… growing polarization, intolerance magnified by social media, authoritarian resurgence, and power projection, and decay of democratic quality in the U.S. and parts of Europe… with declining trust and satisfaction, high-profile movements for democracy, as well as illiberal populism, still spreading but can be reversed.”

The lecture examined “the global trends in democracy and freedom, the minimum standard for electoral democracy as well as free and fair competition for power – a level playing field.”

Using data from various peer-reviewed sources such as the Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, Diamond tested the practice of democracy by regions – between 2006 and 2022 with Europe topping the ranking, while Sub-Saharan Africa, some countries in the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East and North Africa bringing up the rear in that order.

He also examined the Global Expansion of Democracy from 1974 to 2022 within countries and the Rate of Democratic breakdowns as a percentage of democracies over the same period, with the percentage of democratic expansion at 16% against breakdowns of 40%.

Also analyzed were the ratio of Democratic Transition to Breakdowns, and Gains to Declines in Freedom, with the “causes of Democratic Recession from 2006 traced to the “Backlash Against Iraq intervention by the US and its allies – perception of failed democracy promotion, and the 2008 Financial Crisis.”

Others were the “Rise of Social Media, the Technology boom, the growing concentration of wealth and income within countries, the Global Power shift, the Decline of US/European power and prestige, the Resurgence of Russia, and the Rise of China as a major power.”

On the chart for Democratic Gainers and Losers between 2006 and 2022, countries listed under “declining democracies” included Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Thailand, Türkiye, and the US. Nations under “Improving Democracies” were Columbia and Taiwan, for “Oscillating States,” were Argentina, South Korea, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam, while China, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Myanmar, Russia, were listed as “Worsening Autocracies.”

Under the trends in Political Rights, Rule of Law, and Civil Liberties between 2006 and 2022 across the regions, Sub-Saharan recorded the lowest scores of -18%, -11%, and -3% respectively, while listed under “Failed Democratic Transitions” were Venezuela 2019, Zimbabwe 2016-17, Iran 2009, Arab Spring: Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia; Sudan 2018, Ethiopia 2015, 2018, Myanmar 2011, Malaysia 2018, Algeria 2019, and Lebanon 2019-20.

The lecture also examined Norms versus Institutions that support liberal democracy, with factors that loomed large, including “shallow, eroding normative commitment to democracy (by elites), Eroding public trust in democratic institutions, and declining legitimacy, the demise of civic education, the impact of social media and the coarsening of civic life and Authoritarian propaganda, sharp power, and flooding of the information zone.”

The factors driving “Poor economic and political performance” were listed as “Weak economic growth, inadequate jobs and social safety net, Poor education (long-term deficits of human capital), Corruption, crony capitalism, kleptocracy, Extreme and rising inequality, Declining public order: crime, gangs … and very weak governance.”

The lecture further examined “Attitudes Towards Democracy, Satisfaction with Democracy, Rejection of One-Party State, Rejection of Military Rule, and Rejection of all three Authoritarian Alternatives across regions with selected countries.

In Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa, the four countries covered by the study in Sub-Saharan Africa, there were notable preferences for Democracy against the three Authoritarian alternatives.

Diamond explained that electoral democracy or the conduct of regular elections cannot equate to liberal democracy, which should be measurable not by government or individual performance, but by the aggregation of collective satisfaction of the aspiration of the majority.

His prescriptions for the strengthening of liberal democracy include promoting “cross-national learning, countering incipient democratic backsliding, defeating illiberal populism at the polls, effective policies for equitable and inclusive growth, and countering authoritarian sharp power.”

Other measures are “defeating populism, mobilizing cross-cutting civil society alliances, leading with bread-and-butter issues of the people’s needs and the populist government failure, exposing the corruption of populists’ leaders and government, the fraud in its claim to represent the people, identifying reforms to improve democracy, but do not make those the centerpiece of the campaign.”

Diamond said, “Civic nationalism” should be embraced, with democracy and personal freedom made an integral part of what makes the nation great, adding that priority attention should also be given to Legitimacy and Performance in determining policy implications to encourage economic support and investment to promote growth and opportunity.

There should be vigilance against diplomatic pressure and Aid conditionality that could drive democratic backsliding, the lecturer warned, adding that there should also be training for “democratic policing, reviving of civic education in schools and efforts to counter authoritarian propaganda and disinformation.”

He also advocated for a Global Campaign for democracy that should include Project “Democratic Soft Power to promote democratic values, ideas, examples, and institutional designs, in multiple languages and forms.” This is to “counter and expose Authoritarian Sharp Power efforts to penetrate and sway democratic institutions (Universities, Thinktanks, Businesses, Parties, Communities, and Substantial Governments.”

On the influence of money on politics, Diamond suggested the strengthening of laws against foreign influence, including campaign funding, review of inbound Foreign Investment, and support for democratic media.”

To strengthen democratic legitimacy, he called for “improving the performance of democracies, economic and political, strengthening of Global Power Democracies, increasing support for New and Weak Democracies, waging the Global Normative Battle for Democracy, and training Coalitions for anti-corruption and rule of law reforms.”

There should also be “increased assistance to independent media, investigative journalism, and NGOs, to fight corruption and promote good governance reforms, while at the same time using diplomacy to defend civic space, denouncing human rights violations and defending democratic principles.”

Diamond also suggested “investment in public-private partnerships for new tools to defend internet freedom and security, coupled with defense and strengthening of electoral security and integrity with electoral reform (of majoritarian rules), regulation, monitoring, and reform of social media.

There should also be “reforms to combat kleptocracy and money laundering with bridging rather than polarizing campaign strategies with effective policy responses on immigration, jobs, and inequality,” he concluded.

*Ejime, is an Author, Global Affairs Analyst, and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications

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