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Democracy in steep decline around the world

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The Arab Spring may be a great source of inspiration for popular movements around the world. However, a study assessing social, political and economic freedoms points to a steady, global shift towards authoritarianism. Above, Red Shirt anti-government protesters gather in Bangkok in April 2010.

Over the past six months, the world has watched as the Middle East, a region that long seemed immune to democratic change, has risen up.

The popular movements in the region have inspired democrats from around the globe. In China, online activists have called for a “Jasmine Revolution” designed to press the Communist Party to open up. While in Africa, reformers have called for their own “African Spring”.

But the Arab Spring is, in many ways, a mirage. Several nations in the region may eventually make the transition to democracy – this is hardly assured – but in reality, democracy is faltering throughout the developing world, from Asia to Latin America, from Africa to the former Soviet states.

In its annual survey, the monitoring group Freedom House, which uses a range of data to assess social, political and economic freedoms, found that global freedom plummeted for the fifth year in a row in 2010, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years. In fact, there are now fewer elected democracies than there were in 1995.

A mountain of other evidence supported Freedom House’s findings. One of the other most comprehensive studies of global democracy, compiled by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, uses data examining the ability of democracies to function, manage government and uphold freedoms to produce what it calls the Transformation Index.

The most recent index found “the overall quality of democracy has eroded [throughout the developing world] … the key components of a functioning democracy, such as political participation and civil liberties, have suffered qualitative erosion … these developments threaten to hollow out the quality and substance of governance”. The index concluded that the number of “highly defective democracies” – democracies with institutions, elections and political culture so flawed that they no longer qualified as real democracies – had roughly doubled between 2006 and 2010.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy only further confirmed these findings. The unit analyses democracy using categories for electoral process, pluralism, political participation, political culture, functioning of government and civil liberties. It found that democracy was in retreat around the globe. “In all regions, the average democracy score for 2010 is lower than in 2008,” it reported.

In 91 of 167 countries it studied, the democracy score had deteriorated in that time period and in many others it had only remained stagnant. Of the 79 nations that it assessed as having some significant democratic qualities, only 26 made the grade as what the EIU calls “full democracies”, while the other 53 were ranked only as “flawed democracies” because of serious deficiencies in many of the areas it assessed.

In Latin America, Africa, Asia and even most of Africa, coups, which had been a frequent means of changing governments during the Cold War, had become nearly extinct by the early 2000s. But between 2006 and 2010, the military grabbed power in Mauritania, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Bangladesh, Fiji and Madagascar, among others.

In many other developing nations, such as Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines, the military managed to restore its power as the central actor in political life, dominating the civilian governments that clung to power only through the support of the armed forces. “It’s almost like we’ve gone back to the [Ferdinand] Marcos era,” prominent Filipino rights activist and lawyer Harry Roque Jr said, as he waited in his office for the security forces to come and interrogate him. “There’s the same type of fear, the same abuses, the same attitude by the military that their actions will never face consequences.”

Support for democracy has become so tepid in parts of the developing world that many of these coups were cheered: in Niger last year, thousands celebrated the military takeover in Niamey, the capital, in part because the overthrown leader had been destroying the country’s democratic institutions.

Overall, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past 20 years, conducted by David Silverman, my Council on Foreign Relations research associate, found that in nearly 50 per cent of cases drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup, or, in polls or prominent media coverage afterwards, expressed their support for the army takeover.


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