Is democracy really dying a slow, agonising death?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 25, 2019

It’s fashionable these days for commentators to lament the lingering death of democracy. It’s being strangled long and slow, so the narrative goes. How?

By neutering democratic checks and balances – a judicious distance between governing party and the state. By packing the courts or preventing them from exercising judicial independence. By preventing the opposition from doing its job and by making it harder for legislative pushback to be effective. Add to that the onslaught on regular journalism – facts and reportage disliked by authoritarian leaders are dismissed as “fake news” and proof of a journalist or media outlet’s deep and unforgivable bias. The implication is that such journalists and media outlets shouldn’t be regarded as members of the profession and shouldn’t be allowed to ply their trade because it’s emphatically not journalism.

There are examples to hand for all of the above. Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, India and the United States come to mind. Hungary has become what its prime minister, Viktor Orban proudly set as an objective: it is now an “illiberal democracy”. The courts have been pretty much taken over in the sense that the government has created another layer of administrative courts that are controlled by the minister of justice without judicial oversight. And the media has been bought out by Mr Orban’s cronies and sympathisers.

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powerful executive presidency concentrates all power in him and his inner circle. The courts can no longer be seen as independent; the media has been taken over; the legislature is muzzled; the opposition harassed; political activists are frequently thrown into jail for “terrorist” crimes against the state.

Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro has harried the opposition, stripped the legislature of authority and denounced independent reportage. Meanwhile, economic mismanagement and misgovernance makes Venezuela poorer and more chaotic by the day.

In India, the governing BJP has managed to create a divisive Us Vs Them dynamic. “Us” are the majority Hindus and Hindu-orthodox political views that incline to majoritarianism. “Them” are the Muslim minority as well as secularists and liberal opinion. “Them” are depicted almost as anti-nationals. There are sections of the Indian media as well that is uncritically supportive of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP.

In the US, President Donald Trump has used his “fake news” label for every fact he doesn’t like or finds inconvenient. He has disregarded many of the checks and balances built into the American system by interfering in the work of the Justice Department; trying to influence the courts; lambasting the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies for their focus and dedication. He has introduced a narrow political test for every appointment; every decision announced by an official; every time someone expresses dissent or questions Mr Trump.

We need not lose too much sleep over the US – not yet. Despite Mr Trump’s assault on the political system, it seems likely to bear up under this extraordinary stress test. This is not a given, of course.

India too, to some extent, is likely to remain a riotous democracy, albeit one in which communal tensions are normalised.

The worry is for weaker democracies and those such as Turkey where the state is now totally in the control of one man.

That worry eased just a bit after the June 2019 Istanbul mayoral election and the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu’s, stunning victory.

Istanbul was a welcome counterpoint to an increasingly dismal trend, which is veering towards Orbanitis – illiberal democracy. Elections are held but the country doesn’t follow the norms one might in a democracy.

This makes it a matter of no particular celebration that democracy grew so strongly in the 60 years since 1941. Then, there were just a dozen democracies and by 2000 only eight countries had never held a serious election.

But as is increasingly clear, democracy may have spread around the world, it just didn’t strongly take root in many countries.