The year 2020 brought us mostly bad news regarding the state of global democracy, though there were some preliminary signs that things might yet turn around.
Over the past decade, we have been facing what democracy expert Larry Diamond calls a “democratic recession,” in which authoritarian governments have flourished and the rule of law has been undermined—a situation that he worries might evolve into a full-scale depression on the scale of the 1930s. On a geopolitical level, two big authoritarian powers, China and Russia, have consolidated their rule and have been aggressively supporting antidemocratic initiatives around the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has boosted China’s standing in many ways: Though it was responsible for the original outbreak, its ruthless containment measures have apparently defeated the disease, and its economy is back to pre-pandemic levels. China’s foreign policy has turned much more aggressive, with Beijing picking fights with neighbors like India and extending its dictatorship to Hong Kong, in violation of its 1997 pledges. It has put millions of its own Uighur citizens in camps, to very muted international protest.
The Year in Review
Russia, for its part, has continued to destabilize democratic countries, from near ones like Ukraine and Georgia to distant ones in Europe and the U.S. through weaponized social media. Moscow has allegedly attacked opposition politicians like Alexei Navalny—who was, according to the German government, likely poisoned over the summer—and lends strong support to Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko in suppressing mass calls for democracy.
The dangers within
The more insidious threats have come, however, from within established democracies, where democratically elected leaders have sought to erode constitutions and the rule of law. The Covid crisis has given them a perfect opportunity to expand executive authority, as when Hungary’s Parliament voted to give Prime Minister Viktor Orban emergency powers. Similar power grabs or efforts to delay elections have occurred in the Philippines, Tanzania, El Salvador and Bolivia. Under the cover of Covid, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has continued implementation of anti-Muslim policies initiated in 2019, like a new citizenship law disenfranchising them, and a reduction of Kashmir’s status and autonomy.
The past six years had seen a number of popular mobilizations against dictatorship, in Ukraine, Nicaragua, Algeria, Sudan, Armenia and Belarus. Most of these movements have stalled in the past year, with Covid limiting the ability of pro-democracy forces to mobilize and protest. Entrenched authoritarian rulers have been able to wait out protesters and reclaim authority in several of these countries. Ethiopia’s promising liberalization under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which won him a Nobel Peace Prize last year, has descended into civil war with the rebellious region of Tigray. Armenia’s democratic movement has been similarly stalled by its failing war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The severe economic recession triggered by the Covid epidemic has destabilized the politics of many countries. Latin America, for example, has major portions of the labor force outside the formal economy with no access to health care or government benefits. Governments have been unable to maintain quarantines, and existing polarizations have led to severe crises of authority in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and elsewhere. Failure to establish clear government authority and fiscal crisis have in turn made controlling the pandemic far more difficult.
Finally, there is the U.S., which in a sense had led the global populist uprising with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Like other populists, the president has used his mandate to try to weaken a series of check-and-balance institutions, including the FBI, the intelligence community, the civil service, federal judges and the mainstream media, which the president has continued to label “enemies of the American people.” His most serious attack on a central democratic institution to date is his failure to accept defeat in the November contest with Joe Biden and his specious claims that the election was “rigged” or riddled with fraud.
The American failure to observe the rules and norms of its own democracy has constituted a big blow to democracy world-wide. Russia, which actually does stage rigged elections, has been chortling over Trump’s accusations against the American system, while authoritarian rulers around the world have imitated Mr. Trump in dismissing critical media as purveyors of “fake news.” The Covid epidemic, by accelerating the pre-existing shift in the global economy’s center of gravity away from North America and Europe toward Asia, has diminished America’s relative weight in geopolitics.
The threats to global democracy that have appeared in 2020 are thus varied, and range from massive violations of law to subtle erosions of democratic norms. All people who uphold democratic values should thus be very worried about the crisis that is upon us.
Nonetheless, there is reason to hope that our descent may yet begin to turn around. In the end, the American system of checks and balances held, and the American people rejected Mr. Trump’s bid for a second term in office. While many Republicans continue to contest the legitimacy of the vote, Joe Biden will almost certainly be sworn in as president on Jan. 20 and will immediately begin to repair some of the damage inflicted during the Trump years. This will happen most quickly through a reassertion of America’s democratic leadership internationally but will hopefully extend to efforts to restore trust in institutions.
One of the big misunderstandings of the Covid crisis is the notion that authoritarian governments necessarily do better in fighting disease than democracies. This is an understandable conclusion when comparing the U.S. and China as exemplars of their respective forms of government, with a quarter-million fatalities in the first case and fewer than 5,000 in the latter. But the generalization doesn’t bear up to broader scrutiny. Any number of democracies, from South Korea and Taiwan to New Zealand, Canada and Germany have done as well or better than China in containing the disease. And mainstream democratic leaders like Korea’s Moon Jae-in, Germany’s Angela Merkel or New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern have been rewarded in recent votes or poll numbers for their effective handling of the crisis.
Global democracy will face continuing challenges as the recession drags on into 2021 and people chafe under pandemic restrictions. People around the world are fearful, insecure and unhappy, and that is not a formula for political stability. But we would do well to remember that prior crises at times brought about positive change by exposing the failures of bad leaders and creating demand for reform. While democracy has its discontents, there has been continuing popular pushback against abusive and/or corrupt governments world-wide as people vote or take to the streets.
Dr. Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute and Mosbacher Director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
“Wall Street Journal”
By Francis Fukuyama