Global Democratic Backsliding and the Rise of Authoritarianism

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“American people are going to emerge from this moment stronger, more determined, and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy.” The newly elected US President Joe Biden’s speech delivered at the U.S. Department of State Headquarters on the fourth of February, 2021, may have sounded too optimistic in a world where authoritarianism is unmistakably on the rise.

The Democracy Report 2021 of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Index points out that “autocracies are now homes of world’s 68% population” while “liberal democracies diminished over the past decade from 41 countries to 32, with a population share of only 14%.” The V-dem index collects data on  “voting rights, clean elections, equality before the law, constraints on the executive, and freedom of association and expression,” and it is “one of the largest-ever social science data collection efforts with a database containing over 28.4 million data points.” Such diversity within this database tells us that democracy is a complex concept, and it goes beyond elections and concerned with impartial judiciary, freedom of expression, human rights, separation of power between three wings of government, and so forth.

V-Dem  notes that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to levels last found around 1990.” The Washington based Freedom House, in its latest report too, observed that “democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes,” and that has “shifted the international balance in favour of tyranny.”Such worrying trends highlight that autocracies and their sophisticated tactics and strategies are widely used as models of governance by the rulers who want to cling to power by force and coercion.

The gravity of this scenario is deep and not well empathised. Democracy not only refers to a relatively open political system, but it also encourages a reasonably open culture that shape peoples’ attitude and values to appreciate (to a large extent) freedom of the press, freedom to vote for electing public representatives, an unbiased judiciary and the rule of law, protection of human rights, and respecting human dignity and ensuring accountability of the public officials.

While in the West, the rise of populism, conspiracy theories, and radicalisation are testing the limits of endurance of the democratic institutes, so far, democracy has managed to sustain, in large part. However, in other parts of the world, for example, in Russia, Belarus and many parts of South America, the Middle East and Asia, the population live under authoritarian rule where the rule of laws are not impartial and favours the powerful. In these countries, journalists are persecuted, and dissidents are ruthlessly suppressed through judicial and extrajudicial manners.

Many analysts and influential scholars like Princeton University’s John Ikenberry,  Roger Scruton, Samuel P Huntington, Bernard Lewis tend to point out that the ideological challengers of the democracies are outside of the liberal democracies: they are the Islamists, communists, Chinese or Russians who offer closed and oppressive political systems.

To understand the challenges of democracy:  they study the nature of authoritarian regimes, their modus operandi, tactics for survival and modes of engagement with democracies.

Hardly there is a robust critical discussion about how this march of 21st-century authoritarianism and its avatars such as totalitarianism, hybrid regimes, electoral autocracy and closed autocracy was facilitated by a complex conundrum of security and economic interests of the liberal democracies. Reflections on how the businesses of influence and storytelling have multiplied the autocratic rise too largely remain outside of this discussion.

With Donald Trump’s accession to power, the democratic trend of supporting autocrats has accelerated. After all, there is a wrong, and long-prevailing perception in the democratic policy circle is that democratisation would bring destabilisation in lands long served under autocratic regimes. Autocrats understood well that the rhetoric of economic growth, development, stability and security are buzzwords to push back any external pressure to democratise their polities.

They were right! Governments of Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Bangladesh, and the Philippines have used this growth and development rhetoric. In the donor circle of the liberal democracies, Nick Branson notes that there is an appreciation for the autocracies as “many donor officials privately acknowledge: that strong states are effective in meeting ambitious development targets and delivering value for money.” However, the tragedy for the liberal democracies is that as these post-colonial states grew stronger, the liberal democracies’ leverage over the authoritarian regimes has weakened. Informed researchers of authoritarianism or people with lived experiences in authoritarian regimes would know that “there is a growing perception in the authoritarian policy circles’ that if you give liberal democracies business, they will look other way and won’t raise tough questions about human rights violations.”The impacts are democratic backsliding and endurance of authoritarian regimes.

One of the little-understood but most effective tools of world politics is the influence business that employs carefully constructed storytelling techniques orchestrated by PR and lobby firms. Historically, through op-eds, PR events, news stories, films, research, visual arts, and music, democracies have championed this technique against the Soviets during the cold war. However, the modern-day capitalist autocrats, too, have grown fond of this business of influence, and they are winning.

Not surprisingly, influencing businesses in the name of lobby and PR firms operating within the liberal democracies placed their skills in the market for hire, and they don’t distinguish who is hiring them. The 2017 Breaking Down of Democracy report by the Freedom House chronicled how Washington’s K-street lobby firms offer their services to autocracies to counter the image of a repressive regime that violently suppresses human rights.

Working rosters of these lobby firms include “former members of Congress ex-government staffers and long-time veterans of the influence industry.” A Bloomberg Government Report found that more than 60 American lobby firms represented governments with dismal human rights records in 2017-2018. The Bloomberg report quoted some consultants working in these firms who said ” they’re helping the client nations learn how Western media and governments work while creating beneficial relationships,” adding “we’re often helping them overcome these criticisms, so they don’t make those mistakes again.”

In essence, what these storytellers do is normalise human rights violations and spin the image of the autocracies as models of economic development and growth. The collateral damages of such a business model are those who were severely suppressed in the “client nations” because these PR and lobby firms have better access to bigger and influential media outlets, lawmakers and influencers.  So, when their affiliates would tell the stories to bolster images of the autocracies, stories of the activists and victims of autocratic regimes on the ground would not receive importance. In this way, autocracies enhance their influence as recorded by the recently released Asia Power Index that explores the capacity of a state to direct or influence the behaviour of other states or non-state actors. It found that only seven democracies are featured among the top 20 countries in that index.

Therefore, it is no wonder when Biden’s enthusiasm for democracy backtracked from his earlier speech. He sounded more grounded as on March 26 in his first press conference, he said, “this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies …we’ve got to prove democracy works,” and for that democracies should place greater emphasis on resisting democratic backsliding and economic deterrence to autocracies.



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