Posted: 17 Aug 2016 07:44 PM PDT
BY GIDEON RACHMAN AUGUST 11 2016 (BusinessDayLIVE)
SOMETIMES one or two events can change the political mood all over the world. The release of Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990 came just three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those two events inspired democrats and liberals across the globe.
Sadly, the international mood now is much less optimistic and much less friendly to democracy. The current mood has been shaped above all by the collapse of the Arab spring of 2011 into bloodshed and anarchy. Autocrats all over the world, above all in Russia and China, now point to the Middle East as an example of the dangers of premature democratisation.
The politicians who captured the spirit of the early 1990s were inspirational democrats such as Mandela, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and liberal reformers such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in Russia. Today, the leaders who seem to embody the spirit of the age are autocrats with scant respect for democratic values — men such as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the presidents of Russia and Turkey; as well as Donald Trump, a trash-talking demagogue who has somehow become the Republican nominee for president of the US.
The figures confirm the general impression that this is a bad period for democrats. Freedom House, a think tank that issues an annual report on the state of democracy, argues that political freedom has been in global retreat for the past decade. It reported earlier this year that in 2015, “the number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year — 72 — was the largest since the 10-year slide began”.
The least free part of the world is the Middle East, which is a bitter disappointment given the hopes aroused by the uprisings against autocratic regimes that broke out across the Arab world five years ago. Egypt is suffering under a harsher autocracy than the Mubarak regime that was overthrown in 2011.
Even in Europe, some of the freedoms won in 1989 are imperilled. In Poland and Hungary there has been an erosion of press freedom and judicial independence. In Turkey, on the borders of the EU, hard-won freedoms are being lost as journalists and judges are arrested in the wake of a coup attempt.
In parts of Asia, things have also gone backwards. Thailand experienced a military coup in 2014 and this weekend voted in favour of a new constitution that could cement the military's control over politics. In Malaysia, liberals are in despair at the machinations of the scandal-plagued government, and Anwar Ibrahim, a prominent opposition leader, is once again in prison.
In the two most important autocratic powers — Russia and China — the governments are cracking down harder on liberals who dare to challenge the prevailing regimes. Last week, China issued long prison sentences for human rights lawyers in Tianjin and forced others into humiliating apologies. At about the same time in Russia, Yevgeny Urlashov, a prominent opposition politician, was sentenced to 12 years in a penal colony on corruption charges that appear to have been trumped up.
The problems of democracy have extended even into the US, the “leader of the free world”. Even if Trump fails to win the presidency, he has already done immense harm to the prestige and dignity of US democracy.
But amid all this bleak news, it is important to remember that not all the trends are pointing in the wrong direction. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest when Mandela was released in 1990, has been freed, and the country's first civilian-led government for more than half a century took power this year. Democracy seems well established in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country. And Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, last year saw its first presidential election in which an incumbent lost and then ceded power peacefully.
Most important of all, the evidence remains that, for all the cultural and economic differences between countries, ordinary people all over the world eventually get fed up of corruption, censorship, injustice and political violence. Just this weekend, people were out on the streets of Ethiopia, demonstrating against a government that has delivered rapid economic growth, but also sharply restricted political freedoms. In recent years, pro-democracy demonstrators have taken to the streets of Hong Kong and Ukraine to demand political and civil liberties.
The uncertain nature of the moment we are living through is captured by current events in SA, which played such an inspiring role in the 1990s.
Last week, the ANC, the party of Mandela, saw its support slump in local elections as voters reacted against the corruption and inefficiency of the government of President Jacob Zuma. The pessimistic view is that Zuma and his cronies will do whatever it takes to hang on, and that their machinations will further damage South African democracy. The optimistic view is that the ANC's electoral troubles are an example of democracy's ability to renew politics as voters turn to new parties such as the opposition DA.
The very nervousness of leaders such as presidents Zuma, Putin and Erdogan is telling. Behind their swagger lurks a deep insecurity. Autocracy might be making advances across the world. But it always ultimately sparks resistance.
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