A vote against democracy?

It is under threat from a wave of authoritarianism in many countries, including its traditional champion – the US

Rajen Harshé | September 4, 2018

#Russia   #Donald Trump   #USA   #Liberal Democracy   #Democracy  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

Democracy, in its broad sense, tolerates dissent, allows freedom of expression and hence diversity of views by protecting minority views and human rights. The functioning of any democracy is characterised by checks and balances between legislative, executive and judicial organs of the state on the basis of rule of law. In contrast, authoritarian regimes enforce strict obedience to authority at the cost of personal freedom and permit an individual, a group of individuals or a single party to become all too powerful. The politics of the Cold War (1945-90) at one level reflected tensions between liberal democracies of the western world and one-party communist dictatorships of the eastern world.

However, the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, which signified peaceful transfer of power from a communist to a democratic regime in Czechoslovakia, set the pace for change. Subsequently, the fall of Stalinist regimes in East European countries such as Hungary and Romania in December 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991 had almost heralded, albeit momentarily, the victory of democracy over any form of authoritarianism. Evidently, from 1989 to 2004 the countries that held free elections had jumped from 69 to 119.

While some of these elections, especially those in several African states, were rigged, the very act of elections obviously underlined vibrancy and normative viability of democracy as a form of government across the world. Intertwined relationship between leading liberal democratic regimes of the west led by the USA and capitalism had started accelerating pace of globalisation while ushering a new post-Cold War world order.

During the past decade, however, populist authoritarian tendencies have been making inroads even in the established democracies of the western world. The erosion of democratic institutions and values has been cumulatively shaped by a combination of complex politico-economic factors such as the financial crisis of 2008, flow of refugees from developing countries towards advanced countries leading to demographic changes, the disruptive nature of new technologies and growing unemployment and the resultant xenophobia. Similarly, the capacity of terrorist outfits to add to insecurities in civil society and the emergence of radicalised Islam coupled with the consequent Islamophobia in different countries of the world have only added to an illiberal atmosphere. The nature of the tussle between democracy and authoritarianism in contemporary times can be portrayed more vividly by analysing a few significant developments in some of the major countries, including the US and its western allies, Russia, China, Turkey and India. Strangely, post-truth politics, where truth has almost lost its significance, is conditioning the functioning of democracies as well as regimes with authoritarian tendencies.

Donald Trump

Ironically, with the advent of Donald Trump to the presidential office in 2016, the US itself has ceased upholding the flag of democracy and liberalism, within and outside, as stoutly as before. Trump’s idiosyncratic method of functioning and speeches involving attacks on immigrants, manufacturers that support free trade, trenchant critic of rivals among the Democrats has had an impact on domestic politics in the US. Similarly, in his external policy he has shown scant regard for the decisions of the previous Obama regime (2009-16). Trump has not merely challenged the USA’s commitment to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) but also pulled the US out from the nuclear agreement with Iran, prospects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and the climate change agreement of Paris. In a word, the US is no longer as deeply engaged in maintaining the liberal order, built on dynamic interdependence and cooperation in the world. 

Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt, in their recent study of 29 western liberal democracies, have observed that one-third whites in these countries have almost lost the inclination to be liberal. Hence, if 30 to 40 percent Americans prefer authoritarianism and the electoral college of the US chooses Trump with 46 percent of the votes, things are changing. Like in the US, in Austria, Norbert Hofer, a far right candidate from Freedom Party, narrowly lost the presidential election of 2016. Marine Le Pen of the National Front, a far right party, in France went as far as getting 34 percent of the votes in the presidential election in 2016. In Germany, after the 2017 elections Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far right authoritarian and neo-Nazi xenophobic party, emerged as the third largest party and entered the Bundestag (parliament) for the first time after six decades. Strangely, Britain through its decision of Brexit, partly shaped by an anti-immigrant movement, has left the European Union (EU) and contributed towards the weakening of the liberal and democratic ethos of the contemporary world.

The growing insecurities in traditional western democracies, caused by demographic changes coupled with rising unemployment due to new technologies, have influenced voter preferences. For instance, in the US, from 1970 to 2015, the Hispanic population grew from five to 18 percent. Similarly, the foreign-born people in Sweden, Germany and Switzerland by now are 19, 23 and 25 percent of the population, respectively. Under the conditions of extreme scarcity, when immigrants take away jobs, xenophobia becomes a strategy of authoritarian populist leaders to attract voters. Moreover, extreme inequalities are in no way compatible with democracy and people are restive whenever there are extreme inequalities. For instance, the top ten percent of the US’s population garners half of the national income. In addition, computer and artificial intelligence related technologies have brought a new skilled force in the market and rendered a large number of erstwhile work forces irrelevant. Replacement of humans by automation or outsourcing of jobs by firms by hiring individuals at cheaper costs in countries like India had made anti-globalisation forces active in the US.

Besides, the 9/11 terrorist attacks have made the USA weary of radicalised Islam. In fact, the phenomenon of intolerance regarding race and religion in the Atlantic world has steadily grown over the past decade. For instance, publication of cartoons of Prophet Mohammad on September 30, 2005, in Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, was intended to discuss the role of Islam critically in a democratic country.

However, it led to demonstrations and riots in Denmark, in Muslim countries as well as in India. Owing to the aggressiveness of radicalised Islam, the entire western world in different degrees has been gripped by forms of Islamophobia. The assertion of Islamic identity by Muslim citizens without adapting to western modes of life has made the white/Christians and Islamic groupings of Arab- African origins mutually hostile. In west Asia, political Islam is already a powerful force. Ironically, among the Euro-Asian powers, Turkey under Erdogan has been dismantling Ataturk’s secular model by giving accent on political Islam. After getting re-elected in June 2018 for the term of five years, Erdogan has taken a fresh initiative to sensitise people about the role of Islam as a basis of political legitimacy, legislation, social organisation and state identity to build a ‘New Turkey’. Even if Turkey, in theory, is a constitutional democracy, Erdogan has displayed strong authoritarian tendencies by imprisoning thousands of his opponents after a failed coup in 2016.

Just at the time when democratic values are being eroded in their traditional bastions, the authoritarian regimes are getting entrenched in countries like Russia and China. Putin has been able to saddle himself in power after he was sworn in for the fourth time in May 2018.

Trump Putin

However incompetent and corrupt his regime could be, he draws solid support from rural populations of Russia that prefer a strong man and even mourn the demise of the Soviet Union. His style of functioning is characterised by empty declarations, uttering half-truths, gagging of the media, centralisation of power, crass division of world into ‘us’ versus ‘them’, demagoguery and constant boasts about the massive support that he enjoys. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy stances, such as annexation of Crimea (2014) and recurrent invasion of Ukraine (2014-till present), intransigent posture vis-à-vis Baltic and Nordic neighbours and attempt to extend Russian influence in Syria and Iran have made Russia a power to be reckoned with in world politics. Russia’s meddling in the US’s presidential election, assaults on western democracies through its media as well as efforts to undermine vulnerable democracies in central Europe and Latin America, along with China, exemplify the nature of Russia’s ‘soft’ power. Authoritarian populism in the erstwhile eastern world has aggravated xenophobia that is manifested in slogans like ‘Russia for Russians’, ‘Poland for Poles’ and ‘Hungary for Hungarians’.

Unlike Russia, China has always been a one-party dictatorship since 1949. Its paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping (1978-97), had tried to regulate it by mandating retirement at the age of 70. Thus, different office-bearers were picked within the age groups between 50 and 60 and between 60 and 70 according to their capacities and requirements of the state even if cronyism and corruption persisted in China. By now, Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), has become the most powerful leader, after Mao Zedong, as the 19th party Congress brought about changes in China’s constitution in 2017. As the second most powerful country after the US, China’s ‘soft power’ is spreading its influence through a thousand Confucius Institutes operating in different universities across the world. Market socialism under autocracy with the Chinese characteristics is slowly emerging as yet another model of authoritarianism. The authoritarian rule in China is militarily quite powerful as the Chinese power is expanding in the Indo-Pacific region. China has also ventured to launch the ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project to envelop Asian countries within the web of its trade ties. In view of the ascending power of China, president Rodrigo Duterte’s regime of Philippines, infamous for brutalities and violation of human rights, has aligned with it.


Like in other parts, democracy in India is witnessing its own set of challenges after prime minister Modi emerged as the most powerful leader in India in 2014. His BJP-led regime has avoided ‘family domination’, tried to curb corruption through digitalisation of economy and continued with economic reforms. Modi’s presence in world politics has enhanced India’s stature. However, the BJP leadership has tried to mobilise and unite the so-called dominant Hindu majority over emotive issues like building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. In essence, centralisation of powers, scant regard to different institutions and their processes as well as procedures and the overwhelming presence of one leader within the party and the government characterise the Modi regime. Modi’s complex and controversial personality has won him admirers, detractors as well as trenchant critics, especially among the intelligentsia. It has also united diverse parties including the erstwhile bitter adversaries such as Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Hence, the 2019 elections in India are going to be a referendum on whether to retain or remove the Modi regime. As against Modi’s talk of development, the opposition is focussing on growing insecurities among Muslims, dalits and other minorities that are victims of mob lynching and atrocities. Sadly, under the Modi regime, the social fabric in India appears even more cracked and acutely polarised on religious and caste lines. Similarly by overlooking the agenda of development, political parties of all hues, in their own ways, are displaying pathetic tendencies of aggravating societal divisions which can yield only short term electoral gains. Indeed, since the Modi regime has questioned and even disrupted several erstwhile notions related to secularism, democracy and nationalism of the ancien régime, India is passing through a stage of deep political and intellectual churning before it arrives at a new equilibrium.

To conclude, conventional liberal democracy appears to be under conspicuous stress even in the established democracies like the US, western countries and India while authoritarian regimes in Russia and China are getting entrenched to boost authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world.

Harshé is president of GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, and former vice-chancellor of the Central University of Allahabad.

(The column appears in the September 15, 2018 issue)



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