Flag-waver at Tiananmen, 1989. Robert Croma/Flickr. Some rights reserved.
In a year in which hundreds of millions of Indians and Indonesians have flocked to the polls, the point is driven home how today, a significantly greater proportion of humanity lives in democracies – defined as societies where contestable elections regularly take place – than in dictatorships. Indeed if the narrative of the twentieth century, which the historian Eric Hobsbawm described as the “age of extremes”, was dominated by dictators – not just Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, but also the likes of Idi Amin, Jean-Bédel Bokasa, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Shah Reza Pahlavi, Jorge Videla, Rafael Trujillo, Mao Zedong, to name only a very few among the very many – then the twenty-first century may well be the age of democracy. This in itself is surely uplifting.
Go back 30 years to 1984. Many in the west must have been relieved that the dystopian Orwellian nightmare had failed to materialise. But outside western Europe - which had only recently witnessed the democratisation of the former fascist regimes of Greece, Spain and Portugal - and North America (excluding Mexico’s one-party state), democracies were few: India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, and in December of the previous year the return to democracy of Argentina with the election of Raùl Alfonsin.
Otherwise, even under gerontocratic leadership the Soviet bloc seemed intact, with Konstantin Chernenko in the Kremlin; the dictators Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto and Chun Doo-hwan ruled respectively over the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea; while in South Africa apartheid prevailed under the rule of P.W. Botha; and Augusto Pinochet was in his eleventh dictatorial year in Chile.
Dictatorships were entrenched throughout the planet; not in one’s wildest dreams could one have imagined the prevalence of democracies 30 years later. Furthermore, some dictatorships, with obvious exceptions such as North Korea, have mellowed with age. Think of Vietnam then and now. Or indeed who could have predicted that in 2013, Chinese tourists would be the biggest spenders in France?
But as we turn to envisage the next 30 years, there is much cause for concern. There is, the great political achievements of recent decades notwithstanding, what might be termed a ‘global democracy malaise’, a sense of rudderless democratic drift.
There are the cases where democracy is manifestly in crisis, notably in Thailand, but the malaise is universal, to be found in both rich and poor countries, and in all continents. The US political process is in gridlock; in France, the president has beaten all records with an 18 percent approval rating; widespread dissatisfaction and serious risks of social unrest in Brazil emerged during the World Cup and may return to disrupt the Olympics; the Arab spring, with the exception of Tunisia, seems a forlorn hope; Zuma is a very distant cry from Mandela; Russian democracy has been hijacked by Putin; the legacy of Chavez lingers with Maduro.
This is not to say there are no bright spots. There are. To cite only two examples in Asia – a continent believed in the past to be addicted to despotism – South Korea stands out as a paragon of a country that has both industrialised and democratised; the scene in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, with the election to the presidency of the popular Joko Widodo (Jokowi), will reinforce its position and legitimacy as the world’s third largest democracy.
There are silver linings, but the dark clouds are present and ominous.
While one of the tremendous accomplishments of the last thirty years has been a dramatic drop in the proportion of humanity living in absolute poverty – from 43 percent in 1984 to 16 percent in 2014 – two paradoxes stand out. The first is that the decline has been far more precipitate, in both absolute and relative terms, in two Asian dictatorships, China and Vietnam, than in any of the world’s democracies. In her highly incisive book on China, Indian journalist Pallavi Aiyar writes that whenever asked whether she would prefer being Chinese or Indian, she invariably replied that if she were born in an upper income family she would prefer to be Indian, but had she been born poor she would prefer to be Chinese.
The second paradox is that while poverty has greatly decreased, inequality has greatly increased. Indeed inequality is identified by many as the world’s greatest risk and its greatest indictment. Inequality is not by any means the reserve of democracies – it is a chasm in China – but more damning than the inequality per se is the degree to which, even in democracies, it is embedded in deep social injustice. Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen asked how a country like India that deprived such a high proportion of its citizenry, especially but not exclusively women, from gaining basic literacy, could possibly call itself democratic. Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning description of life in a Mumbai slum shows in graphic detail how the downtrodden are treated and exploited, notably by a judicial system in which petty corruption is rife.
As the world’s biggest democracy, the neighbour of dictatorial China, and because its new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to wage war on corruption, India is in the limelight. But steep inequality and deep injustice are by no means an Indian monopoly. They tend to prevail in most other democracies, from Brazil to Indonesia.
The former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a rare iconic figure of contemporary democracy, once asked: “How will we explain to the next generations that we had so much but did so little?” Indeed the achievements of the last three decades in political transformations from dictatorships to democracies are truly awesome. But they are in danger of being frittered away in the mire of inequality, injustice, corruption, and a deep ethical void, resulting, among other ills, in social alienation and cynicism. There is an urgent need to stop the drift and bring about a renaissance in the social values and ethical standards that must be the foundations of the democratic political edifice. Otherwise there is a grave risk that the edifice will crumble.