Why has democracy lost its momentum?

2014 Freedom in the World map

Freedom House

Democracy is the 20th century’s most successful political idea. Democracies are on average richer than non-democracies, are less likely to go to war and have a better record of fighting corruption, The Econ0mist reports:

More fundamentally, democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures. That so many people in so many different parts of the world are prepared to risk so much for this idea is testimony to its enduring appeal. So why has democracy lost its forward momentum? 

Democracy has been on the back foot before. In the 1920s and 1930s communism and fascism looked like the coming things, the paper notes:

Things are not that bad these days, but China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail……Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad.

“Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century,” it notes. “But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.”


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Indonesia’s Demokrasi: ‘still a work in progress’

indonesia democrasiLast October when Joko Widodo became president of Indonesia, the election of a man with scant political or military connections appeared to seal the country’s transformation from military dictatorship to credible democracy. It could so easily have been otherwise, writes FT analyst David Pilling.

“Fifteen years later,” writes Hamish McDonald in Demokrasi, “Indonesians were watching Egypt’s failed transition to democracy and thinking: That could have been us.”

On the surface, Indonesia is a huge success story. Although not a member of Jim O’Neill’s Brics club, in purchasing power parity terms its economy is roughly on a par with Britain’s. As the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, it is also seen as a model of moderation…..

Yet, as Demokrasi makes clear, beneath the surface nothing is as straightforward as this list of virtues makes it appear. The picture that emerges is instead of a country still struggling to slough off its often dark past and still grappling with the business of creating a modern state capable of turning impressive headline gross domestic product growth into meaningful development. Religious intolerance has been allowed to fester and, if anything, is on the rise…..

Indonesia’s institution building is, the book makes clear, still a work in progress, he adds:

Radical political decentralisation has brought accountability, but also more layers of potential graft. There have been real attempts to rein in corruption, says McDonald, though bribe-taking remains rife. Even the Corruption Eradication Commission, which was established in 2002 and has taken some important scalps, has not been immune from scandal.


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‘Revenge of the remnants’: double blow for Egypt’s democracy movement

egyptGeneral_Al_SisiThe two sons of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were released from prison Monday, nearly four years after they were first arrested along with their father, AP reports:

Security officials said the two, wealthy businessman Alaa and Mubarak’s one-time heir apparent Gamal, walked free from Torah Prison in a southern Cairo suburb shortly after daybreak and headed to their respective homes in the capital’s upscale Heliopolis suburb….Mubarak’s sons walked free a day after deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and police marked the fourth anniversary of the uprising that ended their father’s 29-year rule. That violence Sunday left at least 18 people dead, including two men authorities said died planting a bomb and three police officers, and wounded dozens.

There was a vocabulary to Egypt’s “January 25 Revolution” that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power, Ruth Michaelson reports for PRI:

At the center of it all was Tahrir Square or “Freedom Square” …. And there was a new global phenomenon described as a Facebook revolution because so many of the young, secular supporters of the pro-democracy movement had organized via social networking…..Amid all of this dramatic change and great uncertainty for Egypt, the name for the old Mubarak-era police, politicians and power brokers was the word “felool,” which is Arabic for “remnant.”

Even in those heady days when it seemed a new era was being ushered in, there were many Egyptians who believed it was only a matter of time before the “felool” would regain power and reassert its authority. The violent response to demonstrations Sunday on the fourth anniversary of the Tahrir protests illustrated just how intent the old guard is on using any means necessary to keep tight control over the country.

“Four years after the Egyptian uprising, the Egyptian government of Abdel el-Sisi is taking a page from a discredited past by resorting to violence and illegal arrests to crush dissent,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House. “Egyptian authorities should focus their energies on instituting urgently needed political reforms rather than killing and detaining those who exercise their rights to advocate for democratic change.”  

Egypt is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2014, Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2014, and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2014.

In the wake of the French terrorist attacks by gunmen claiming to act in the name of Islam, remarks by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi have drawn praise after he called on scholars at Al Azhar University to lead a “religious revolution,” notes the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Ellen Bork.

There is no reason to believe Sisi will create the atmosphere in which the religious reform he calls for could take place, she writes for World Affairs:

Sisi is overseeing a crackdown on the press and civil society, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious groups. 

Rather than accept Sisi’s remarks at face value, Michele Dunne and Katie Bentivoglio, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, see them as part of an agenda to “align religious institutions with the military’s goals and narratives.” Far from seeking a liberal, or secular society, Sisi and his government persecute those who stand outside certain religious boundaries. Dunne (a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy) and Bentivoglio also note that although under strict government control, anti-Semitism in the media remains pervasive. RTWT

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Cuba insists change ‘not negotiable’

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson had breakfast with dissidents on Friday after a day of talks with the regime focused on restoring diplomatic relations

Asked whether Cuba might at least examine how to expand freedoms to help the Obama administration with Congress, the communist regime’s lead negotiator Josefina Vidal said, “Absolutely no.”

“Change in Cuba isn’t negotiable,” she insisted.

The role to be played by civil-society activists and the political opposition in this new scenario will depend on their ability to adapt to a new context and evolve, by looking for new ways of self-management and by basing the survival or success of their projects in terms of the support achieved by citizens, within or outside Cuba, notes Eliécer Ávila, a founder of SOMOS+ and a member of the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum.

A more open political game can largely benefit civil society, if it does not waste time crying over what is already a reality and rather decide to “turn on their batteries” to take benefit from the possible advantages that can arise from these new winds of change, she writes for The Huffington Post.

Other civil society activists want the U.S. to be more aggressive in holding the regime to account for its human rights violations.

Administration officials must demand free elections and accountability for murdered activists, democracy advocate Rosa Maria Paya writes for The PanAm Post.  Payá is the daughter of the late democracy leader Oswaldo Payá, who, along with Harold Cepero, was killed in an automobile accident on July 22, 2012 in Bayamo, Cuba. She addressed a Washington conference on human rights last Friday alongside other Cuba democracy advocates, including Frank Calzon of the Center for  Free Cuba (above).

U.S. tech companies see a potential windfall in the Obama administration’s decision to ease trade restrictions with Cuba, Julian Hattem reports for The Hill:

In 2013, just 26 percent of the country used the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations — but most of them could merely access a walled-off network of largely Cuban websites and services. The portion of Cubans who have actual unfettered access to the true, global Internet is estimated to be closer to 5 percent.

“Cuba remains one of the most heavily restricted environments for Internet use in the world, and it has been that way for quite some time,” said Laura Reed, a research analyst at Freedom House, a pro-democracy organization.


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Nigerians ready to swap democracy for security?

nigeria buhariWith Nigeria’s presidential election only weeks away, Boko Haram’s unchecked rampaging here in the country’s north is helping to propel the 72-year-old general, Muhammadu Buhari (left), to the forefront, The New York Times reports:

After ruling Nigeria with an iron hand 30 years ago as the country’s military leader, Mr. Buhari is now a serious threat at the ballot box, analysts say, in large part because of Boko Haram’s blood-soaked successes…. As military ruler, Mr. Buhari showed little respect for the democratic process, rising to power in a coup that swept aside a civilian government and promising to include the political participation of Nigerian citizens “at some point.”

“The state is collapsing and everybody is frightened,” Jibrin Ibrahim, a political scientist with the Center for Democracy and Development, said of Boko Haram.

“They are able to capture more and more territory, but also increase the level of atrocity,” he added. “A lot of people are frightened that these people can take over the whole country. So a lot of people are saying, ‘Give Buhari a chance.’ ”

NigeriaA sense of déjà vu accompanies Buhari’s quest to win the presidency in Nigeria’s forthcoming elections, 31 years after he first rose to power in a coup, the FT’s William Wallis adds:

In 1983 as now, Africa’s leading oil producer was in the throes of an oil shock. The resulting collapse in state revenues revealed how bloated and corrupt government had become during the preceding boom, when politicians were awash with petrodollars.

Austerity beckoned, and General Buhari imposed it with a “war on indiscipline” in the 20 months before he was overthrown by rival officers. He has tried unsuccessfully to win back power at the polls three times since civilian rule was restored in 1999. But on each occasion — in 2003, 2007 and 2011 — world oil prices were either recovering nicely or close to peaking. The tough outlook this year for Africa’s largest economy, which depends on oil for more than 90 per cent of export earnings and 70 per cent of state revenues, sets the scene for a much tighter contest this time round.

“The conflict is rapidly intensifying,” Nathaniel Allen, Peter M. Lewis and Hilary Matfess, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in the Washington Post.

“Nigerian casualties are now running more than double those in Afghanistan and substantially higher than in Iraq just a few years ago. An estimated 3,120 civilian and military casualties were recorded in Afghanistan last year. In Iraq, 4,207 fatalities were estimated in 2011 in the wake of the surge. The worsening conflict in northern Nigeria already has suffered more casualties this year than the world’s most publicized contemporary wars.”

nigeria girlsSecretary of State John Kerry, moving to prevent another key U.S. counterterrorism ally from collapsing under a militant insurgency, on Sunday warned Nigeria’s top two presidential candidates that future military assistance will depend on February’s election being peaceful and transparent, The Wall Street Journal reports.   

Relations between American military trainers and specialists advising the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram [which has been described as Africa’s ISIS] are so strained that the Pentagon often bypasses the Nigerians, choosing to work instead with security officials in the neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger, according to New York Times reports.

The Foreign Policy Initiative held a conference call on the situation in Nigeria.  Key quotes and full audio from the event are available here.

*The Center for Democracy and Development is a longtime partner of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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