Democracy will worsen in 2019 and 2020

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A demonstration for democracy in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall

Globally, democracy has been retreating now for more than a decade. According to Freedom House’s comprehensive annual Freedom in the World report (I serve as a consultant for several Southeast Asia chapters in the annual report), global freedom has been in decline since the mid-2000s, when it reached its Cold War high point. But since 2016, the pace of democratic regression has accelerated, and the rollback has spread from regionally powerful countries that had only recently established democracies to more powerful states, and ones where democracy seemingly had sunk stronger roots.

Indeed, 2016 and 2017 seemed to bring only misery for democrats. The Economist Intelligence Unit has downgraded the United States from a full democracy to a flawed democracy, due to extreme partisanship, the effect of the presidency of Donald Trump on U.S. institutions, and other factors. Poland and Hungary continued to slide further into illiberalism, while Venezuela became an outright dictatorship. In southern and eastern Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya all took major steps away from democracy, with Zambia’s democracy seemingly collapsing in a short period of time.

Meanwhile, global and regional authoritarian powers, from China to Vietnam to Russia, that once seemed vulnerable to pressure for greater openness, have entrenched their autocracies. What’s more, in the case of China, they had begun to openly tout their authoritarian models.

The Asian domino

But if 2016 and 2017 looked bad, the next three years could well be worse. I have noted, in pieces for the Washington Post and elsewhere, that one major challenge to democracy in the coming years will be the potential expansion of populist leaders to Southeast Asia, where they could challenge democratic institutions and further corrode democratic culture. Thailand’s former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, and current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte provide models for Southeast Asian populism, but in Indonesia and possibly even in the future in Myanmar and, once again, in Thailand, populists could win elections in the next two years.

Most worryingly for the future of democracy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia’s 2019 presidential race probably will put incumbent Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, against retired lieutenant general Prabowo Subianto, in a rematch of the 2014 presidential election. Although Jokowi has not delivered on initial hopes that he would strengthen Indonesia’s democratic foundations and improve the climate for human rights in the country, he remains committed to the democratic system. Prabowo, meanwhile, seems to be increasingly aligning himself with powerful Islamist groups in the country, although he himself is not religious; those groups could help the former general in his 2019 campaign. And Prabowo himself has repeatedly demonstrated that, if elected, he would govern as a Duterte or Thaksin-style populist semi-autocrat.

Meanwhile, Asia’s autocrats, emboldened by U.S. disinterest in democracy promotion, and the general regional diffusion effect of democracy backsliding across Asia, are likely to further cement their gains, and unleash greater repression. China’s Xi Jinping now has potentially appointed himself president-for-life, and his second term will probably include even harsher crackdowns on all kinds of dissent than his first term. Although Russia is primarily a European power, Vladimir Putin has been re-elected in Russia’s recent presidential election, giving him even more power and legitimacy to centralize rule and continue to make informal alliances with Russia-philic parties in Central and Western Europe, as well as to use campaigns of disinformation to influence elections in Europe and possibly North America.

Xi Jinping, in second and third terms, may not copy Putin’s model of trying to sow disinformation in neighboring states and support political parties sympathetic to China, but China is expanding its ability to project information globally, both through traditional state media outlets and through a wide range of Internet and social media tools. In addition, Xi Jinping has, much more forcefully than other Chinese leaders, stated that he wants other countries to look to China as a model, and appears to be overseeing a growing “sharp power” campaign of trying to influence other countries through means more hidden, and potentially more coercive, than traditional soft power efforts. Over his second and third terms, he could well exert much greater influence in pushing states in Asia toward illiberal models.

2018 Freedom House country ratings for Asia and the Indo-Pacific region

In smaller Asian autocracies or semi-autocracies, leaders also likely will grow stronger in the coming years. Cambodia, prime minister Hun Sen will surely win an election this summer, since the opposition party has been destroyed in the past year. After the election, Hun Sen may try to institutionalize long-term autocracy in Cambodia, by further repressing the media, what remains of civil society, and the remains of the opposition – possibly so he can ultimately try to transfer power, in the future, to one of his family members.  In Thailand, the ruling junta, in power since May 2014, has repeatedly put off promised elections for a new parliament. Now, the junta has promised elections in early 2019, but there is a likelihood it will come up with new reasons to postpone that poll, such as needing to wait for a royal coronation or because protests against its rule make the country unstable and unable to have an election. Without an election, Thailand would, by May 2019, be in its fifth year of junta rule, in a country that, just 15 years ago, was touted as a democratic success story.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, where elections will be held on May 9, the governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Najib tun Razak, is likely to win, in part due to some of the most distorting gerrymandering of any state in the world, which makes it almost impossible for the opposition, reliant on urban votes, to triumph in any election.

In the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte already has displayed autocratic tendencies, Duterte’s popularity, as well as the weak party system, could allow the Philippine president to rewrite the Philippine constitution to transform it into a more federal state. There is merit to this plan, as the Philippines is a diverse country and too much power is centralized in Manila; Indonesia has had success, in recent years, with a more decentralized model of government. But many Duterte critics fear that he will use the constitutional change to extend his hold on power past the normal six-year presidential term, a strategy other authoritarians have used to extend their terms in office. (Duterte has claimed that he is not pursuing constitutional change to extend his rule.)

Few rays of hope

In other parts of the world, too, democracy has only a few rays of hope. The success of anti-system parties in Italy’s recent election raises the possibility of continuing fractures in Italian governance, and growing popular discontent with democracy itself. Although the Republican Party could lose elections in November 2018 for the House of Representatives, creating a divided national government and potentially more oversight of the Trump administration, there is no evidence so far that the U.S. president will diminish his apparent campaign to sow distrust in democratic institutions.

In Latin America, anti-system parties appears to be growing as well, creating the possibility that far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who praises the country’s military past, could be the country’s next president . Perhaps just as worrisome, the Brazilian military seems to be wielding greater power over civilian duties than it has in years. No matter what, the growing distrust of democracy in one of the world’s biggest democratic powers is another negative sign – one amidst many – that the coming years will only see democracy’s global regression speed up.





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