Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Democracy Losing Ground Around the World

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, August 17 / 15

Zack Gross

Canada’s federal election campaign began officially earlier this month amidst concerns that the process would be lengthy and artificially so, in order that a wealthy party could outspend its competitors.  Be that as it may, we have a democratic election coming up in October and in most ways the will of unfettered voters will determine who our government will be after that. 

Freedom House, an American think-tank whose origins go back to the early days of World War II and has now accumulated 75 years of experience fighting for democracy – from opposing right-wing McCarthyism in the 1950s US to defending Soviet dissidents in 1970s Russia – keeps tally of the march of freedom in our world and, in a recent report, points out that we are losing ground!

In 2014, Freedom House examined, as it does annually, the records of 195 countries in the world.  It declared 89 of them, 46%, as “free
.”  These countries represent 2.9 billion people or 40% of the world’s population.  This showed an increase in the “free” category of just one country.

In the same study, countries qualifying as “partly free” totaled 55, or 28% of all countries examined and 1.7 billion people, 24% of the world’s population. Partly free countries had decreased by four.

51 countries were deemed as “not free” – 26% of all countries and 2.6 billion people – 36% of the global population.  One of these countries is, and half of the people counted live in, China.  “Not free” countries increased by three. 

In the past nine years, by Freedom House standards, 33 countries have registered democratic gains, while 61 have shown a decline. The “march of freedom” evident in the 1980s and 90s has certainly eroded over the past decade.

The specifics of democratic decline in the world are multifaceted.  Invasion of sovereign territory is one, with the example of Russia seizing Crimea and sponsoring the annexation of Eastern Ukraine being a prime example.  The treatment of independent journalists in many countries as fomenters of opposition – and even terrorism – is another example of the erosion of democracy.  This is happening in many Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, and with Egypt most “in the news” in Canada about it because of the plight of a jailed Canadian Al-Jazeera reporter. 
Human Rights organizations are also under attack in many countries with activists being jailed or forced to leave their countries.  Freedom House cites China as cracking down on activists while ignoring due process of law.  Use of the internet for democratic purposes has also been curtailed in China and elsewhere as it and social media have become such well known and used public organizing tools. 

To quote Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in 2014:  “We’ll eradicate Twitter.  Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish state
.” Ecuador, Israel, South Korea and Rwanda have all brought in laws that allow monitoring and censorship of email, YouTube and other internet applications.

An interesting debate that arises is whether terrorism or its threat is the cause of, result of, or an excuse for declining democracy.  Some governments in all categories of free, partly free and not free argue that the jihadist threat is forcing them to curtail freedoms in order to strengthen security for their own people.  However, critics argue that corrupt and self-seeking governments and the abject poverty that results create the conditions that lead to extreme politics and revolutionary action. 

Repression and authoritarianism – such as the imprisonment of opposition politicians, the deregistration of community associations, the growing militarization of government, the targeting of activist and professional women for rape and murder, the civil conflict that leads to massive numbers of internally displaced people, and more – contribute to a upward scaling of insecurity, poverty and violence.

Freedom House wonders to what extent repressive regimes are actually quietly supporting some jihadist organizations and acts of terror in order to justify their grabbing total control of power.  This may be true internally, and also may be an open question externally with the terrorist attacks that have recently hit Tunisia, a country that stands out as a democratic example to the rest of its region.

Canadians assume correctly that however the rules of the electoral game may be bent over the coming months as leaders and parties vie for government, ultimately the winner will be allowed to take power and the losers will be “content” to remain in opposition or lower party status. 

An issue raised by Freedom House is that some world leaders are modifying the rules for remaining in power to increase their number of terms.  They may say it is to ensure stability when they do indeed decide to step down but is that a valid point?  In other countries, losing an election instead of signaling a change of leader means that a country is plunged into civil war as the losers refuse to yield, sometimes for legitimate reasons and sometimes not.

Let’s celebrate our democratic ideals but not stop there.  We shouldn’t take our freedom for granted but should make sure to participate in the process, at least to vote.  There are many in our world who envy our opportunity to do just that!

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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