Policy Brief 41: The War Against Democracy

There is an undeclared global war – the equivalent of a Cold War, between autocratic countries and those that are democratic, and within countries between those who support democracy and the forces of authoritarianism.

Democracy is increasingly contested across the globe. The rising economic power of autocratic states such as China, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia, which have rapidly developed without democracy, has tempted many ruling parties, leaders and ordinary citizens to wrongly believe that democracy should be put on the backburner – that democracy is not necessary for development, or worse, that democracy undermines development.

Last month, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index showed that of the 137 developing and transition countries surveyed, only 67 are still considered democracies, and the number of autocracies had increased to 70 (BTI 2022).

It is not surprising that Russia, run by Vladimir Putin along autocratic lines, is adored by many anti-democratic groups in African and developing countries, including many South African political leaders, parties and citizens, because the Russian bear is a non-democracy, which has turned itself into an intimidating nuclear power.

Tough Covid-19 restrictions have undermined democracy in many countries

 Many countries have introduced strict Covid-19 lockdowns that have curtailed certain democratic rights, such as the imposition of quarantine, limiting freedom of movement, increased surveillance, and the use of technology to track people’s movements. Harsh Covid-19 restrictions have contributed to the decline of democracy across the world.

The challenge for many countries had been to balance these limitations of freedoms with maintaining basic human rights, freedom of expression and not impinging on individual dignity. During the Covid-19 pandemic, some countries have opted for hard lockdowns with strict rules and limits on freedoms and movements. Such countries include South Africa, Panama and Thailand.

With exceptions, the hard lockdowns have been mostly in countries that are either autocratic, non-democracies or poor-quality democracies. Many governments used Covid-19 lockdowns to strengthen their powers, curtail opposition parties and leaders, and harass critical civil society organisations activists and media (Human Rights Watch 2020; Muchena 2020; Reporters without Borders 2020). Governments such as Hungary, Thailand and Ghana that implemented hard lockdowns have been accused of using Covid-19 to give themselves unlimited powers.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán assumed emergency powers and cut the funding of opposition-run local governments (Reuters 2020). Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and assumed executive powers without any parliamentary oversight (Al Jazeera 2020).

Many African governments, under the guise of tackling Covid-19, stifled freedom of expression, restricting access to information and undermining the fundamental human rights of ordinary citizens. Many critics of African governments’ often abysmal management of the pandemic were arrested often on criminal charges (Muchena 2020).

Some African governments used the threat of Covid-19 in the same way they manipulated the threat of terrorism before to crush legitimate criticism, stifle freedom of expression and block requests for access to information. In some cases, governments are charging reporters asking critical questions about their handling of Covid-19 with criminal charges.

Egypt, for example, blocked or restricted access to several news websites and social media accounts since early March for allegedly spreading “rumours” about Covid-19 and for “disturbing public order” (Human Rights Watch 2020; Reporters without Borders 2020). Human rights organisations accused the government of Algeria of using the Covid-19 crisis to “settle scores” with critical journalists who have been reporting on anti-government protests that preceded the Covid-19 crisis (Amnesty 2020).

In Uganda, police attacked a shelter for homeless gay, lesbian and transgender youth in Wakiso, outside Kampala (Human Rights Watch 2020). The police claimed residents of the shelter were contravening Covid-19 rules by assembling in a shelter. The Ugandan government is known for its violent anti-LGBT stance. The Ugandan government used Covid-19 as a cover to attack the LGBT community.

Another, more democratic set of countries had had softer lockdowns without harsh restrictions on democratic rights, leaving it up to their citizens to take individual responsibility to practice social distancing, clean health hygiene practices and stay at home. These countries included South Korea, Germany and many Northern European countries. Freedom House (2021) concluded that the anti-democratic turn during the Covid-19 pandemic “will likely have lasting effects, meaning the eventual end of the pandemic will not necessarily trigger an immediate revitalisation of democracy”.

Rise of anti-democratic waves in the three largest developing country democracies

Over the past few years, there has been a rise in anti-democratic feelings in the three largest developing countries’ democracies – which had been democratic inspirations for other developing countries before – India, Brazil and South Africa. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said last year at US President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” that the “democratic spirit”, which includes “respect for the rule of law and pluralistic ethos”, is “ingrained in Indians”.

However, Modi, who started his second term in 2019, has undermined democratic rights, manipulated democratic institutions and quashed dissent (Ganguly 2021; Raina 2021). Freedom House designated India as “partly free”. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), in its 2020 Democracy Index, said India said the “democratic backsliding” by the Indian government and “crackdowns” on civil liberties has led to a slide in the democracy status of the country.

The far-right populist Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has attacked the judiciary, threatening to bring in the military to discipline the country’s Congress and even claiming that “only God can take me from the presidency”, not the voters (Harris and Pooler 2021). Freedom House in 2021 described Brazil as a developing country democracy that holds competitive elections, with a political sphere that is highly polarised but with vibrant public debate.

However, the report said: “Independent journalists and civil society activists risk harassment and violent attack. The government has struggled to address high rates of violent crime and disproportionate violence against and economic exclusion of minorities. Corruption is endemic at top levels, contributing to widespread disillusionment with traditional political parties. Societal discrimination and violence against LGBT+ people remain a serious problem” (Freedom House 2021: 1).

In South Africa, former President Jacob Zuma (2012) said constitutional law is “Western”, and he would not abide by it. In his “culture”, there is no such a thing as corruption, and the ANC is above the Constitution. Recently, there have been consistent attacks on the South African Constitution by governing ANC leaders, populists, the incompetent and the corrupt, which has undermined the supreme law’s public legitimacy and democracy itself. The attacks on the Constitution have unleashed a breakdown of rule and law generally, allowing competing despotic governance regimes such as customary law, local strongman “law”, and gangster “law” to gain traction as alternatives to South Africa’s official democratic Constitution (Gumede 2022).

Developed countries have undermined global democracy

Developed countries have increasingly manipulated global political and economic institutions and laws for pure self-interest rather than for the global good. This has undermined global confidence in democracy – and has given the critics of democracy a weapon to discredit democracy. African and developing countries have less say within global institutions – which set the rules of the global market, whether the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Finance Corporation (IFC) and World Trade Organisations (WTO).

The United Nations, established after the Second World War to maintain global peace, have increasingly been abused by its five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – for their national interests rather than in the common interests of humankind. The UN’s credibility has been destroyed by those five permanent members who have abused the organisation for selfish interests, forcing other countries to turn their back on the organisation as a global democratic institution because they do not have a voice.

Global trade rules are stacked against African and developing countries. High tariff and non-tariff barriers in industrial countries block African and developing countries from exporting value-added products, creating more jobs and more wealth for more people in industrial countries. In the current global economic system, developing economies do not have the policy independence to use monetary and fiscal policies to stimulate their own economies – lest they face a market, investor and Western media backlash (Panitchpaki 2011).

Many unilateral monetary policies adopted by industrial countries to deal with their domestic crises often destabilise African and developing countries. Western countries have come up with unilateral monetary policies that destabilise African countries. For example, these governments often manipulate the value of their currencies to improve their export competitiveness, undermining the currencies of developing countries (Rajan 2018, 2014; Diamond, Hu and Rajan, 2020).

In most trade deals between African and developing countries and industrial powers, industrial countries use subsidies to boost their own products; have tariff and non-tariff barriers, whether regulations, health standards, and licensing systems are discriminately applied to African developing countries’ products. African and developing countries have few recourses for trade, economic and political disputes with developed countries. They are marginalised in the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism.

Developing countries are also unequal in international law (Gumede 2018). For a case in point, the US, China and key industrial countries have not signed up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and their leaders and citizens are not subject to its jurisdictions. US-led coalitions, for example, have frequently used their power in the UN to push through invasions in developing countries’ regimes perceived to be anti-Western – in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere – under the disguise of defending human rights.

In the post-Cold War period, Western countries have pushed for only one variant of democracy, the liberal democracy of the US Republican Party, the most individualistic form of democracy. This variant of liberal democracy is often twinned with neoliberal capitalism; the most individualistic form of capitalism, where corporates have more power than individual citizens, has increased hostility against democracy across the globe (Chua 2003; Lumuba-Kasongo 2005).

Democracy under pressure in developed countries

In many industrial countries, democracy has also been undermined by populist leaders, the manipulation of democratic institutions for self-interest and the market dominance of all-powerful new “big” tech companies. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report (2020) chronicled the democratic decline of the US during the Donald Presidency. It concluded that such was the democratic decline of the US that the country plunged “into the company of states with weaker democratic institutions, such as Romania and Panama”.

The report noted that: “The Trump administration undermined government transparency by dismissing inspectors general, punishing or firing whistleblowers, and attempting to control or manipulate information on COVID-19”. Furthermore, the US saw “mass protests that, while mostly peaceful, were accompanied by high-profile cases of violence, police brutality, and deadly confrontations with counterprotesters or armed vigilantes. There was a significant increase in the number of journalists arrested and physically assaulted, most often as they covered demonstrations. Finally, the outgoing president’s shocking attempts to overturn his election loss—culminating in his incitement of rioters who stormed the Capitol as Congress met to confirm the results in January 2021—put electoral institutions under severe pressure. In addition, the crisis further damaged the United States’ credibility abroad and underscored the menace of political polarisation and extremism in the country”.

Last year Adam Szymanski and Renata Mienkowska Norkiene, in a panel discussion of the International Political Science Association, decried the decline of democracy in European Union member states. They pointed to the “de-democratisation”, “democracy decline”, or “democratic backsliding” in the EU and its immediate neighbours, which has many faces, including the “lowering the quality of democracy” to changing regimes from higher to less democratic ones” (Szymanski and Mienkowska Norkiene 2021; Memoli and Castaldo 2021).

In many industrial countries, the middle and working classes are under increasing financial pressure. After the global and Eurozone financial crises, industrial countries have introduced austerity programs, reducing welfare, and cutting public jobs and services. The purchasing power of incomes in industrial countries has declined dramatically. Even people in traditional stable professions, such as nurses, teachers and engineers, struggle with basic living costs, such as housing. Locals anxious about their declining economic situations fear economic migrants as added competition, threatening to undermine their way of living, customs and identity.

Global technological and economic changes have seen manufacturing jobs increasingly moving to emerging markets like China. New technology has led to fewer and less stable jobs in industrial countries. The gig economy, the phenomenon which has seen a rise in temporary, freelance and flexible jobs, has fostered massive uncertainty, such as in Uber, where employees are managed through algorithms, without the traditional benefits such as a minimum wage, sick leave, and the state does not receive taxes, have created much anxiety.

Harvard Business Review has estimated that by 2023 the global gig economy is likely to be a US$455 billion industry (O’Connor 2020). The power of global technology firms is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Many of these technology companies are exempted from democratic oversight. Their monopolistic power undermines to freedoms of citizens, fair trade and jobs.

The wealth gap between ordinary families and the political and business elites in Western countries has risen dramatically. Increasingly privileged elites are fabulously well-off, while the majority is struggling to make ends meet, even with high levels of education, and feel trapped in this situation with increasingly fewer opportunities to become upwardly mobile.

Rising inequality between small political, business and traditional authority elites and ordinary citizens; combined with declining economies, and therefore increased financial difficulties for ordinary citizens; and unresponsive governments and leaders will lead to citizens seeking answers in populist solutions, extreme nationalism and xenophobia.

There appears a generalised sense among many ordinary citizens in developed countries that current political parties and leaders are not listening, lack the ideas and capacity and are not accountable. There is a lack of responsiveness and distance and a lack of leadership – to deal with ordinary citizens’ anxieties – by Western governing parties, leaders and institutions and the European Union and its leaders and institutions.

The United Kingdom referendum to leave the EU, “Brexit”, which took place on 23 June 2016, could be seen as a proxy referendum on the perceived lack of responsiveness and distance and lack of leadership – to deal with ordinary citizens’ anxieties – by domestic political leaders and institutions and the European Union and its leaders and institutions.

African and developing countries have governance systems competing with democracy

Many African and developing countries have competing governance systems for democracy, such as customary law, sharia law, military law, and liberation and independence parties’ laws, which are most anti-democratic, authoritarian, and based on unequal citizenship (Gumede 2017). Some countries have ruling regimes that are ideologically opposed to democracy, such as Marxist-Leninism or populism. These authoritarian governance systems undermine the introduction and deepening of democracy in these societies.

Since the end of colonialism and, more recently, apartheid, democracy has always been contested in Africa, with many liberation and independence movements of the postcolonial anti-democracy school arguing that democracy should be shelved to focus on development first appears to be on the rise again.

Key arguments in the African postcolonial anti-democracy school are the argument that democracy is allegedly “unAfrican”; and those countries need “strong” leaders who should be in power for long periods to supposedly embed “transformation”. Again, all the countries with so-called “strong” leaders in Africa have collapsed into failed states, ethnic violence and breakdown.

Another argument against democracy made by anti-democratic groups in Africa is that democracy allegedly increases divisions in ethnically diverse societies because election campaigning in Africa has become so ethnically divisive. Nevertheless, it is not democracy that causes ethnic divisions; selfish leaders campaign based on ethnicity.

African countries that pursued development without democracy in the post-Second World War period have mostly plunged into civil war, country breakdown and failed states. The few African countries who did try to pursue democracy and development together, however, unevenly have done better.

The opposition against democracy in Africa has been why African countries failed to build quality democracies, foster inclusive development and secure peace. Since the end of colonialism, the African countries that have pursued democracy, such as Botswana, Mauritius, Cape Verde, and, more recently, Tunisia, have done comparatively better than all the undemocratic African countries (Wake Carroll and Terrance Carroll 1998).

Development without democracy is not sustainable in the long-term

The autocratic countries that developed without democracy, such as China, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda, keep opposition to their autocratic governments silent by providing economic development as widely as possible to society while crushing dissent.

Even in countries in which dictators initially brought development – sooner or later, as the society gets richer, they demand more rights, and unless more rights accompany the development, people will eventually rise up – this was the case of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Libya or Brazil during the military regimes of the 1980s. Governments in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda may appear impregnable because of their authoritarian-led development; unless they introduce democracy in the future, they will also in the future collapse like the USSR.

Dani Rodrik, the Turkish economist, has shown, in his ground-breaking research, that democracy is not only compatible with growth and poverty reduction but may be crucial to both (Rodrik 1999, 2004).

Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle and Michael M. Weinstein (2005) used 40 years of empirical data across developing countries to show that poor democracies do better than poor autocracies on nearly every economic measure. It “offers evidence that democracies are more stable: they are less likely to fall into armed civil conflict, experience humanitarian catastrophes, or breed international terrorists than are authoritarian countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan” (Halperin, Siegle and Weinstein 2005: 22).

Development can, of course, happen in any regime if they focus determinedly on industrialisation, which focuses on manufacturing new products their countries and the world need, spreading the benefits of development as widely as possible, keeping corruption at bay and appointing the best talent to manage development.

Conclusion: Democracy as a public good – to be renewed and defended by every generation

Democracy is a public good – a resource everyone should have an equal right to everywhere. This is the view of the Democracy Works Foundation – and informs the democracy capacity-building work the foundation does in Africa. No one should be excluded from being part of a democracy.

Ordinary citizens, civil society and the media must hold elected leaders, governing parties, and legislatures are more accountable. Competing governance systems to democracy, such as customary law, sharia law and military, must either be abolished or democratised to align them with human rights, gender, social and generational equality.

In countries that are democracies, civil society organisations, opposition parties, and activists must work to empower citizens, public dialogue spaces and institutions to be more resilient, to withstand attacks on democracy. The answer is not less democracy but better-quality democracy. It needs to be continuously defended, deepened and made alive by every generation rather than discarded.


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William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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