Across The World, Democracy Slides Into "Recession"

A generation ago we saw the Berlin Wall come down and Nelson Mandela go from prison to the presidency. Today, we have Orban, Erdogan, Trump. What happens next?

Viktor Orban and al Sisi in Budapest
Viktor Orban and al Sisi in Budapest
Alain Frachon


PARIS â€" If we measure the world's many political models as a marketplace, liberal democracy is in a serious recession. The world is less democratic than it was 10 or 20 years ago. In democratic countries, the tide is also ebbing: Some countries are becoming less free. An ominous wind, an old authoritarian tropism is making itself known again from the South of the planet to the North.

Over the past quarter of a century, the direction of the story seems to have changed course. Twenty-five years ago, we celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Chile's Augusto Pinochet began to loosen his grip. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev lifted the lid, and Soviet satellites gained their freedom. In Washington, the old fighter from the Cold War, President George H. W. Bush, hailed "changes of biblical proportions." A young man of 43, baby boomer sensualist Bill Clinton was to succeed him.

Beyond the political horizon

"We felt it was the end of an era of repression and autocracy," says a nostalgic Peter Frankopan, one of the most promising young British historians and a researcher at the University of Oxford. "All over the world, dictatorships were swept away," he wrote in the Financial Times. Everything was set â€" the democratic model as a insurmountable political horizon, and economic growth in addition. It was accompanied by the technological revolution and the opening of borders. The economic advisers of Clinton even thought they had found the silver bullet to abolish economic cycles.

Mandela casts his vote in 1994 â€" Photo: Paul Weinberg

We went through many wars and military expeditions â€" from the Balkans to the 2001 attacks, through Afghanistan and Iraq. Without doubt, Frankopan wrote, liberal democracy would triumph as the ideal political system.

Now we must be disillusioned. Free elections, decentralization of power, media independence, public freedoms â€" all of which include the complicated mechanics of a liberal democracy â€" have gone out the window. Democracy as a political model is now challenged, reports Freedom House. This NGO monitors developments in the practice of democracy in 195 countries, and it characterizes 2015 as the year that "marked the general fall of freedom for the tenth consecutive year." Only 43 countries have advanced, it concluded in a January report. And in 105 other nations, freedom receded. This is true in emerging economies, where the autocratic model dominates and progresses. This is also true in the West, where the liberal model has devolved.

The "authoritarian temptation," as recently pointed out by Jean-Claude Guillebaud in L’Obs â€" borrowing an expression from political scientist Yves Sinter â€" spares neither the U.S. nor Europe. Overseas, it reveals its ugly Gorgon head in the form of Donald Trump. It resonates with anti-European ultranationalist demagogues currently in power or those aspiring to gain more. They are the chief operators of what a Freudian today would call "the malice of globalization."

Trump promotes torture, stigmatizes minorities, despises intermediate bodies and promises a monstrous police raid to hunt down the country's 11 million illegal workers. In Europe, Budapest's Viktor Orban and Warsaw's Jaroslaw Kaczynski have established a form of "illiberal democracy" by fairly simple mechanics. There are free elections for sure. But in the past election, the winner took it all, including control of the judiciary and media.

What's missing is the complicated system of checks and balances between powers, this coexistence of several truths that gives birth to a eminently democratic miracle: compromise. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey is an example of where the compromise is missing. But the most accomplished product, the most refined, remains the Muscovite version. Naturally, Russian Vladimir Putin is the idol of protest parties within the European ultra right-wing, including the National Front, and Trump reveres the Russian leader.

To limit the question: Where does this delegitimization of the Western world's liberal model stem from? Anglo-Saxon commentators and essayists prefer one track: the economy. Confused by economic globalization, the model hasn't kept its promises. There have been uncontrolled migration flows, anemic growth, job losses, the 2008 crisis, a blocked social ladder, etc. The liberal democratic political model presupposes a dynamic middle class â€" not one traumatized by globalization.

Maybe something more profound is at work. Embodied by the center left, the social democratic model is the result of a constant deepening of individual freedoms. It is the most advanced stage of a post-age libertarian movement, which exploded in the protests of the1960s â€" in Berkeley, London, Paris and Berlin â€" and came to an end for lack of a collective ambition. Perhaps. It would still be irresponsible to give in to the illusion of autocratic rule or remain apathetic towards the continued erosion of the liberal democratic model.

This old, slow and precious conquest is less guaranteed than ever.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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