December 12, 2022
TOKYO – Many of the world’s democracies appeared to have nearly fallen into crisis in 2020 and 2021, when the novel coronavirus pandemic was at its height. Some people even said democracy was in retreat. However, in retrospect, as the end of 2022 is drawing near, democracy in the world seems to have actually shown its ability to endure the challenges facing it. At the same time, 2022 has turned out to be a year in which authoritarian regimes have revealed their own flaws.
The view that a global trend toward democratization had gone into reverse existed even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear from country-by-country data released by multiple entities measuring the prevailing state of democracy and levels of freedom that democracy has declined when compared to the beginning of the 21st century.
For instance, according to assessments by the U.S. nongovernmental organization Freedom House, the number of countries and territories categorized as “free” decreased from 92 in 2002 to 84 in 2019. The levels of both freedom and democracy fell further in and after 2020, as even liberal democracies imposed mandatory lockdowns to fight the coronavirus.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research division of the Economist Group, which publishes the British newsweekly The Economist, compiles a Democracy Index that rates countries on a scale of zero to 10. The global average dropped from 5.37 in 2020 to 5.28 in 2021, posting the largest year-on-year decline since 2006.
However, actual events were far more telling than such numerical data in terms of showing the retreat of democracy. In certain parts of the world, the circumstances surrounding human rights and democratization worsened conspicuously. China, for example, introduced the National Security Law to Hong Kong in June 2020, effectively suffocating the territory’s “one country, two systems” status under which its population had enjoyed freedom of speech.
Worldwide attention was drawn to then U.S. President Donald Trump, who refused to accept the 2020 presidential election results, decrying them as “false” and stirring up popular movements to support him. In fact, the quality of freedom and democracy in the United States had been in question since the very inauguration of the Trump administration in 2017. At the time, the United States was downgraded by the EIU from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” Then, on Jan. 6, 2021, the crisis of U.S. democracy reached a violent crescendo when Trump supporters assaulted the U.S. Capitol.
Had the 2020 U.S. presidential election results been overturned, the consequences for the entire world would have been immeasurable. Fortunately, the U.S. judicial system gave no rulings in favor of Trump and his supporters while the U.S. legislative branch, Congress, endorsed the election results as they actually were.
At about the same time, various other parts of the world also saw moves running counter to democratization.
Retrogression and progress
In 2020, while U.S. voters cast their ballots in the presidential election, a development retrogressive to democracy coincidentally flared up in Ethiopia in the form of intensified internal strife. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 and won a Nobel Peace Prize in the autumn of 2019 for ending hostilities with neighboring Eritrea. His achievement increased expectations within Ethiopia for the promotion of national reconciliation. Nonetheless, such expectations for internal democratization were eventually betrayed as he escalated conflicts between the Ethiopian federal forces and the Tigray population, which had been politically dominant until Abiy came to power.
In February 2021, a military coup in Myanmar nullified the results of general elections held the preceding year. Democratization had progressed in the country during the 2010s, but the military takeover forced it back to a less free state.
In the summer of 2021, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan enabled the Taliban to retake control of the country with shocking swiftness. Since the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001, all governments there had been unstable. Still, the country’s human rights environment, especially for women, had continued improving. Now, all of that progress has been erased.
These and other developments led many to observe that democracy was in retreat across the world.
How should we evaluate the variety of current situations in the world?
Circumstances in Hong Kong, Myanmar and Afghanistan have not improved. Nevertheless, the year 2022 has also seen situations in which democracy has shown significant resilience.
August’s presidential election in Kenya was one such case. Following the voting, the country’s electoral committee announced that former Deputy President William Ruto had defeated one-time Prime Minister Raila Odinga in the closely contested race. Odinga challenged the announcement, but when the country’s Supreme Court confirmed Ruto as the winner of the race, he accepted the election results, albeit while showing some discontent, clearing the way for his rival to inaugurate a new administration.
In Kenya, post-presidential election riots erupted in 2007, leaving more than 1,000 people dead. In each subsequent election, it underwent a period of political instability. However, the African country this time showed that a more stable transition of power was possible.
In October 2022, Brazil held a runoff presidential election. After failing by a narrow margin to win reelection, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro filed a complaint, which was rejected by the country’s Superior Electoral Court. Nicknamed the “Trump of South America,” Bolsonaro expressed dissatisfaction but refrained from acting further, allowing the verified election results to stand.
In November, the U.S. midterm elections went smoothly for the most part. Likewise, the year 2022 had elections in many other countries as well without encountering any particular hitch. As such, it can be concluded that democracy managed to endure the challenges directed at it this year.
Authoritarianism under pressure
In contrast, the flaws of authoritarianism have surfaced in various forms in the year to date.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed how incapable an authoritarian regime is of rectifying its leader’s ill-advised decisions. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been inflicting not only tragic sacrifices on Ukraine but also unnecessary sacrifices on Russian troops, including new recruits. As a result, the Russian economy is in the doldrums to the extent that the country is at risk of weakening as a major power.
A similar flaw can be found in China. Confronting a surge of protests, the country appears to be clumsily struggling to find an exit from the “zero-COVID” policy without denying its correctness. The medical consequences of this virtual policy shift are unclear, however. China is facing the enormous challenges of preventing an explosion of infections while placating the frustration and anger of the people.
In Qatar, Iranian soccer players refrained from singing their national anthem prior to their World Cup opener. A woman died in custody in Iran in September after being detained for allegedly failing to properly cover her hair with a hijab Islamic scarf. Her death has triggered increasingly widespread protests. Iran’s World Cup squad appears to have engaged in a mute but visible show of solidarity with people taking part in those protests. The Iranian authoritarian regime is thus faced with a new challenge.
Overall, it can be said that it is not democracies but authoritarian regimes that are now exposed to severe challenges.
Of course, it is possible that authoritarian regimes may further intensify repression of human rights at home as they have their backs against the wall. There are no obvious countermeasures to offer a quick remedy. Even so, it is important to strengthen and uphold support for people who dare to defend freedoms and democracy throughout the world. This, at a bare minimum, is a role Japan and other stable democracies should keep playing.