#BookClub. Democracy Under Pressure: Where do we go from here?

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There is an increasing mood of pessimism, or even alarm, about the fragile state of our world today. We have climate change that threatens our very existence at a time when multilateralism is hampered by rising levels of polarisation within and across nations. At the same time, a combination of migration, economic downturn and falling class mobility are evoking xenophobia, creating a fertile ground for populism and nationalism to breed. The IT revolution is making some jobs and industries redundant, exacerbating the already high rates of economic inequalities around the globe.

And then there is Russia’s war against Ukraine, with its multitude of immediate adverse effects and those yet to come and impossible to predict. The negative economic effects already in evidence include shocks to the markets for oil, natural gas, wheat, and certain metals, disrupting the global economy. What remains unknown is the duration of the conflict, the degree to which the ultimate balance of power between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’ might shift as a result, and whether or not nuclear weapons will come into play.  

Each of these factors alone can put a lot of pressure on democracy. Jointly they represent a clear and present danger. Against this background our newly published book, Democracy under Pressure: Resilience or Retreat?, examines the extent of that danger, posing question: Why is it that some countries in the same geographical region and subject to the same global impacts remain robust while others regress?

Each chapter compares two or three countries in different regions, leveraging variations in history and culture as well as the political and social configuration of each case. This approach helps separate regional and country-specific factors impacting democracy from overarching trends and global influences. In this way it is possible to tell why some countries remain on the right democratic track, while others are veering off that path and some have already fallen by the wayside. A total 16 countries come under scrutiny with the clearest picture emerging from the comparison of two polar cases: Sweden illustrates the well-developed shock absorbing capacity of a robust democracy, while Turkey represents a fragile political system that has already gone from being a poor quality democracy to an electoral authoritarian regime.

South Africa and Kenya are the African cases chosen for comparison. The selection was made on the assumption that South Africa would prove the more robust democracy of the two, even if both countries experience similarly high levels of poverty, income inequality, unemployment, poor economic management, and corruption. What came as something of a surprise was that although all macro-level indicators ranking the formal elements of liberal democracy are considerably higher in South Africa, this is not matched by public support for democracy. Instead, it turns out that Kenyan citizens, in contrast to their South African counterparts and despite their significantly weaker democratic state machinery, adhere more firmly to democratic norms and values. Indeed Kenya’s peaceful transfer of power this year may now actually give it the edge over its southern counterpart, as it implies a strengthening of democratic institutions at a time when South Africa’s appear to be atrophying.

As is well known, to persist democracy needs both solid institutions and supportive citizens committed to democratic values. The implication of our book is therefore that serious challenges to democracy may lie ahead in both countries.

The book also looks at United States and Canada. While both of these democracies remain robust, the book’s findings indicate that divisive historical legacies throw a much longer shadow in the case of the United States, which accounts for the country’s tendency towards backsliding. While the Capitol uprising and the high number of “election deniers” in the Republican party has raised serious questions about the durability of American democracy, Canada’s political system continues to get stronger.

The Latin American cases of Uruguay, Chile and Argentina are assessed in the context of their respective histories of military rule. The analyses demonstrate that Uruguay has managed to return to – and maintain – high quality democracy. Chile also appears to have a good change of bouncing back. The prospects for a strong democracy in Argentina are far less promising, however, due to a combination of populist politics and weak democratic institutions.

The East Asian cases of Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines are discussed from the perspective of the allegedly incompatible relationship between democracy and “Asian values”, with a particular focus on the formation and character of political parties. The investigation shows that even where there is stronger evidence that they exist, “Asian values” need not stand in the way of quality democracy but can in fact aid it. This is well illustrated by the examples of Taiwan and South Korea illustrate, although the Philippines still has a way to go.

Germany and Italy, the Western European cases chosen for comparison, are both facing challenges to their democracy from populist parties. Looking at populist political actors who aspire to hold power, and examining political developments that show the dynamics of the rise of populist political parties, helps to illuminate the rise of this phenomenon around the globe. Of the two, Germany is found to be more resilient to the populist threat and to democratic backsliding – although the presence of right wing movements remains a cause for serious concern. An additional challenge in the case of Italy is the very low evaluation by citizens of the performance of their government and political system, reminiscent of South Africa.  

Finally, the Eastern European countries put under a microscope are Estonia and Poland. Both transited from the communist system and were integrated into the European Union. And yet Poland, the former poster child of democratic transformation, has experienced serious backsliding and is ruled by a populist party, while Estonia remains a robust democracy. One of the identified reasons for this divergence is the history of communist-era rule and the subsequent emergence of different party system in each case. In Poland, the friction surrounding ex-communist parties resulted in polarisation as the leitmotif of politics;  in Estonia the rise of the populist Conservative People’s Party has been kept at bay by the presence stronger and more conventional parties.

The book closes by looking at some of the most pressing challenges that democracy faces today. First, we show how some of these issues mesh with one another to form a multi-dimensional collective action problem rooted in modernity itself. Second, we argue that the future costs of a failure to act collectively now could be dire. But for more detail on these arguments, and the case studies that ground them, you will need to buy the book

Ursula van Beek (@CREDOatSU) is a historian and the director of the Centre for Research on Democracy, CREDO.

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