Moran: Backsliding democracies from the USA to Ukraine

At the end of last year, the United States of America was added to the International IDEA’s annual list of “backsliding” democracies for the first time, pointing to a “visible deterioration” it said began in 2019.

Remarkably, the number of backsliding democracies has doubled in the past decade with more than a quarter of people alive today now living in one of these democracies. What’s more, in addition to “established democracies” such as the US, this list of backsliding democracies includes EU member states Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.

And it gets worse.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance the number of people living in fragile democracies rises to more than two in three with the addition of authoritarian or “hybrid” regimes.

To put it more succinctly, democracy is in retreat.

If we were to rewind thirty years, to the end of the Cold War, many intellectuals talked of “the end of history”, with liberal democracies deemed the gold standard for which every country in the world would eventually seek and adopt. While there were many initial movements in that direction, this last decade has seen democracy thrown on to the ropes the world over.

Serbia, for instance, was removed from the list of “hybrid” regimes because they were no longer considered a democracy. This is the same Serbia who, back in 2009, applied to join the European Union, promising to democratise further in the hope of being accepted.

Perhaps the saddest of these developments involves Ukraine, which was removed last year from the list of ’backsliding democracies’ after their situation improved. Fast forward a few months and the country has been plunged into a darkness few thought we’d ever see again in Europe, as Putin’s war machine proceeds to bomb hospitals, level towns and assassinate the Ukrainian leadership.

The invasion of Ukraine is “a taste of what a world without checks on antidemocratic behaviour would look like,” Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, told the New York Times last week, warning “this is going to set the world back in a major way – not just for democracy, but for the rule of law.”

Now is the time for the UK to step up. Boris Johnson’s government loves to use phrases like “world beating” and “global Britain” – often, with very little to back those words up. Little has been done to put meat to the bones of “levelling up”, and the government’s response to the Ukraine crisis has shown that we are far from achieving the “Global Britain” which the Prime Minister has promised.

The government’s empty sloganeering has also extended to our democracy. At Joe Biden’s summit for democracy, the Prime Minister said that “it has never been more vital to strengthen democracy at home and stand up for our principles abroad”. Yet his government has introduced legislation to clamp down on freedom of protest, and close off our country to refugees. What’s more, their effort to reform our elections will strip the Electoral Commission of its independence, introduce mandatory photo ID to vote, and impose more of our regressive First Past the Post voting system.

At the same time, record numbers of people are losing faith in the power of their vote in the UK. Nearly two in three people think politicians are ‘merely out for themselves’, while dissatisfaction in democracy has reached record highs in recent years.

We cannot call for democracy to be safeguarded overseas, all the while turning a blind eye to backsliding here at home. We must both defend and improve our democracy.

We need to replace the hotbed of cronyism the House of Lords has become with an elected alternative. We need to extend the franchise, so that the sixteen-year-olds (many of whom already pay tax and serve in our armed forces) can pick our leaders. Most importantly, we need to abandon the First Past the Post voting system, which hands unearned majorities to unpopular governments, letting them do whatever they want with no accountability.

In short, we need to make votes matter.

The past few weeks have shown the danger of unaccountable power. While I am glad that Boris Johnson is no Vladimir Putin, we cannot rest on our laurels. The last few weeks have shown that democracy cannot be taken for granted. It is up to all of us to cherish and nurture it.

Sources

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/22/us-list-backsliding-democracies-civil-liberties-international

https://www.science.org/content/article/how-democracies-are-now-backsliding-countries-russia-united-states

https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/07/how-young-people-can-prevent-democratic-backsliding

https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/on-democratic-backsliding/

https://www.idea.int/blog/democratic-backsliding-different-causes-divergent-trajectories

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/27/briefing/putin-democracy-ukraine.html

https://www.ippr.org/news-and-media/press-releases/revealed-trust-in-politicians-at-lowest-level-on-record

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51281722

* Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon

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9 Comments

  • Tristan Ward 19th Apr '22 - 7:41pm

    We need to call a spade a spade here. Illiberal Democracies are on the rise. We need to insist on calling decent countries liberal democracies.

  • “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” (Churchill – House of Commons, 11 November 1947).

    The Economist Intelligence Unit assesses nations’ democratic status in its annual Democracy Index. The 2021 index concluded that Ukraine was a “flawed democracy” and also described it as a “hybrid regime.”
    Ukraine’s position in that index declined in the 2021 report and this was “in part as a result of increased tensions with Russia.”
    “Government functioning under a direct military threat usually restricts democratic processes in favor of the centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the security or military apparatus with the aim of guaranteeing public safety,” the report said.
    “In Ukraine, the military played a more prominent role in 2021 and exerted more influence over political decision-making; government policy also became less transparent,” the report added.

    That same report ranked the U.S. as a “flawed democracy.”

    There are many oppressive regimes that we cooperate with, mostly thanks to fossil fuels. It’s all wrong and it all needs to be fixed. We need to strengthen and improve our democratic institutions at home so we can better resist the challenge posed by the rise of authoritarian regimes in much of the rest of the world beyond the West.

  • Trevor Smith 20th Apr '22 - 7:41am

    Boris Johnson isn’t Putin, but he certainly cuts an increasingly Yeltsin-like figure. Putin was ultimately the man Yeltsin relied upon, and who replaced him on that fateful 31st December 1999 – the one millennium bug who got through. We too are backsliding, but if Johnson fell tomorrow, it would be those who currently back him who would replace him and would take their work of dismantling our constitution, such as it is, onwards down the track to authoritarianism.

  • Steve Trevethan 20th Apr '22 - 9:06am

    Thank you for an interesting and important article!
    Might it be that democracy depends upon socio-economic equity?
    Can a country really be classified as democratic when nearly a third of its children are always hungry/starving?
    Might it be that the dominant socio-economic policy of Neo-liberalism has the purpose and consequence of polarising wealth and all that goes with it?
    Might our party serve the betterment of democracy and the existing conditions of our children by dis-associating itself from Neoliberal Economics and espousing socio-economic theories and practices which recognise and use the fact that we are in an era of fiat currencies?
    Might we recognise that, as a sovereign money country our « balance of payments problem is a convenient controlling myth?

  • Layla’s article gives a crucial context and urgency to the cause – the purpose – of electoral reform. Far from being a dry technical topic, it is fundamental to underpinning and revitalising democracy at a time when trust in democracy in many countries is in question – and when our democratic institutions are under attack.

    We need to re-cast our messaging on PR to focus on fairness and equal votes – re-enfranchising and including all voters. It’s not primarily an issue about parties; it’s about people – belief that their voices are heard in contemporary society/democracies.

    And we need to fight erosions to our democracy – which this government is hell bent on doing.

    April 25 sees the appalling Elections Bill back for votes in the Lords – this time on diluting the independence of the Electoral Commission. Call to action! All of us can help lobby Lords members to vote the bill down. LDs for Electoral Reform (LDER) is liaising with our Lords team to build opposition to the bill. It’s something all of us can do – please go to the lead story on http://www.lder.org for a guide on who to write to.

    (Keith Sharp is Chair, LDER)

  • Peter Hirst 20th Apr '22 - 1:07pm

    Important as electoral reform is, there is more to democracy than voting. Transparency, media freedom, meaningful accountability are all also important. People need to feel involved and that their opinions matter. A vibrant democracy infiltrates all our lives, giving us something to be proud of.

  • Graham Jeffs 20th Apr '22 - 5:37pm

    Democracy is important to us. But I wonder whether it is really appreciated by more than 25% of the electorate. Democracy is taken for granted in this country and the vast majority of people simply do not see or understand the way in which it is being depleted year by year.

    There needs to be so much more to politics than the ritual issuing of policies and the ritual criticism of the policies of others. This does little more than bore and create cynicism. We very seldom hear about broader philosophies and how at that point policies are aimed at underpinning those beliefs.

    The recent questionnaire from the party asking us to rank our concerns and our policies was much of the same. Nobody was asking whether there was a need to send a clear message as to our wider beliefs and how those beliefs need to be part of enhancing democracy and the rule of law rather than undermining it.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Apr '22 - 6:14pm

    @Peter Hirst
    “Important as electoral reform is, there is more to democracy than voting. Transparency, media freedom, meaningful accountability are all also important. People need to feel involved and that their opinions matter. ”

    Indeed – but without electoral reform how likely is it that these other aspects of democracy can be achieved on a lasting basis? Isn’t the First Past the Post voting system a major obstacle to achieving them?

  • Nigel Quinton 29th Apr '22 - 6:25pm

    An important and excellent summary of the world we live in. I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t read Ian Dunt’s ‘How to be a Liberal’ to do so and to ponder two things:

    1. Do we agree with his conclusion that Liberalism has been too complacent for too long and that the fight to re-establish Liberalism in the face of authoritarianism and identity politics is a vital one?

    2. Our party features barely at all in his review of Liberal history. That is surely a mark of the diminishment of our position in national politics since 2010. I hope our future leadership take note.

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