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Democracy’s Contested Territory

Credit: Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Mar 19 2024 (IPS) - This year more than half the world’s population has the chance to go to the polls. That might make it look like the most democratic year ever, but the reality is more troubling. Too many of those elections won’t give people a real say and won’t offer any opportunity for change.

2024’s bumper election year comes as a record number of countries are sliding towards authoritarianism, and global advances in democratisation achieved over more than three decades have been all but wiped out. In 2023, no authoritarian state became a democracy, and while some countries made marginal improvements in the quality of their democracies – by improving civic space, making inroads on corruption or strengthening institutions – many more experienced often serious declines.

Nearly three quarters of humanity now live under authoritarian regimes. Defending democracy and holding political leaders to account is becoming harder as civic space is shutting down. The proportion of people living in countries with closed civic space, 30.6 per cent, is the highest in years.

The latest State of Civil Society Report, from global civil society alliance CIVICUS, shows how conflict is exacerbating this regressive trend. In war-torn Sudan, hopes for democracy, repeatedly denied since the 2019 overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir, receded further as elections were made impossible by the civil war between the military and militia that erupted last April. Russia’s sustained assault on Ukraine brought intensified repression of domestic dissent, and there were no surprises in the recent non-competitive vote that maintained Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.

The ineffectiveness of civilian governments in dealing with jihadist insurgencies has also been the justification used by military leaders to take or retain power in Central and West Africa. As a result, rule by junta is in danger of becoming normalised after decades in which it appeared on the verge of extinction. A ‘coup belt’ now stretches coast to coast across Africa. None of the states that fell victim to military rule in recent years have returned to civilian government, and two more – Gabon and Niger –joined their ranks last year.

Authoritarian regimes that experienced mass protest movements in recent years, including Iran, Nicaragua and Venezuela, have regained their footing and hardened their grip. In states long characterised by autocratic rule, many civil society activists, journalists and political dissidents have sought safety in exile to continue their work. But they often didn’t find it, with repressive states – China, Turkey, Tajikistan, Egypt and Russia are the worst five abusers –increasingly using transnational repression against them.

Many elections are held with no competition. Last year several non-democratic states of various kinds – including Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Cuba, Eswatini, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe – held votes in which autocratic power was never in question. Voting was ceremonial, its purpose to add a veneer of legitimacy to domination.

Many more regimes that combine democratic and authoritarian traits have been home to recent elections with less predetermined results, where there was at least some chance of the ruling party being defeated. But incumbent advantage was reflected in the fact that change rarely materialised, as seen in Nigeria, Paraguay, Sierra Leone and Turkey. The outlier was Maldives, where voters have a history of rejecting sitting presidents.

Some hybrid regimes, notably El Salvador, experienced further democratic backsliding through the erosion of freedoms and institutional checks and balances – a road typically travelled by populist authoritarians who claim to speak in the name of the people and insist they need to concentrate power to deal with crises.

When voters do have a genuine say, in free and fair elections, they’re increasingly rejecting mainstream parties and politicians. In a time of economic uncertainty and insecurity, many express disappointment with what democracy is offering them. Anti-rights political entrepreneurs are successfully exploiting their anxieties by scapegoating migrants and attacking women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights. Right-wing populists using such tactics recently took control of Argentina, came first in elections in the Netherlands and Switzerland and entered government in Finland. Even where they don’t take office, far-right forces often succeed in shifting the political centre by forcing others to compete on their terms. They’re expected to make big gains in the European Parliament elections in June 2024.

Polarisation is on the rise, fuelled by disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech. These are made so much easier by AI-powered technologies that are spreading and evolving faster than they can be regulated. The first elections of 2024, including those in Bangladesh and Indonesia, offered cautionary tales of the unprecedented levels of manipulation that AI can enable. We’re likely to see a lot more of this in 2024.

But our research findings support our hope, because they show movement isn’t all in one direction. In Guatemala, a new party born from mass anti-corruption protests was the unlikely 2023 election winner, and people mobilised in numbers to defend the result in the face of powerful political and economic elites. Despite China’s concerted attempts to derail Taiwan’s election, including through cyberattacks, people vindicated their right to have a say in their own future. In Poland, a unity government pledging to restore civic freedoms came to power after eight years of right-wing nationalist rule, offering new potential for civil society to partner in retrieving democratic values and respecting human rights. In Mexico, which is among the many countries going to the polls in 2024, people mobilised in numbers against the threat posed by a democratically elected leader seeking to override checks and balances. Given the dangers it may entail, civil society is pushing for transnational regulation of AI.

Things would be much worse were it not for civil society, which continues to mobilise against restrictions on freedoms, counter divisive rhetoric and strive for the integrity of electoral processes. Throughout 2024, civil society will keep pushing for elections to take place in free and fair conditions, for people to have the information they need, for votes to be properly counted, for losers to accept defeat and for winners to govern in the common good.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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