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17 USC 102

There's Still Good News for Democracy

May 20, 2018

 

The past few years have not been fun for the world's democrats. Right-wing populists have seized power from central Europe to the Philippines to the United States. Brexit threatens the European project. China seems to have appointed a president for life, and two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin began his fourth presidential term, continuing his nearly two-decade long reign over Russia. Overall, Freedom House reports that the number of free countries worldwide has been declining for twelve years straight.  

 

But it's not all doom and gloom. Despite the setbacks that dominate headlines, there are still bright spots. The past few weeks in particular have seen an uptick in good news for democracy. 

 

We can start in the former Soviet Union, where Putin recently gave an inaugural address at a Moscow plaza previously used for Tsarist coronation ceremonies. The day after Putin's fourth term began, nearby Armenia also got a new leader with the election of Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister. Pashinyan's rise to power comes on the heels of massive protests against the third term of Serzh Sargsyan as Armenia's leader. Sargsyan, who had been in power since 2007, amended the constitution in 2015 allowing himself to remain in control of the government.  Leading the protests, Pashinyan declared that Armenia would not become another Azerbaijan, referring to the neighboring country that has been ruled by the same family since 1993. 

 

Before becoming prime minister, Pashinyan has been a leader in Armenia's opposition movement for nearly 30 years as a journalist, member of parliament, and briefly as a political prisoner. His victory represents a remarkable opportunity for democratic reform in Armenia, with many comparing it to the color revolutions, a series of pro-democracy revolts that swept across Eurasia the 2000's. But as the history of the color revolutions (not to mention the more famous Arab Spring) has shown, one move in the direction of democracy does not necessarily mean a lasting trend. Reformers in Armenia will need to seize on the opportunity presented by Pashinyan to build robust, lasting democratic institutions.

 

Around the world, authoritarians also point to their model as the best for developing economies seeking growth. Xi Jinping did just that at this year's Chinese Communist Party Congress, saying: "The banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see...It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence, and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind."

 

Historically, these claims have been buoyed by China's impressive economic growth figures, especially with the West in conniptions. But recently, China's growth, while still considerable, has been slowing down. A new, democratic cohort of countries is stepping up with the strongest growth.

 

According to the World Bank's Global Economic Prospects, the world's fastest growing economy in 2018 is Ghana, which is rated as "free" by Freedom House and which has ended its history of military coups, holding peaceful elections since 1992. Although Ghana's stellar 8.3 percent growth rate is driven in large part by the discovery of new oil deposits, its government intends to invest oil revenues back in education and manufacturing, hoping to diversify the economy and avoid the "resource curse" that plagues so many authoritarian states. With any luck, Ghana can provide its neighbors a model of democratic growth, joining other success stories like Botswana.

We can't forget the bright spots for democracy. Armenia, Ghana, India, and Iraq should give us hope for the future of freedom and encourage us to redouble our efforts to sure up good governance at home.

A more prominent, sustained answer to China's authoritarian growth will probably come from neighboring India, the world's largest democracy. India saw the world's third highest economic growth in 2018, at 7.3 percent. That's a whole percentage point higher than China's growth rate. Indeed, India's economy has been growing faster than China's since 2015, and the World Bank predicts that India will keep outpacing it authoritarian neighbor at least through 2020. Although India still has miles to go before it overtakes the size of China's economy, it's on the track to be an example for developing democracies. 

 

The last stop on our tour is in one of the toughest spots on Earth. A week ago, Iraq held parliamentary elections, the first since the defeat of ISIS in that country. Although not everything about the election will excite Western observers, especially the victory of the anti-American nationalist Moqtada al-Sadr, it was unambiguously good news for democracy.

 

The very fact that Iraqis can vote for their leaders in honest elections is already special. In the Middle East, only Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey truly join Iraq in that club. And this election in particular was impressive for other reasons as well. It virtually avoided any violence, only months after a years-long period of civil war and war with ISIS. This election served to assert Iraq's sovereignty against Iranian challenges, and the winning Sadr electoral alliance ran on a platform of building a technocratic government to root out corruption. Finally,  the losing incumbent prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has pledged to work with all stakeholders to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, a crucial test for emerging democracies. Notwithstanding the violence and instability in between, the political progress from the rule of Saddam Hussein to this successful parliamentary election is truly astounding. 

 

So yes, Donald Trump strains democratic norms in the United States. Russia works to sow discord in other countries' elections, and Europe is seized with anti-immigrant reaction. But we can't also forget the bright spots for democracy. Armenia, Ghana, India, and Iraq should give us hope for the future of freedom and encourage us to redouble our efforts to sure up good governance at home. At the risk of falling into the trap of lofty predictions, I remain optimistic about democracy in the years to come.

 

 

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