In December 2016, The Gambia held its first free elections in more than two decades. The election ended with the victory of civilian Adama Barrow, who took office the following month and ended 22 years of military rule led by Yahya Jammeh.
The transition in this small country of 2.1 million people on the west coast of Africa serves to illustrate the democratic advances that have taken place around the world over the past decade – a period characterized mainly by a new wave populism and authoritarian rulers in different regions. of the globe.
“We are clearly in a democratic recession, the overall quality of democracies around the world has been declining for ten years,” said political scientist Kharis Templeman, a researcher at Stanford University specializing in democracy in Asia.
Despite this, there have been democratic advances, as the case of The Gambia shows. In Africa, countries like Angola, Seychelles, Kenya, Ethiopia and Niger have also stood out.
One of the exemplary cases on the continent is Tunisia, cradle of the Arab Spring. Demonstrations against authoritarian and pro-democracy regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, after all, began there in late 2010. But it wasn’t until January 14, 2011, that then-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned under the first regime. transition of the decade that ended on the 31st.
The country, moreover, was the only one to really take advantage of the wave to become a democracy, says Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, a project at Princeton University (United States) which measures support for democracy in the region.
Among other countries that have seen large protests, Egypt has come to repeat a democracy, but since the 2013 military coup, it has seen dictator Abdel Fattah el Sisi install an increasingly authoritarian regime. Swallowed by civil war, Syria, Libya and Yemen never had the chance to try to build a democracy.
“Things in the Middle East have gone from bad to worse. In fact, it was a winter, not a spring ”, summarizes Abdalhadi Alijla, who studies the subject at the Oriental Institute of Beirut. Thus, the region remains the least democratic in the world, according to analysts.
Despite this, Asia has also seen a series of democratic advances over the past decade, from South Korea to East Timor, from Mongolia to Taiwan, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia, Stanford’s Templeman points out. In contrast, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines saw the democratic quality drop during this period.
This list also includes the United States, Serbia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, India, Brazil and Venezuela. These are some of the countries that have lost the most democratic quality in the last ten years, according to the index of the International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Support), based in Sweden and which measures the overall quality of the democracy.
“The main trigger for this fall was the 2008 financial crisis,” says Annika Silva-Leander, who heads the entity’s democratic evaluation department. “Many traditional parties in the United States, Europe and Latin America have lost their support, and voters have come to vote for populist leaders. And many of them are authoritarian and do not believe in liberal democracy, ”she adds.
According to Staffan Lindberg, professor at the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) and director of V-Dem, another index measuring the quality of democracy in the world, the increase in inequalities has also strongly influenced this movement.
“It made families and individuals very vulnerable. In this scenario, it’s easy to scare people, convince them that everything is going to go wrong. These populist and nationalist leaders are strengthened by fear, ”he said, referring to a list that includes Donald Trump in the United States, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
There is yet another problem. Democratic progress in Asia and Africa has been concentrated mainly in countries with small populations, while the decline in the world has occurred in countries with large populations.
“Democracy is made by the people, so it is important to know how many people are in a democratic regime. It affects a lot more people if democracy falls in India, Brazil or South Africa. Of course, it is legal to see progress in Seychelles, but it affects 95,000 people. It’s what they call a village in Nigeria, ”says Lindberg.
For Kharis, there is an important difference in the analysis of the decline of democracies by region of the world.
In the West, what has fallen is what he calls the liberal aspect of democracies. This includes the rule of law, respect for the opposition, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the separation of powers.
“But it’s different in Asia, where those elements have always been at a lower level than the rest of the world,” he says. “In fact, the fall of democracy in the East occurred mainly under the electoral aspect. In Thailand, for example, a military coup prevented the opposition from winning elections. In Cambodia it was similar. And China, Laos and Vietnam have never allowed free elections ”.
Moreover, Beijing’s increased influence has also contributed to this movement of democratic recession, agree the researchers. The dictatorial regime led by Xi Jinping has increased its investments around the world, mainly in Africa and Asia, thus becoming an alternative for authoritarian rulers in need of funding.
Despite all these problems, Lindberg believes that the next ten years could be a turning point. According to him, 44% of countries staged some kind of pro-democracy protest in 2019 – from protests against Beijing in Hong Kong to acts that resulted in a new Constituent Assembly in Chile.
The coronavirus has obviously slowed this movement, but the researcher believes that it can be strengthened again when the situation improves.
Annika of International IDEA is even more optimistic. “The pandemic can play a decisive role in this turning of the tide, these populist governments will today have to face the biggest economic crisis ever.”