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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Whither democracy?

Anyone who has seen the chilling docu-drama 'Vice' will already be in despair at the condition of democracy in the United States.

The film recorded how Vice-President Dick Cheney quietly, but effectively accumulated vast power for the US Presidency that potentially usurped the checks and balances put in place by the US constitution, and trampled over the human rights of America's 'enemies', while at the same time further enriching powerful businessmen who were allied to Cheney and his friends.

The report by the US based Freedom House think-tank should come as no surprise therefore. As the Independent says, the organisation argues that democracy is undergoing an “alarming” decline across the world as a growing number of countries move towards authoritarian rule. They believe that 2018 was the 13th consecutive year of deteriorating freedoms around the globe:

A total of 68 countries suffered a decline in political rights and civil liberties during the past 12 months, with only 50 counties registering any progress in these areas, it said.

“More authoritarian powers are now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remain,” the report stated.

Experts also identified a troubling “crisis of confidence” in the US and Europe, where far-right populist forces are pushing against long-held democratic principles like the separation of powers, press freedom and the legal protection of migrants.

Hungary fell from “free” to “partly free” status in the past year. The report said Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had presided over “the most dramatic decline” in civil liberties ever charted by the organisation inside the European Union.

Serbia also dropped to “partly free” status because of election irregularities and President Aleksandar Vucic’s accumulation of extraconstitutional powers.

The organisation also offered a damning assessment of the health of US democracy, noting Donald Trump’s attacks on the rule of law and fact-based journalism. The report found his government had “improperly restricted” the rights of asylum seekers and immigration policies had become “excessively harsh or haphazard”.

“The greatest danger comes from the fact that American democracy is not infinitely durable, especially if a president shows little respect for its tenets,” said Michael J Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Anti-democratic rhetoric and the rejection of democratic constraints on power can be first steps towards real restrictions on freedom.”

They further highlight that Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan re-elected for further terms last year, while the National People’s Congress in China rubber-stamped an amendment abolishing a two-term limit on the presidency, allowing Xi Jinping indefinite rule:

In Central America, meanwhile, Nicaragua dropped to “not free” following a crackdown on anti-government protests, Venezuela was deemed to have held a “profoundly flawed” election, and in Brazil the newly-elected Jair Bolosnaro expressed his nostalgia for military dictatorship.

A growing number of governments have reached beyond their own borders to target expatriates.

Freedom House found that 24 countries around the world – including Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – have targeted political dissidents abroad with practices such as extradition requests, kidnapping and assassination in the past year.

Ethnic cleansing is another growing trend, with an increase in regimes making concerted efforts to alter the ethnic composition of their territory and attacks on freedom of expression has been aided by new tools in internet censorship and surveillance.

The researchers say none of this is new: since 2006, a total of 116 countries have seen a decline in democratic freedoms, while only 63 countries have experienced growth. It does not make good reading.
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