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De-Consolidating Democracy- Role of SAARC

Paper No. 6667               Dated 20-Aug-2020                              

By  Kazi Anwarul Masud, Former Secretary and Ambassador of Bangladesh,   

Through out history men have been trying to express themselves to declare his existence.

Albeit these efforts were thwarted by events beyond his control or even with their own volition because they conditions they wanted to change were beyond their capacity or tradition made them accept the situation that prevailed at that time.  

Yale University Professor Robert Alan Dahl also known as Dean of American Political Science Association and a powerful voice in research of democracy attempted to trace the history of known human civilization.  In one of his articles Dahl wrote  “The most famous city-state, in classical times and after, was Athens. In 507 B.C.E. the Athenians adopted a system of popular government that lasted nearly two centuries, until the city was subjugated by its more powerful neighbor to the north, Macedonia. ….  It was the Greeks-probably the Athenians-who coined the term democracy, or demokratia, from the Greek words demos, the people, and kratos, to rule. It is interesting, by the way, that while in Athens the word demos usually referred to the entire Athenian people, sometimes it meant only the common people or even just the poor.

The word democracy, it appears, was sometimes used by its aristocratic critics as a kind of epithet, to show their disdain for the common people who had wrested away the aristocrats' previous control over the government…. the political institutions of Greek democracy, innovative though they had been, in their time, were ignored or even rejected outright during the development of modern representative democracy”. As in Athens, the right to participate was restricted to men, just as it was also in all later democracies and republics until the twentieth century. 

The question that is uncertain to answer is whether in the present circumstances the world besieged   by pandemic is seeing the approach of democratic deconsolidation. Some would argue,   Amanda Taub of Fodham University and NYT journalist, for example, as she examines  “Early signs of decline Political scientists have a theory called “democratic consolidation,” which holds that once countries develop democratic institutions, a robust civil society and a certain level of wealth, their democracy is secure.

For decades, global events seemed to support that idea. Data from Freedom House, a watchdog organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, shows that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. Many Latin American countries transitioned from military rule to democracy; after the end of the Cold War, much of Eastern Europe followed suit. And longstanding liberal democracies in North America, Western Europe and Australia seemed more secure than ever.

But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. Is that a statistical anomaly, a result of a few random events in a relatively short period of time? Or does it indicate a meaningful pattern?”  Mr. Mounk and Mr. Foa developed a three-factor formula to answer that question. The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.If support for democracy was falling while the other two measures were rising, the researchers marked that country “deconsolidating.” And they found that deconsolidation was the political equivalent of a low-grade fever that arrives the day before a full-blown case of the flu.

While the process of dedemocratisation   is worrying, the optimists are of the opinion that human urge to act as they wish barring the bounds of law cannot be held in check for any length of time because once economies worries are over and a viable middle class has been formed the wish for a voice in the governance of the country becomes a premier concern. This is no less applicable for the less developed countries where economies predominate the day to day life. It is believed that peoples’ urge for a representative government becomes predominant when the question of taxation comes into play. The people then want to know how and where their money is being spent.

It is not necessary that such wish would be fulfilled in less developed countries particularly because of the reins of the government have already passed on to the patricians( not the landowning gentry of the past) who would be reluctant to part with such power wielded with the corrupt portion of society “elected” by the people. These people have their muscle men in every locality also duly “elected” or associated with different wings of the ruling political party. Not very dissimilar with the Chinese “wolf warrior diplomacy”  (The Diplomat—12 July  2020)  the writer reasons that this kind of diplomacy earned the ruling elite soaring nationalism.

The writer reasoned that “First, this change did not occur suddenly. Since 2010, when China’s GDP overtook Japan’s as the world’s second largest, the Chinese have become more confident and China’s foreign policy has become more assertive, gradually departing from Deng Xiaoping’s taotaoguang dictum. As the Communist Party continues to promote “four confidences”— in our chosen path, in our political system, in our guiding theories, and in our culture — nationalism has been on the rise. “Wolf-warrior diplomacy” is an extension of soaring nationalism at home.      

 In recent years, President Xi Jinping has advocated “a fighting spirit” on several occasions, whether speaking to soldiers or party officials….The latest diplomatic offensive is also part of the official effort to project China as a great power leading the global fight against the COVID-19.        China’s image suffered during the crisis due to its bungled handling of the outbreak at the early stage. Many blame China for initially covering up the human-to-human transmission of the virus and not sharing complete information with the international community.      

 From China’s perspective, wolf-warrior diplomacy is a direct response to “unfair” approaches by other countries, especially the U.S., toward China and the Chinese people….. In fact, wolf-warrior diplomacy is already hurting China’s foreign policy, since it has generated pushback, such as Australia’s calls for an independent probe into the coronavirus’ origins. China’s soft power is weak globally; a belligerent approach will further damage China’s global image. According Pew polls released on April 21, 66 percent of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of China, its most negative rating since Pew began asking the question in 2005. The problem with China is her miscalculation of feeling too confident to be able to take on the US militarily. Equally a part of the elite Chinese establishment is sounding caution against any misadventure.

 History teaches us that the US protected by the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and having no credible threats in the vicinity should not be regarded as a hermit nation but one used post-1945 as a nation eager and willing to act as a policeman of the world. Besides the US and Europe convinced of its ideological superiority of democratic institution and technological advancement, aware as they are that G7, G20 and other organizations have changed the definition of developed and developing countries, are certain that the world would not accept the Xi jinping and Mao Tse Tung dictatorship, different as it is from Deng Xiaoping’s cautious approach.

 In the above lines the possible global role as a passive observer in the ongoing pandemic situation looks missing. But it is highly unlikely. Time is now for cooperation among nations, despite China’s initial bungling on covit-19 and WHO’s initial hesitancy in announcing to the world that it is beset with a pandemic. Time for taking account may pend for a later date. Historically American Exceptionalism bas been a by-word for the people living in the continent.

Noted political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset argues that while the US has exercised tremendous influence over Western countries since WW II  it remains exceptional: Americans are more religious, more patriotic, more populist, more egalitarian, more likely to volunteer, less likely to vote, more prone to divorce, and wealthier than citizens of other developed countries. Lipset asserts that these seemingly contradictory qualities result from several traits that have characterized America from its founding: a commitment to competitive individualism and self-determination; a deep anti-statist orientation; and a tendency toward populism and egalitarianism. What has emerged from this mix is a genuinely ``liberal'' society in the classical sense:

Even those called conservatives in our political lexicon are committed to individualist and egalitarian principles that would have marked them as radicals in 19th-century Europe. The moral foundation of public affairs in America has resulted in an ideological, crusading approach to foreign policy, while the commitment to individualism has resulted in high crime and divorce rates. Lipset adds “Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American. .. As G. K. Chesterton put it: "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence. . . ." As noted in the Introduction, the nation's ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire”.

Lipset does not escape criticism. Harvard University’s Stephen Walt states that there is no difference in the way the US behaves as a great power as England, France, Portugal behaved in the same way in their heydays. Nor does the US behave better than the others. The US has not succeeded due to any special genius but due to luck. Walt writes “America’s past success is due as much to good luck as to any uniquely American virtues. The new nation was lucky that the continent was lavishly endowed with natural resources and traversed by navigable rivers. It was lucky to have been founded far from the other great powers and even luckier that the native population was less advanced and highly susceptible to European diseases”. But if Americans want to be truly exceptional, they might start by viewing the whole idea of "American exceptionalism" with a much more skeptical eye.

 All said and done nearer home in South Asia we have to traverse a long way in which SAARC has to play a very important role. India as the logical leader of the area has to brace itself in words and deeds. Catering to a particular creed to gain votes in elections while alienating others from different creeds may lead the country to greater peril.