Is democracy dying? That is the question that the May/June issue of respected magazine Foreign Affairs attempts to answer in its Global Report on the Decline of Democracy.
“Some say that global democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s and that it will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution. Those are the optimists. Pessimists fear the game is already over, that democratic dominance has ended for good,” says editor Gideon Rose in introducing the package of articles.
Rose notes the signs of democracy in regression: centralisation of power in the executive, politicisation of the judiciary, attacks on independent media, and the use of public office for private gain.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
The surprising development is that now democracy is in disarray not just in the usual regions – Africa, South America, the Arab peninsula, Russia and Asia. It is happening in Europe – in Hungary and Poland and Turkey, for instance. And Americans are worried it has started happening in the US under President Donald Trump.
Bard College’s professor Walter Russel Mead says: “There is now a pervasive sense of despair about American democracy.”
Given the global concern over the decline of democracy, it is no surprise that three new books have hit the stores: How Democracies Die, The Death of Democracy, and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.
I believe Foreign Affairs went to print before the May 9 general election in Malaysia. Otherwise it would likely have been featured as the odd-man-out, even perhaps as a beacon of hope.
Malaysians can feel proud that they have contributed to the arrest of the global decline of democracy. We can even stand tall and tell the world: learn from us.
Especially since there was no open conflict and no bloodletting when the victors took over from the vanquished. Astounding.
I must admit the thought did occur to me, just before the 14th general election, that some sore loser might instigate a fight, and worse, even turn it racial. But Malaysians, especially those in leadership positions, have proven they are mature.
I am grateful to the leaders of the Barisan Nasional for accepting defeat, although former prime minister Najib Razak did equivocate initially; I am grateful to the supporters of Pakatan Harapan for not gloating or holding celebratory rallies; I am grateful to the chief secretary to the government and the chiefs of the police and defence forces for upholding the law and working to calm the situation; I am grateful to the rulers who responded swiftly to the situation – I understand the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, played a key role in getting all parties to ensure a peaceful change in government.
Most importantly, I am grateful to the voters who stood up to rescue democracy.
But let’s take note that a democracy does not die overnight; it takes years – with people gradually accepting, even if they do complain, an erosion of democratic norms in the name of economic prosperity or national stability or security or religion or fighting terrorism or whatever.
Remember, the slide of democracy towards authoritarianism in Malaysia began in the 1980s under Dr Mahathir Mohamad and accentuated in the last eight years under Najib.
Remember, the Najib government, among other things, used national security and the need to preserve public order in a fragile multireligious, multiracial society as justification for restricting freedoms and stifling dissent. Also, it steadily expropriated government institutions and agencies that were tasked with protecting people’s rights to protect the interests of the governing elite and their friends.
And just as democracy does not die overnight, it does not triumph merely by the replacement of one government by another in a democratic election.
So far, the new government has been saying the right things and initiating several positive moves to give us confidence that it will not be another BN.
However, it is too early to say with certainty what will happen as the enthusiasm and democratic idealism of the new government confronts reality.
Remember, when Najib became prime minister in 2009, he got everyone excited by talking of his plans for reform. He came across as the man who wanted to right all the wrongs in the nation. And we know what happened after that.
Therefore, Malaysians who voted for a new dawn must be vigilant and diligent in scrutinising the actions of the PH government so that we do not make the same mistake we did with the Umno-led BN.
That is why we need to support a free press because only then will infringements of freedom and accountability be brought to public attention; that is why we need to pressure the government and MPs to repeal or amend laws that can be used as tools of repression and put in place safeguards to prevent Parliament and the judiciary from becoming subservient to the executive; and that is why we need to support political parties and politicians who put the interest of the citizen first, including by allowing public criticism of government leaders and policies.
Whether democracy dies or thrives depends largely on how people centric and accountable the administration is, how independent and impartial the judiciary is, how responsible and courageous parliamentarians are, and how vigilant and vociferous citizens turn out to be.
A Kathirasen is an executive editor with FMT
The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.