The Independent

Democracy has not had a good week – but condemnation from the west will mean nothing without action

Demonstrators detained in pro-Navalny protests across Russia

For those who believe in democracy, this hasn’t been a good week. Supporters of the brave Alexei Navalny are being beaten up and imprisoned in Russia, with little sign that Vladimir Putin will relax his grip on the country. His clone in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, seems as firmly entrenched as ever after suppressing weeks of demonstrations over an election that included widespread allegations of vote rigging.

The latest batch of Hong Kong democrats are heading for a long stint in jail; the military in Myanmar have decided to ditch the partial democracy they had tolerated for a few years; one of Africa’s former bright hopes, the prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, has launched what looks like a civil war against his political opponents; in Uganda, Yoweri Museveni is digging in as ruler for life.

And, towering over these regressions around the globe, there has been the near-fatal political heart attack in the US. A system that has endured and flourished for two centuries – and has been the inspiration of democracies everywhere – came perilously close to a fascist-infused coup d’etat. No less worrying, a significant percentage of the 75 million Republican voters continue to go along with fraudulent claims about November's presidential election. A smaller but not trivial number appear to have been captured by the QAnon cult, which believes the unfounded conspiracy theory that former president Donald Trump is waging a secret war against paedophiles in government, business and the media.

So, how should we react? I confess that I have been irritated rather than reassured by the routine, identikit political statements condemning the latest abuses. The objects of the condemnation will neither notice nor quake in their boots at this impotent outrage. The tone of priggish self-righteousness invites charges of hypocrisy and inconsistency.

After suppressing the irritation, I am left with two simple questions: what should be the tests of democratic freedom? And what do we do about those who do not meet them, beyond ritual condemnation?

As to the first question, I found some scientific substance in the annual rankings of "freedom" by Freedom House, an American NGO. They have complex measures that include 10 different indicators of political freedom and 15 of civil liberties. There is a healthy process of challenge and review and, despite my scepticism, I felt these were serious people genuinely trying to be objective.

Perfection is achieved only in Scandinavia – Sweden, Finland and Norway – closely followed by Japan, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand and Australia. Britain isn’t too far behind, with Germany, Barbados and Taiwan. The United States is in the second division, with Argentina and Ghana, and below Greece, Chile and Cape Verde. 

Then there are the genuine but flawed democracies – India, Indonesia, Israel, Brazil, Nigeria – which are marked as roughly equivalent to Europe’s leading delinquent, Hungary. On the next rung down are the one-party half-democracies, such as Singapore. Near the bottom of the league, predictably, are China, Russia and Belarus, but they are ranked higher than Saudi Arabia. Competition for the wooden spoon is between such dreadful tyrannies as North Korea and Eritrea.

The ranking is a relief, because it gets beyond the idea of a binary world of “goodies” and “baddies”, in which democracy is largely seen as the preserve of rich and majority-white countries. India is too rarely given credit for sustaining near-democracy amongst 1.4 billion people of enormous diversity – a somewhat harder task than meeting the challenge in tiny Scandinavian populations. Nigeria’s boisterous multi-ethnic democracy is also miraculous, but seldom acknowledged.

Xi Jinping’s China will never score well on these metrics, and continued persecution of minorities is a factor. However, achieving freedom from hunger and extreme poverty surely counts as a positive as do recent moves to relax “one child” restrictions and internal passports. Beijing would argue, not unreasonably, that what really matters is trust in your society and government. The Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that trust is falling almost everywhere, but in China the government is far more trusted by the people than deeply distrusted governments in the US and Russia.

So what can genuinely democratic governments do to support the brave souls who risk their liberty and perhaps their lives fighting for freedom and democracy? A useful starting point is to shift the emphasis from “do as we say” to “do as we do”. The censoriousness and pomposity of western governments demanding better “governance” from other countries has probably been counterproductive. In Africa, especially, China has become much more influential because it doesn’t sit in judgement on the defects of the region’s many flawed and semi-democratic regimes.

"Do as we do" will not be straightforward. The US, in particular, has a big credibility deficit to make up before it is taken seriously as an exporter of its system of government. The UK is currently in a happier position, but there is quite a gap to meet, say, Swedish standards. Our antiquated and unfair voting system, ridiculous second chamber, over-centralised administration, scandal-prone party funding and over-concentrated media ownership all require reform.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a shared, infectious enthusiasm for free societies and democratic government that led eastern European and Baltic states into the European Union. The prospect of admission also helped to establish democracy in the Balkans. Briefly, the EU led – as Joe Biden puts it – “by the power of our example”. But that rosy picture is now marred by Hungary’s regression and Turkey’s exclusion from the waiting list.

Meanwhile, though we lament fractures in existing democracies, I sense no one has thought through even more troubling consequences of a breakdown in undemocratic government. What happens in Russia, if the Navalny protesters are strong enough to destroy the state’s authority but not strong enough to replace it? The adage “be careful what you wish for” applies even more strongly to democracy protests in China which, in more than 2000 years of civilisation, has seen semi-democratic government only for a few chaotic months in the 1920s.

Sadly, we have recent evidence from elsewhere that cheering on democracy protesters can end in disaster. The Arab Spring led to one (sort of) democracy in Tunisia, but also to two appalling civil wars and the regression of the most populous country in the region, Egypt, into an even more severe dictatorship.

The Middle East is also a good litmus test of how deep our commitment to political freedom really is. The G20 country that is bottom of the freedom league table is Saudi Arabia (and that is after much-praised “reforms”, such as letting women drive). While one part of the Foreign Office is thumbing through its thesaurus to find original adjectives to condemn the governments of Russia, China and other unfashionable regimes, another bit is ensuring that nothing undermines our “friendship” with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s status as our custodian of intelligence-gathering, arms exports and stable oil imports seems to excuse it from the censure that others attract. These double standards ensure that we are not taken seriously anywhere.

For those reasons, there is a strong case for hard-headed realism. A model is Angela Merkel’s government in Germany. Their leaders and their system practice exemplary democracy at home and within the EU, but they deal with the rest of the world as it is rather than how they and we would like it to be.

Instead of virtue signalling through condemnatory press releases, they prioritise engagement on common interests in climate, nuclear proliferation, pandemics and trade. This honest, fiercely pragmatic approach will do more good than any number of outraged statements ever can.

Altro da The Independent

The Independent5 min letti
Mare Of Easttown’s Angourie Rice: ‘When You’re A Kid Actor, You Sometimes Feel Like An Annoyance’
Angourie Rice was doing fine until she sliced her finger open. The young star of The Nice Guys and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man franchise had arrived in Philadelphia to play Kate Winslet’s daughter in the grisly HBO/Sky Atlantic series Mare of Easttown,
The Independent8 min letti
The 20 Most Hated TV Finales Of All Time, From Line Of Duty To Seinfeld
A pitch-perfect series finale can often seal a show’s place in the pantheon of TV greatness. From classics like M*A*S*H  and Cheers to recent examples such as Mad Men and The Deuce, a great series finale is a sure-fire way of ensuring that a show’s r
The Independent11 min lettiComputers
10 Best Running Apps To Keep You Motivated
Running in the UK has been booming for years. But it feels like the trend has significantly accelerated thanks to the coronavirus, with parks full of Lycra-clad runners and sports retailers reporting that clothing, accessories and equipment are flyin