April 25th, 1974 marked the beginning of democracy in Portugal and sparked the third wave of democratization around the world. From the fall of the Soviet Union, to the liberalization of regimes in Latin America and Asia the final quarter of the 20th century marked a new age where democracy, as a world ethos, reigned supreme.
Flash forward a decade and a half and we arrive in 2015, a time when democracy, at least for now, is in a decline. Before we begin however, we must define democracy. Following Dahl’s as well as Karl and Schmitter’s descriptions, it is a governing system in which free and fair elections, where the vast majority of individuals are allowed to participate, are the norm and where the civil rights and civil liberties of the people are protected. In the past 9 years there has been a consecutive decline in Freedom Houses “Freedom of the World” annual report. In 2014 “the report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains” (Puddington 3). These findings are not in small, inconspicuous nations, but around the globe from Russia to China and from Egypt to Thailand. It is too early to call it a third reverse wave but we are certainly witnessing a trend away from democracy around the world and thus a democratic decline.
Over a year ago Vladimir Putin, The President of Russia invaded Ukraine and subsequently annexed Crimea, going directly against an international agreement promising Ukraine it’s sovereignty. At the same time Putin has jailed and executed citizens without due process and has turned the LGBTQ community into second class citizens. (Puddington, 4). All the while, Xi Jingping the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, has consolidated control and has jailed certain members of the Communist party on shady “corruption” charges. Both of these nondemocratic actors have recently been showing off their increased political and economic power. Putin is conducting airstrikes in Syria, and China has been flexing its muscles by conducting vast military exercises. Almost a quarter of the world’s population is living in Russia and China. As these two nations continue to increase their power abroad, they are projecting their nondemocratic values on the rest of the world and pushing against the “democratic ethos” that has thrived for the past few decades. While they flex their muscles, the West, the beacons of democracy have been “floundering”. According to Plattner, the 2008 financial crisis and a perceived lack of well run political institutions have caused a decline in the “attractiveness” of Democracy (Plattner 14). A stronger Russia and China and a weaker North America and Europe has caused a perfect nondemocratic storm to occur.
Across the globe in North Africa and the Middle East a “democratic” revolution sprang up in 2010. Democratic is in quotes because this revolutionary fight quickly developed into an opportunity for new authoritarian leaders to grasp power. Of the six countries where the revolt took root, only Tunisia has some sort of Democratic system in place today (Masoud, 78). In Egypt, the military has grasped control, while Syria is enveloped in a deadly civil war and Libya has turned into a anarchic state with multiple actors vying for control. These countries are less free today then they were before the Arab Spring began. In a few short years the word democracy has turned from a song of hope to an all but forgotten tune. According to Masoud, the issue in the Arab nations is not culture or religion but a lack of an understanding of democratic values. Most Egyptians believe it is right for the military to take over if the government is deemed incompetent (Masoud, 83). To create and then consolidate democracy in a country, the people need to have a common understanding of what democracy is and what actions constitute authoritarianism.
Democracy around the world today is in a state of decline. It is the hope of many, that this trend ends and the future brings more liberty and democracy to billions of people.
Dahl, Robert. 1971. Polyarchy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Masoud, Tarek. “Has the Door Closed on Arab Democracy?” Journal of Democracy 26.1 (2015): 74-87. Web.