MJ Fox is an independent author, editor and researcher with a PhD from the Institute for Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden. Teaching experience includes Uppsala, St. Andrews (Scotland) and Georgetown (Washington DC) universities. Topics of interest involve issues around political culture, child soldiers, violent non-state actors and international humanitarian law. Publications include The Roots of Somali Political Culture (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015) and articles in peer-reviewed journals on the topics listed above.
This article was written before the first round of presidential debate and before Trump’s positive Covid-19 status.
As the daily war drums for the United States of America’s (USA) presidential election on November 3rd ramp up and speculation on democracy’s rise or demise is increasingly forwarded by politicos and the general voting population, it is easy to get caught up in clichéd reminders of its historical place in the world as ‘land of the free and home of the brave.’ This sentiment was featured in the 26 August acceptance speech of Vice President Pence at the Republican National Convention (RNC), reflecting how the USA has for so very long been perceived as historically foundational for the defense of democracy (yet a term absent from the RNC).
However, this myopic focus on the USA makes it easy to overlook just how much democratic principles have also taken root in the hearts and minds of people in other places around the globe. From relentless mass demonstrations to defiantly exposing corruption, these global efforts boil down to the pursuit of one form or another of democratic principles. So battles for democracy are not only located in the Trumpian trajectory towards authoritarian rule nor in Barack Obama’s clarion call for democratic engagement. They are alive and kicking and taking place in various forms well beyond America’s borders.
Most recently, from exposing corruption in Russia to large demonstrations in Israel, and from efforts to take down ‘Europe’s last dictator’ in Belarus to the removal of corrupt leadership in Mali, the inclination for democratic political life continues to repeatedly resurrect itself in unexpected ways and unexpected places. So it turns out that while we are not necessarily watching the death of democracy, we are surely watching it being put to the test. It is in fact good news as it reveals itself in different ways in different cases, reflecting democracy’s great breadth.
Taking a closer look at the recent cases mentioned above avoids limiting any understanding of democracy as singularly or primarily electoral in nature; democracy is many things, and substantially more than the right to vote. For example, there is the important and indeed perilous investigative work of Alexei Navalny, the Russian corruption hunter who, at the time of this writing was in a Berlin hospital due to deliberate poisoning by his detractors. His efforts reflect the democratic principle of transparency, where without it, there is a lack of trust in leadership and the system itself. This in turn is commonly known to lead to social and political instability and more.
Navalny’s individual work against corruption contrasts with other expressions of democratic principles, such as public protest, no matter if the protest comprises a small or large turnout, a minor or major issue, or singular versus a chain of events. In recent months there have been thousands of Israelis who were publicly protesting against their Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, referred to by some as ‘crime’ minister. These public protests have taken place at Netanyahu’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Currently Netanyahu is facing formal corruption charges, with the public expectation that he should give up his position while facing the charges. There is also disapproval of his poor handling of the corona virus pandemic and its resulting economic damage. It is here in these critical public protests that we see the democratic principles of the right to free speech and the right to assembly and public protest, all resting on a lack of trust and transparency.
Yet in a similar vein, there has also been the ongoing case of Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’ dictator of twenty-six years, and his own police and security troops. Having arrested almost all his opposition, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Lukashenko initially appeared to be unassailable. However, under the surrogate leadership of Tsikhanouski’s articulate, politically astute and now self-exiled wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskava, the resistance to Lukashenko lives on in several forms. Their repeated and massive open resistance has reportedly numbered in the tens of thousands and has even been estimated at more than 100,000. As it has taken place on the capital’s streets and reported in the media, it is a powerful living example of exercising such democratic principles as right to assembly and right to free speech, something which the people have not been formally granted and yet have fearlessly and admirably seized for themselves, and with the avid support of the European Parliament members.
Elsewhere there is the carefully orchestrated military coup that took place in Mali in northwest Africa on 18 August. Responding to disputes arising from spring legislative elections, by early June a coalition had formed calling for the removal and detention of not only President Keita but also Prime Minister Boubou Cissé. The newly formed National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) was eager to appear compliant and not intimidating, announcing Colonel Assimi Goita, commander of a special forces battalion and described as a ‘calm and thoughtful man’ as the head of their committee to ensure ‘continuity of state services.’ Goita is also to serve as their head of state during a transition period as well as to representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Thus far, with its delegation headed up by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, ECOWAS reports having met with the deposed president and prime minister, who have conceded to step down. Negotiations have been underway for a transfer to civilian rule, and at this early stage agreement has been reached on some points but not all, and so there is plenty more work to be done. This thus-far peaceful and stepwise transition to democratic rule is also a hallmark of democratic principles.
What these recent cases point to is that calls predicting democracy’s death are premature. Perhaps its once almighty American centre is in the midst of being battered and indeed tested, but that is a far cry from its complete demise. Clearly, the idea and practice of democratic principles has been around long enough where it has made an impact on people elsewhere. In collective political and community efforts from Hong Kong to Beiruit, and global concerns on human rights from the Uyghurs to the Royhinga, democratic principles will continue to ceaselessly rise and rise again. Indeed, while the primary twentieth century seat of democracy might be experiencing its own challenges in 2020, elsewhere it is being jealously pursued and seized for the extraordinary promise and empowerment it brings to us all.