Debunking democracies

May 3, 2018

Debunking democracies

Pim Korsten
May 3, 2018

Debunking democracies

Pim Korsten
May 3, 2018
Debunking democracies
Pim Korsten
Maya Turolla
May 3, 2018
Design by Simon Lee. © Unsplash

In just one week, three former presidents have been sentenced over corruption and bribery charges in three different parts of the world. Although there is a growing trend of illiberalism and authoritarianism, these cases show that new dynamics are in place in contemporary politics.

Our observations

  • The recent Economist Democracy Index 2017 concludes that the global average score has once more declined in 2017. 89 countries experienced a decline in democracy last year, marking the worst performance since the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The number of “full democracies” remained 19 in 2017, representing less than 5% of the world’s population.
  • The recent Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 highlights that the majority of countries are making little or no progress in ending corruption. Of the 180 countries assessed in the 2017 index, more than two-thirds score below 50. This means that over six billion people live in countries that are corrupt. With populist and nationalist forces making significant gains in democratic states, 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
  • The recent Freedom in the World 2018 report shows that in 2017, democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades, with 71 countries suffering net declines in political rights and civil liberties and only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Furthermore, over the period since the 12-year global slide began in 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline, and only 62 have experienced a net improvement.
  • Former South African president Jacob Zuma recently appeared to face corruption charges relating to a multibillion-dollar arms deal that took place 20 years ago. Zuma, who was ousted as head of state in February, attended a brief preliminary hearing at the high court, which is likely to be the first of many, as the former president fights a possible jail sentence.
  • The criminal division at the Seoul Central District sentenced former South Korean president Park Guen-hye to 24 years in jail over a scandal that exposed webs of corruption between political leaders and the country’s conglomerates. Park became South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be forced from office last year when the Constitutional Court ordered her out over a scandal that landed the heads of two conglomerates in jail.
  • After spending three days among his supporters in the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union in São Paulo, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva handed himself over to the federal police. He will now begin a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering.

Connecting the dots

We have written before that there is a growing trend of illiberal politics and rising authoritarianism across the world. The recent political successes of Orbán, Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Modi and Trump bear witness to this trend. However, the simultaneous conviction of former presidents in three continents (South Africa, South Korea and Brazil) also show that there are grounds for optimism, although the dynamics in these countries show that political upheaval and confrontation might increase. South Korea, South Africa and Brazil are all free but young democracies, and have fairly established middle classes. Modernization theory, a brand of political sciences, describes that at low levels of socioeconomic development, economic growth prevails over the right of political voice and democratic rights: food before speech. However, when economies develop, when the basic level of subsistence has been secured, socioeconomic development and free commerce create the conditions for democratization, with citizens demanding accountable governors and responsible polity. High levels of economic development will sustain democracy as citizens whose wealth is based on free commerce and enterprise – instead of traditional authority or bureaucracy – have emerged that fare well by democratic and open societies. And indeed, we find a significant, positive relation between the level of democracy and GDP per capita and a country’s degree of freedom and GDP per capita between countries, looking at 2017 in the World Bank, Economist Democracy Index and Freedom in the World 2018 report. But establishing a formal democracy is not enough to make it sustainable, especially with emerging middle classes at moderate levels of socioeconomic development. In the transition from a middle-income to a high-income country, middle class citizens can become supportive of more illiberal or authoritarian types of polities. First of all, democracy should be backed by strong institutions to guarantee that the benefits of free economies and societies are protected and anchored in an institutional framework, and governments can be held accountable. Young democracies with a strong rule of law, like South Korea and Estonia, therefore do much compared to their democratic peers without it (like India or the Philippines). Furthermore, democratic practices and institutions should also correspond with society’s socio-cultural values. Most resilient democracies in the world put more emphasis on self-expression values compared to survival values, and prefer secular-rational values to traditional values. Therefore, young democracies are relatively strong in Latin America, given their levels of socioeconomic development, as they highly value self-expression. Furthermore, inequality can erode the middle class’ support of democracy. It is not the absolute level of GDP that matters, but the relative standards: how much you earn relative to high-society or future expectations about income and income security. That is why unequal societies with a crumbling middle class, like South Africa and the U.S., in contrast to, for example, Scandinavian countries, are more prone to illiberal democrats, who try to undermine democracy with its own instruments. However, social media gives the middle classes the power to raise their voice, and claim accountability of their representatives, as was the case in South Africa.

Implications

  • Social media has the power to bring government officials down. In this way, social media can accelerate the process of democratization within countries, hence pushing democracy on countries that are not ready for it, considering democracy’s preconditions (as is often the case with their healthcare system).
  • China remains a big anomaly to the democratization trend. However, considering the scale and speed of China’s transformation and the economic challenges China is facing in the near future, strong leadership might be required to steer clear. As such, we might expect that countries in very rapid transition (i.e. Rwanda or Vietnam) will adopt a much more gradual pace of democratization.
About the author(s)
Pim Korsten has a background in continental philosophy and macreconomics. At the thinktank, he is mainly involved in research and consultancy projects, as well as writing articles on the latest developments in technology, politics and the economy. He is also very interested in the philosophy of history and economics, metamodernism and cultural anthropology.
You may also like