Ailing And Failing Democracies – Analysis


“United States now borrows about $4 billion per day, nearly half of that from China”,  — Ian Bremmer has stated in one of his book in 2012.

In 2007, the United States’ economy was four times bigger than that of China, but in 2013, the gap is less than double. Today China is the world’s largest lender and the US – the largest borrower. The US debt has reached the size of its economy.

When President Obama resumed office in 2009, its debt was some $9 trillion, but by the end of his first term, it had reached $15 trillion. By now, it is more than $17 trillion. Federal Reserve data has admitted that the current economic recovery is the slowest since World War II.

This tells a harsh reality – the United States, the beacon of democracy and freedom for the people around the world, has become a hostage of its under-performing economy led by a government that is the greatest spender in history. The money it borrows to run its economy is mainly from a country that it defines as a communist authoritarian country – China.

Moreover, China has earned its ability in taking the reins of US and European economy with a reserve of foreign exchange amounting some $3.8 trillion – bigger than the economy of Europe’s first and the world’s fourth largest economy, Germany.

Failing or under–performing economies in world’s most powerful democracies in Europe and America, has lured the authoritarian rulers – discard democracy, distance with the US and European countries and move closer to China. With its huge economic advantage, China on the other hand, has increased its political influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The logic is simple – an ailing economy is also an ailing democracy. Such democracies can hardly serve the economic stakes of its people and inspire those who put their faith in democracy.

In the same way, when people are in trouble they cannot support the cause of their government engaged in economic and defense diplomacy.

Therefore, countries that have had better political and defense relations with the US and Western Europe are finding ways in mending differences with China and looking for support to meet their long-term economic and defense needs.

According to a research undertaken by the Financial Times newspaper, the China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank offered loans of at least $110 billion to other developing country governments and companies in 2009 and 2010, while during the same period the loan commitments made by the World Bank was just some $100.3 billion.

All this has led Chinese media and intellectuals to claim that the economic and political model they followed is superior to those developed by the western countries and adopted by many developing countries.

Experiences of the World’s Largest and the most Successful Democracies

Democracy in the size of a country like India and its complexities, is nothing more than a political miracle. The impressive economic achievement in its account is similarly astounding and exciting. However, when compared to China it has fared worst, although India’s geo-political location gives it far more strategic and economic advantage than China.

In economic and quality of life indicators, there is no match between India and China. By 2015, for example, China is going to eradicate extreme poverty from its territory, while India may take at least another 15 years for this to happen.

Humphrey Hawksley, a leading BBC foreign policy correspondent and author, states that the development achievement of India “is at least a generation behind that of non democratic China, a neighboring country of comparable size and population.”

Hawksley also reminds us that China began its modern journey two years later than India., neverthless the size of Chinese economy is nearly five times bigger than that of India.

There are only two assets that India can take pride in with respect to China. The first one is its young and dynamic population – well educated and versatile to work and prosper in any situation. The next is its democracy, but unfortunately – the largest democracy of the world and on that account the greatest pride to the democratic world is itself crippled with the infiltration of crime and corruption.

Take the case of crime, in 2004 while one in five members of the Indian parliament had criminal cases pending in the courts, by 2009, about one third of them had such charges. If put into numbers, 128 of the 545 members of India’s 14th parliament, but in an election held five years later it reached 162. The greatest irony of Indian democracy in the words of former Chief Election Commissioner of India S.Y Quraishi, as quoted in the Washington Post is that – Those with criminal charges “are popular with voters”. Quraishi added, “I call it the Robin Hood syndrome. They take care to use their corrupt money, money that they get through illegal means, to give to the poor.”

Surprisingly, corruption is not limited to developing countries; it has succeeded in occupying bigger space even in the world’ most successful democracies. On the beginning of last month, while introducing the – EU anti -corruption Report, Cecilia Malmstrom, the European commissioner for the home affairs admitted that corruption has hurt the European economy, “undermines citizens’ confidence in democratic institutions and the rule of law”.

Malmstrom further presenting the most conservative estimate claimed that corruption annually costs Europe roughly some $162 billion. The majority of European believes that corruption has increased in their countries, Malmstrom admitted.

On December 2013, across the Atlantic, Francis Fukuyama has written a comprehensive essay in The American Interest magazine on  The Decay of American Political Institutions. In his essay, Fukuyama has plainly said, “The American political system has decayed over time” has failed to represent the interests of the majority but offers undue weights to interests group and “gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people”.

Fukuyama has elaborated the astonishing explosion of interest groups and lobbying in Washington that just numbered 175 registered lobbying firms in 1971 but reached 2,500 ten years later. By 2009, the number of such bodies reached 13,700 – spending more than $3.5 billion annually.

Fukuyama further quotes E.E. Schattschneider, arguing that the actual practice of democracy in America has nothing to do with its popular image as government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Not surprisingly, this leads to political outcomes failing to correspond with popular preferences but catering the interests of much smaller groups of organized interests.

Whatever may be his logic and compulsion, but US president Barack Obama’s speech in the State of Union Address this year, was appallingly disquieting. We can note some of them – “threaten the full faith and credit of the United States”, “wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation . . . that’s what I’m going to do”, “there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments” and “if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it”.

The contexts and the words Obama used, has verified what Fukuyama concluded.

“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself”

Two hundred years ago, in a letter to the noted political theorist, reformer, and three-time senator John Taylor, the second US president John Adams wrote, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Many countries, including Adam’s own, proved him wrong, but many nations in Asia, Africa, Central, and Latin America have also validated him.

The last quarter of 20th Century was the heyday for global democracy. According to the Human Development Report 2002, in the 1980s and 1990s, the world made dramatic progress in opening up political system and expanding political freedoms. Some 81 countries took significant steps towards democracy and by the end of the Century; some 140 countries of the world’s 200 countries held multi-party elections. But, the democratic euphoria did not last long. The poverty in developing countries mocked their democracies.

Adam Przeworski, the New York University scholar, has presented a relevant scenario. He says that survival of democracy depends upon the income level of the people. According to the findings of his research based on the period between 1950 and 1999, democracy would die any time in countries with per capita income under $1000.

Such probability narrows down with incomes between $1,001 and $3,000. The risk to democratic failure lessens more, if the income level reaches between $3,001 and $6,055. In addition, his findings say, “no democracy ever fell in a country with per capita income higher than $6,055.”

A recent report released by Society for International Development has stated that the income per capita of East African countries varies “between Burundi’s per capita income of $271 and Kenya’s $808”. So is the case of democracy there. In the light of these, we will have either to face many more odds for global peace and democracy or find some revolutionary solutions to ensure it.

In 2005, former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the National Democratic Institute Madeleine K. Albright, proudly announced, “During the past decade, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population came to live under elected governments. The rising tide of democracy has been global. From Central America and Central Europe to Central Asia, people have been demanding and obtaining the right to participate in choosing their own leaders and shaping their own laws.”

However, her elation did not last long as Adams said. After 2005, the global enthusiasm in favor of democracy began to crumble and the annual report released by the Freedom House in early this year claimed, “The state of freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013” starting from 2006.

Two acclaimed books, Bottom Billion and Wars, Guns and Votes, written by Paul Collier have vividly explained why democracy fails in poor countries. Failures to deliver security, commitment to rule of law and assured public trusts upon the elected officials and absence of fair distribution of opportunities among people, have weakened many democracies. Elections in these countries are a way to capture state power and through it steal as much as public wealth the elected people can.

Because of this, ordinary people feel the government they elected no longer reflects their interests. Collier, without any reservations admits that elections without strong institutions for promoting accountability and impartiality are means to the ethnic rivalry, insurgencies, and civil wars.

Failed Reason: Failed Democracy

Former US vice president and a tireless environment activist, Al Gore in his book, The Assault on Reason, has quoted the longest serving senator Robert Byrd. Byrd, looking at the empty chairs while the Senate was taking decisions on Iraq War in 2003 asked, “Why do reason, logic, and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way Americans make important decisions?”

Gore agrees with Byrd and argues that American public discourses have become less reasoned, while faith on the power of reason that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly – has been the central premise of American democracy – has gone under assault. He has also admitted that in American democracy consent of the governed has become a commodity open for the highest bidder.

Further, he adds, money and clever use of electronic media could be used to manipulate the outcomes of the elections and the role of reason has gone diminished.

Besides, when analysts have begun to say that money talks louder and matters more even in American politics, it can be imagined how it might have decayed democracy in developing countries.

In all countries whether it is the US, India or Nepal, there are organized interests groups with massive funds. They work as “micro states”. However their ability in imposing their will upon the legal state in fragile democracies like Nepal and impeding the country from performing its legal duties to serve the people to whom it represent, is alarmingly high. Besides, these “micro states” representing no body, accountable to none, are found engaged in fanning conflict and tensions among people in the name of their language, culture, and ethnicity. Such bodies with abundance of foreign funds have contributed to worsen Nepal’s state fragility and disrupt the political environment that ultimately forced its first Constituent Assembly to fail to promulgate a constitution in due course.

Recently, The Economist published a comprehensive and thought provoking essay entitled, What has gone wrong with democracy? It argued, while the “autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes”. Even in established democracies, serious flaws in the total system have become worryingly visible, and peoples’ disillusion with politics is rife, it says.

Limitations imposed by globalization upon national politics, the persistent expansion of government, increased number and influence of interests groups, reduced freedom of the common people and political party’s as well as government’s habit of making promises and creating entitlements that it cannot fulfill and waging wars that it cannot win, have ailed democracy everywhere, The Economist has stated.

Earlier we have mentioned the role of lobbying firms in United States and their role in distancing the government from addressing the interests of the majority. If such is the case of the United States, it is easy to presume how such lobbying firms- in the name of NGOs and INGOs, are fanning ethnic animosities among people and rupturing fragile democratic environment prevailing there.

When ethnicity is encouraged and mounted in politics, leaders lose incentive to perform well – as people vote on ethnic loyalty rather than their honesty and competence. This ultimately causes national identity replaced by ethnic identity; countries are cursed with bitter ethnic divisions and patronizing instability, corruption and democratic failures.

Combination of all these developments have caused the overall erosion of democratic stability and freedom of the people, giving much fertile ground for authoritarian powers build their active resistance to democratic change and manipulate the crisis of confidence among people and their elected representatives.

The Idea of Democracy tops all Human Achievements, but it ails if Reason Fails

In the words of Roger Osborne, “democracy is humanity’s finest achievement.” Further he continues, “Championed, idealized, misused, abused, distorted, parodied and ridiculed it may be; courted by unfaithful lovers, glad handed by false friends and skinned by unscrupulous allies it undoubtedly has been; but democracy as a way of living and a system of government is the avenue by which modern humans can fulfill their need to construct lives of real meaning.” Democracy as a continued collective enterprise binds people together while allowing them to live individually, Osborne has added. More than any other human achievements – in literature, arts, science, and technology put together; democracy is humanity’s most creative innovation, he has rightly remarked.

Democracy survives among common people. People have weaknesses and this is liable to be reflected in its functioning. When millions are engaged in democratic practices, there might be millions of lapses and imperfections. But, when millions move together with their energy, strengths, and enthusiasm to attain their common goal, then such lapses and imperfections too, help democracy work better and grow better. To read Osborne again, democracy is a continued collective enterprise of the people –binding them together while allowing them to live individually with their own hope.

When democracy works with millions – it is open to be attacked more than any other political system. However brutal and unjustified such attack might be, democracy cannot retaliate in a similar way. Every decision and actions in a democracy, has to follow the rules and reason while its opponents can resort to any means. It has an inborn obligation – even to defend those who are its harsh critics and opponents. This at times works as limitations to democracy; become cause of its failures and defeats too. However, democracy has to live and function within these constraints. The day democracy rejects to defend those – who oppose it, democracy cease to exist.

Similarly, the day democracy claims it is complete and perfect; the day it claims that it has some standardized set of rules and regulations to work as Gita, Bible or Koran of the statecraft – it hastens the process of rush to ruin.

Democracy as an idea, ensures sense of accountability and impartiality in governance, and creates a law-abiding society. In this respect, it is as old as human civilization. However, it lacked a common system and defined procedures to represent people’s aspirations and work for them. This left discrepancies in running the state in accordance with the will of the people. Above all, they lacked institutions where people can put their trusts, withdraw it and change people leading in those institutions at regular intervals.

Obviously, politics is a power game. It is a practice of acquiring power, expanding power and using power, but a democracy promotes and maintains discipline in this power game, rationalizes the game and adds its beauty. Otherwise, the game turns into farce and go brutal. How to discipline the game to gain power was the biggest challenge the statecrafts faced.

Fortunately, the industrial revolution in Great Britain, American War of Independence, and the French Revolution initiated the democratic regulation of the state activities. Events that led the World War II and the emergence of the new world order thereafter, has given democracy a sound foundation – although with many limitations.

Any political system that cannot give its people a strong and sound economy – with capacity to advance the economic stakes of its people and provide security from possible socio-economic catastrophes, cannot claim that it works for the people and represent them – politically and morally.

A democracy enthuse people while leading their strengths, hopes, and trusts. It energizes its economy by making the best use of its people’s talents skills and trusts. Democracy has so many formal political structures to help people represent and reflect those concerns. People enjoy freedoms and security with such structures. Ultimately, freedom helps them fight all those odds impeding their advancements.

A sound democracy creates a sound economy. The economy in turn recharges democracy that again rejuvenates the economy. This way, they work in tandem and invigorate each other. If a democracy fails to offer a sound economy for the people then indubitably, they might have borne some serious lapses in its running. A stronger economy even under an authoritarian regime creates bigger space for democracy, whereas a poor economy not only forces democracy go poorer but compel it turn into a chain of chaos and anarchy – a challenge to the human dignity and slur on all the human sacrifices that have been made in centuries.

Rule of Law backed by Collective Reason can best answer the Democratic Decay

For ages, humans and their relations with the state have remained at the core of all our civilizations and at the centre of our learning in the field of knowledge, arts, and science, whether in East or West. Democracy, above all, in a most descent and meaningful way has defined these relations. This has significantly enriched our socio-political culture and economic progress.

When democracy ails or fails, we may blame someone responsible for this and try to make us free from any of its responsibility. Nevertheless, a democracy does not give us this right. If few people with power and affluence can buy democracy from us and molest it, how should we as common people, deserve democracy?

When we are prepared to sell democracy for some minor gains – can we claim to be the sovereign people of a country and play sovereign role ? Surely not, but it is happening. Therefore, it is quite true that – the biggest challenge to democracy, however, comes neither from above nor from below but from within ourselves. When sovereign people prefer to work as slaves, who are there to be blamed?
Values like freedom and sovereignty are not cheap. We have to pay for it. When we are not ready to pay in maintaining and strengthening our freedom and sovereignty, then these values will not remain with us.

Cheap populist entitlements that the national economy cannot pay and the easily available aided money from foreign countries have soaked the national capacity of many countries to collect taxes and follow stiff economic austerity measures.

People care less about corrupt state practices among politicians and bureaucrats if that do not cost their pockets. It leads the people in power to a heaven of corruption. Extended entitlements without ability to pay or such entitlements bought with borrowings from international funding agencies, has killed the national economy of many countries.

In the process between borrowing and lending, there remains a huge grey area where corruption flourishes- benefiting all the parties involved. Besides, as the Economist says when people stand impotently when governments bail out bankers with taxpayer’s money or borrowed money giving a golden opportunities to bankers and financers – with huge amount and pay themselves huge bonuses – democracy inevitably deteriorates and invites its sudden demises. People become disillusioned with governments, but they cannot stand firm as they lack moral authority to oppose it.

Therefore, to address the challenges mentioned above, the first thing urgently needed is building ability and capacity to prepare democratic leadership – from village level to top decision making echelon.

Consequently, education and training programs at all level for building national capacity to pay democracy and development with high morale, works. Every organization in the country – from primary schools to political parties and state bodies should have continued programs to improve democratic quality at their working areas to ensure democratic stability and economic progress.

In every human community, there existed some kind of accountability mechanism and indigenous democratic practices. They are rooted in their culture, but with our over ambitious endeavor, we ignored them; instead we imported and adopted democratic practices that was alien to the people.

If we can organize huge research initiatives in all human societies, in every continent on such indigenous democratic practices, and find ways to modernize them with democratic tools and procedures developed by western democracies, a new democratic wave can be created around the world. This may also enrich western model democracies with new insights to solve problems they are facing now.

Sustainable and effective democracy can be developed in all countries, if we can find a beautiful correlation between culture of the nation and societies with the democratic culture to abide by the rule of law backed by collective reason. People with the power of knowledge and skill to build their own democracy rooted in their culture will also ensure stable democracy and economy. This can initiate quality of change and adapt change by which it can award the humanity with new vistas of global peace and prosperity.

The Democratic world must cease to launch just rhetorical advocacy of democracy and condemning only those autocracies – that do not promote their strategic interests. It does not build global trust in their favor. Democracy is to begin from every household and blossom in global bodies like the UN, where democratic, and economic giants like India, Brazil, Germany, and Japan do have no meaningful role to play.

Unforgettably, accommodative adaptability to learn from all societies can build a new democratic dynamism with capacity to serve our 21st Century people demanding a better quality of life through strong and sustained national institutional capacity – to run better results-oriented policies.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

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