Liberal Democracy Is Losing Its Luster – OpEd


India and Others

It’s April in New Delhi and the heat is rising – environmentally, but also politically. Beginning April 19th, over 900 million people in India are voting over a course of 44 days in the largest election the world has ever seen. 

However, detractors of incumbent Indian prime minister Narendra Modi claim that he – despite being leader of the world’s largest democracy – has several anti-democratic strikes against him. They allege that he has hobbled his opposition. Two weeks ago, the bank accounts of the Congress Party, long the ruling party of India but now in opposition, were frozen for failure to pay outstanding taxes, making it difficult for them to campaign in the run-up to the election. Around the same time, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister and a leader of the Aam Admi Party, was arrested on charges of corruption and money-laundering. They allege that Modi is anti-muslim. Some say he turned a blind eye to anti-muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat when he was the state’s chief minister. With much fanfare, he rebuilt and earlier this year opened a Hindu temple to the God Ram on the site of a previous mosque (which itself was supposedly built on a previously Hindu religious site). His government plans to implement a controversial law (called the Citizen Amendment Act) offering Indian citizenship to non-muslim refugees from India’s neighbouring countries. And they allege that he has suppressed dissenting press; India’s standing in the World Press Freedom Index in 2014 when Modi came to office was 140th and by 2023, it had fallen to 161st. And yet, Modi is undeniably popular with a large section of the population and it is almost certain that he will be elected again with a resounding victory for his third term. 

Other traditionally democratic countries are experiencing a similar phenomenon.  Later this year, an autocratic leader may be re-elected in the US, what Ronald Reagan once called “a shining city on a hill”, but what has been categorized in the past few years as a “flawed democracy”. Experts talk of “democratic regression” in Turkey, and yet in last year’s general election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan won his third term in office. Last year, under President Obrador, Mexico took steps to curb the power of its National Electoral Institute, an independent agency that oversees elections; this June, its people go to the polls. Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary since 2010, has said he is against liberal democracy. Other countries named for “democratic backsliding” are El Salvador, Ethiopia, Peru, Romania, Serbia, and Israel, the unquestionable ally of the US. 

The world over, leaders and people no longer seem as attracted by democracy as they once were. While people still definitely want to choose their leaders and leaders in turn want to be elected by their people, both seem less concerned with the other aspects of a liberal democracy – such as adhering to rule of law, protecting individual rights and freedom of the press, and limiting the power of elected representatives. The reasons for this are several.

Why Democracy is Losing Its Allure

The world, and in particular the Global South, has lost faith in the ‘international rules-based order’ (IRBO), largely due to the increasingly exposed hypocrisy of the West. Established after WWII and primarily by the US, the IRBO urged countries to operate in accordance with principles of liberalism (political and economic), respect sovereignty of states, uphold human rights, and cooperate with others via multilateral institutions. While the concept is undoubtedly inspiring, non-Western countries have watched over the decades as Western countries and especially the US flouted these ideals when it suited them – be it via attempting regime change (sometimes even the deposing of democratically elected leaders), conducting targeted killings (assassinations), supporting invaders and occupiers (such as Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and Israel always), staying silent about the use of chemical weapons (such as when Iraq used chemical weapons on Iran), or suppressing free speech. Comfort Uro, Head of the International Crisis Group, says the major powers have “no appetite to do the hard work of diplomacy”. Most recently, the West’s contrasting response to the destruction, displacement, and death in Ukraine vs. Gaza has been not only revealing but has served to put the nail on the coffin of IRBO. Shivshankar Menon, India’s former National Security Advisor, politely says that the IRBO does not reflect the concerns of the Global South – which are largely developmental. Uro speaks more plainly and more broadly of a “breakdown of trust. Nobody takes with credibility anymore this notion of an IRBO”. 

While multilateral agencies, like the United Nations (UN) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), are important moral forces, they have been shown to be toothless. Two recent examples are America’s repeated veto of UN resolutions calling for Israel to implement an unconditional ceasefire in Gaza and ICJ’s limp request to Israel to not kill too many Palestinians – which Israel has ignored. Even UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres has had to qualify his words after he said that the Oct 7th attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.

Some non-democratic countries seem to be doing quite well and are respected on the world stage: for example, China; several absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Vatican City; and even Russia, in spite of having invaded Ukraine and having sanctions imposed on it by the West. This makes other countries think that democracy may not be the only way forward.

Democracy is linked to capitalism, and unbridled capitalism has not served those at the bottom of the pyramid. Many countries face a continuously growing divide between rich and poor within their own borders. On the World Economics Inequality Index, India ranks 143 of a total of 152 countries, indicating that much wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. Interestingly, two countries with some of the largest numbers of billionaires are the US and India.

Western politicians like to point out the supposed link between democracy and free trade and globalism. But while their globe includes Ukraine and Israel, it does not seem to include much of the Global South – such as Sudan where a civil war has pushed five million people to the brink of famine and is threatening genocide. Conversely, for many people in the Global South, particularly those in the lower economic strata, their village is their world. They know nothing of foreign policy and international trade, and it has no relevance to them. They don’t yearn for diversity. Their focus and concerns are local and immediate. They identify with their religion, their culture, and their community.

Data and expert opinions on India can be contradicting – with some claiming that extreme poverty has declined and others that hunger has increased. However, the majority of people, particularly those in the lower economic strata, feel that Modi is giving them what they want – like access to water and toilet facilities, good roads, and social benefits put directly into their bank accounts. He has also increased their pride in being Hindus. Several other ‘secular’ countries are also turning more to religion. Turkey has become more Islamic under Erdogan’s rule. And recently, Trump, perhaps learning from his cohorts, is infusing a Christian flavour into his rallies.

Democracy – in particular liberal democracy – seems to be an elitist exercise, with values most appreciated by worldly, socially conscious, intellectuals. For those worried about being able to feed their children, getting enough water for the day, accessing safe toilet facilities nearby, and being able to travel safely and quickly to and from their jobs, lofty ideas like freedom of the press, secularism, diversity, and ensuring fair elections seem irrelevant, if not perplexing. 

Liberal Democracy on the Ballot

Many have long implicitly believed Winston Churchill’s clever line that democracy is the worst system, except for all the others. Many no longer do. In spite of the soaring words of journalists, public intellectuals, leaders, politicians, and even past presidents that democracy itself is on the ballot in this year’s elections, vast swathes of the public no longer see any value to them of fighting for a democracy that for some time has not given them what they want or need. One could say democracy has failed them or at least is not obviously relevant to them. And successful leaders often take their cues from their people. 

To get leaders to act democratically, they must be shown that the IRBO applies equally to all countries and that the multilateral agencies can operate in a just and effective manner. To get people to vote for democracy and in particular a liberal form of democracy, they must be shown how that liberal democracy can work for them in an immediate and local and personal manner.

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and academic editor. After a previous career in information systems with consulting companies, banks, and development organizations in Canada, England, Holland, India, and Portugal, Ranjani now works as a writer and editor for business, academia, and the nonprofit sector. She divides her time between North America and Asia. Her social commentaries have appeared in several newspapers, magazines, and websites, including International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and The Atlantic.

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