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Democracy is losing ground in the world: Is Colombia immune to this global trend?

For several years now, authoritarian regimes have been on the rise worldwide. This boom has shattered the optimism that emerged after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s when there was an important emergence or restoration of democratic governments globally. Faced with this authoritarian ebb, this question arises: is Colombia today under the shadow of this threat? If so, how can we counter it? In the last two decades, there has been a broad and worrisome decline in democracy in the world. Globally, 15 countries out of 86 have lost their democratic governments. Suffice it to say that a high proportion of the world’s population — around 70% — now live under semi-democratic or openly autocratic regimes. These regimes are mainly in Asia and Africa, although Europe and Latin America are also experiencing an increase in this type of government. We are even seeing a return of military coups. For example, in the last three years there have been seven coups in sub-Saharan Africa, which is one of the poorest and most unstable regions in the world: Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Gabon, and Niger.

In the chart below we attempt a no doubt highly controversial synthesis of the balance sheet drawn up by the Intelligence Unit of The Economist (EIU) and its “Democracy Index”, although we also rely on the prestigious report “The Global State of Democracy” of the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

A basic idea of both reports is that political systems today cannot be classified binary, i.e., as democratic or authoritarian, due to the existence of a multiplicity of gray areas. Therefore, in the classification of political regimes carried out by The Economist since 2006, three basic categories are used: democratic regimes (both full and deficient), hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. This classification is based on a weighted average of 60 indicators grouped into 5 categories: electoral processes and pluralism, civil liberties, government functioning, citizen participation, and political culture.

The classification does not include “collapsed states”, in which there are numerous centers of a disputed power, such as Somalia, Libya, or South Sudan. Nor does it include continental microstates, such as Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, or San Marino, or island states in Oceania (such as Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, etc.) and in the Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Vincent, etc.). In total, 165 of the 193 member states of the United Nations are included, plus two that do not have this status. While Norway is at the top of the ranking, at the bottom is North Korea.

Note: ​​For a more detailed overview, see the annex below. 

Although there is no significant decrease in the number of countries that appoint their rulers through electoral processes, there is a clear trend toward an increase in the despotic exercise of power by elected leaders. It is therefore interesting to note that many of the authoritarian regimes included in the graph hold periodic elections.

However, we have called them “electoral autocracies” because, although there is a multiparty system by law, in reality, they are one-party systems: for example, Teodoro Obiang, with the Equatorial Guinea Party, has won every election since 1987 with more than 92% of the votes cast. A similar situation can be observed in Angola with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola since 1975, in the People’s Republic of Congo with the Congolese Labor Party since 1997, in Rwanda with the Rwandan Patriotic Front since 1994, or in Singapore, where the People’s Action Party has ruled without interruption since 1959, a fact that makes it the longest ruling party in the world.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been head of government since 1999, either in person or in a “foreign body” as was the case with Dimitri Medvedev. And again this year he has presented himself as a candidate in the elections to be held in March 2024, in an electoral process marked by censorship and lack of competition. Indeed, the main opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, is imprisoned, and other dissident voices have no access to the media.

In Latin America, this is certainly the situation in Nicaragua and Venezuela and, most likely, it will be the case in El Salvador in the coming years under the personalistic leadership of Nayib Bukele.

How to counteract this trend?

Today, we are observing a setback in the “third democratic wave”, according to the expression of Professor Samuel Huntington, who underlines that previously there were two waves and their respective counter-waves: one between 1828 and 1926, when universal suffrage was introduced in 29 countries in Europe and America. And another between 1943 and 1962, when twenty former dictatorships evolved into semi or fully democratic systems after the victory of the Allies in World War II and the subsequent process of decolonization.

This new wave, according to Huntington, began with the “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal on April 25, 1974, which put an end to the Estado Novo (1933-1974), and the collapse of the socialist camp with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. This wave of democratization, which spread throughout the world, is today showing relative exhaustion and even regression due to various factors.

This is certainly a very paradoxical situation. In the last two months, numerous journalists and analysts in the world press have highlighted the surprising number of electoral processes to be held this year: around 70 countries, representing approximately 49% of the world’s population, have already held or will hold in the coming months elections at various levels (presidential, legislative or local). These elections include elections in the United States and Russia, as well as the European Parliament, which will undoubtedly have a profound impact globally.   

But does this huge number of elections truly represent a breakthrough for democracy? Or, on the contrary, given that many elections are merely a façade to “legitimize” authoritarian regimes, is it necessary to view these elections with greater caution? This is the question raised by an interesting study by the University of Gothenburg (State of the world 2017: autocratization and exclusion?), which points out that, while there has been no decline in the number of countries with electoral systems, there is simultaneously a trend toward the autocratic exercise of power, arising from the ballot box.

What about Colombia?

Recently, pronouncements have multiplied, both from the government and the opposition forces, about the imminent risk of an institutional rupture in Colombia. On the one hand, President Gustavo Petro has been denouncing an alleged climate of ongoing conspiracy, while on the other hand, members of the opposition claim that the government is heading toward an “authoritarian drift”. This climate of conspiracy on both sides may end up weakening democratic institutions and affecting the macroeconomic stability of the country.

Therefore, I believe it is essential to call on all the country’s leaders to pave the way for dialogue and understanding. Unfortunately, the “club of former presidents” is broken into a thousand pieces (Pastrana versus Samper, Uribe versus Santos), and the party system is totally fractured, with 37 parties enjoying legal status today.

Despite this, if we go back to the lessons of the past, political crises in Colombia have been solved, with very few exceptions, through “national agreements”, such as the Republican Union (1910), the National Concentration (1930), the National Union (1946) and the National Front (1958).

Steven Levitski and Daniel Ziblatt, in their commented book “How Democracies Die” (Ariel, 2018), propose a matrix with four indicators to assess whether there is an ongoing authoritarian trend in a nation: a rejection or weak acceptance of the rules of the democratic game, questioning the legitimacy of political adversaries, intolerance or encouragement of violence, and a predisposition to restrict the civil liberties of the opposition, including the media.

Is this the case in Colombia today? If so, will we Colombians, of all political tendencies, be able to build a space of concord to prevent the country from sliding into the abyss? With the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, the alarm bells are on.

Annex

Monarchic regimes, autocratic and electoral autocracies in the world today

 AmericaYearCountryType of government
1President Daniel Ortega2007Nicaragua*Electoral autocracy
2President Nicolás Maduro2013VenezuelaElectoral autocracy
3President Miguel Días-Canel2019CubaSingle party
4President Nayib Bukele2019El SalvadorElectoral autocracy
5President Ariel Henry2021HaitiInterim regime
 Europe   
1President Alexander Lukashenko 1994BielorrusiaElectoral autocracy
2President Vladimir Putin2012Russia*Electoral autocracy
3Prime Minister Viktor Orbán2010HungaryElectoral autocracy
4President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan2014TurkishElectoral autocracy
5President Ilham Aliyev2003AzerbaijanElectoral autocracy
6President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev2019KazakhstanElectoral autocracy
 Asia   
1Emir Haibatulá Ajundzadá2021AfghanistanIslamic emirate
2King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa1999BahrainMonarchy
3Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah1967BruneiSultanate
4Primer Minister Hun Manet2023CambodiaMonarchy
5President Xi Jinping2013ChinaSingle party
6President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh1999YibutiDictatorship
7Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei1989IranDictatorship
8President Thongloun Sisoulith2021LaosSingle party
9Rey Salman bin Abdulaziz2015Saudi ArabiaMonarchy
10President Bashar al-Assad2000SyriaDictatorship
11President Emomalii Rahmon1992TajikistanDictatorship
12President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan2014TurkishElectoral autocracy
13President Serdar Berdimuhamedow2022TurkmenistanSingle party
14President Rashad al-Alimi2022YemenInterim regime
15President Min Aung Hlaing2021MyanmarMilitary dictatorship
16President Kim Jong-un2011North KoreaSingle party
17Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said2020OmanSultanate
18Emir Tamin Al Thani2013QatarEmirate
19President Mohamed bin Zayed2022United Arab EmiratesFederal monarchy
20President Nguyen Phu Trong2011VietnamSingle party
21Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong2004SingaporeSingle party
22President Shavkat Mirziyoyeb2016UzbekistanSingle party
 Africa   
1President Abdelmadjid Tebboune2019AlgeriaElectoral autocracy
2President João Lourenço2017AngolaSingle party
3President Évariste Ndayishimiye2020BurundiElectoral autocracy
4Captan Ibrahim Traoré2022Burkina FasoMilitary junta
5President Paul Biya1982CameronPersonalist dictatorship
6General Mahamat Déby Itno2022ChadMilitary junta
7President Félix Tshisekedi2019RDCElectoral autocracy
8President Denis Sassou Nguesso1997R. del CongoElectoral autocracy
9President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi2014EgyptElectoral autocracy
10President Teodoro Mbasogo**1979Guinea EquatorialPersonalist dictatorship
11Colonel Mamady Doumbouya2021GuineaMilitary junta
12President Umaro Sissoco Embaló2020Guinea-BissauElectoral autocracy
13President Isaias Afwerki1993EritreaSingle party
14General Brice Clotaire Oligui2023GabonCivil-military junta
15Colonel Assimi Goita2021MaliCivil-military junta
16General Abdourahamane Tchiani2023NigerMilitary junta
17General Abdelfatah al Burhan2021SudanCivil-military junta
18king Mswati III1986SwazilandMonarchy
19President Paul Kagame2000RwandaElectoral autocracy
20President Faure Gnassingbé            2005TogoAutocracy
21President Yoweri Museveni1986UgandaElectoral autocracy
22President Emmerson Mnangagwa     2017ZimbabweElectoral autocracy
*In some cases, the presidents included had already been in power before. For example, Daniel Ortega or Vladimir Putin held the presidency between 1985 and 1990 and between 1999 and 2008 respectively.
** He is currently the longest-serving non-monarchical head of state in the world.

This article was translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.

Autor

Profesor de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Fue presidente de la Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación (CNRR) e integró la Junta Directiva del Fondo de Víctimas de la Corte Penal Internacional.

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