12 democracy good news stories of 2015

  1. Burma: NLD wins landslide victory over military-backed regime
  2. Venezuela: opposition wins landslide victory in parliament over Chavismo
  3. Sri Lanka: elite rebellion unseats strongman Rajapaksa, sets country back on democratic track
  4. Guatemala: president imprisoned on corruption charges
  5. Burkina Faso: first free elections in 27 years
  6. Bihar: BJP communalism defeated in state Legislative Assembly elections
  7. Nigeria: for first time, an incumbent president loses re-election, power transferred peacefully
  8. Hong Kong: fake universal suffrage defeated
  9. Scotland: SNP wins 56 of 59 UK parliamentary seats in assertion of national autonomy
  10. Romania: Protests lead to resignation of government amid corruption scandal
  11. Rise of political alternatives in southern Europe, first and foremost, Spain and Greece but also Italy
  12. Tunisia: in face of multiple challenges, including terrorist attacks, the fragile new democracy perseveres

Over the past decade, we’ve gotten used to downbeat news about the state of democracy in the world. The two main indices, Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Report and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, have characterized democracy as being “at a standstill”, “in limbo” or even “in retreat” and “in decline.” The headline of the 2015 Freedom of the World Report was “Discarding Democracy: A Return to the Iron Fist.” It noted an overall worldwide decline in civil and political rights for the ninth consecutive year and said, “…acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government — and of an international system built on democratic ideals — is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.” That sounds pretty dire, and if you’re looking for bad news, it isn’t hard to find.

The reasons are fairly clear:

· Since the end of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, many countries in its orbit have failed to transition to democracy; indeed, many have become increasingly authoritarian.

· The Communist Party of China has become more powerful and has exerted influence upon other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa particularly.

· Democratic backsliding or reversion to dictatorship in a significant number of influential countries such as Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand.

· The failure of the Arab Spring to bring about substantial democracy in any state other than Tunisia, including the retrenchment of dictatorship in Egypt, the full-blown civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the civil-war-like violence in Libya, and most all other Arab states remaining firmly authoritarian.

· The influence of Islamist politics, especially in the Arab world, both of the violently oppressive IS variety and the milder Muslim Brotherhood

· Significant democratic deficits and challenges in established western democracies, especially the United States and the European Union, coupled with a de facto downgrading in their foreign policies of democracy promotion and defense abroad. This has been coupled with a general privileging of narrowly defined “security” priorities over justice, democracy and human rights that has given the green light to less rights-respecting states to similarly downgrade the latter in favor of the former.

· Great economic inequality and highly concentrated economic power in many countries, first and foremost the United States, has lead to substantial political power imbalances.

· Recently emerging large democracies such as Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa have hardly exerted a liberal influence abroad, more often than not prioritizing the prerogatives of “state sovereignty” over rights and democracy (see their voting records in the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council, for example).

Still, in spite of all that, 2015 actually had an impressive number of good news stories for democracy in all regions of the world (with the possible exception of North America). This hardly amounts to a reversal in overall trends either globally or regionally, but, if anything, it points to the fact that if people within a given country fight for their rights, with all the sacrifice that entails, there is still the possibility of a positive outcome. Indeed, while overall trends may be depressing, people in many places are hardly just shutting up and taking it, as demonstrated by people power movements in just about every region of the world in the last five years. Not all of those have turned out well, but it’s encouraging that we keep at it. It should also be pointed out that few of the victories are clear-cut; rather, they are positive steps in the right direction, gains that need to be further consolidated or, sometimes, simply prevention of the worst from happening. In terms of the fight for democracy, there are few indisputably definitive victories; we should not expect them too often but if we continue to struggle, there is a chance of success.

Looking for patterns or recipes?

A) popular movements intersect with political parties, institutions and/or processes (Burma, Venezuela, Guatemala, Burkina Faso, Hong Kong, Scotland, Romania) — a popular movement without that connection stands much less chance of success (see Occupy Wall Street);

B) corruption, economic crises, or further power grabs by those already in power present openings (Burma, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Burkina Faso, Hong Kong, Romania, Spain, Greece);

C) challenges by oppositions within the political establishment provide opportunity, perhaps unintentionally, for progressive change (Sri Lanka, Bihar, Nigeria).

Perhaps the clearest democracy victory of the year was the National League for Democracy’s landslide in Burmese national elections. This came twenty-five years after the NLD won its first landslide in 1990. That was annulled by the military. Flash forward a quarter of a century to almost the exact same result. This time around, it looks like the military-backed regime will respect the results and step down, though the extent to which it might sabotage remains to be seen. Of course, the system is still rigged, with 25% of the parliament being reserved for military appointees, the leadership of key governmental departments reserved for the military, a constitution that insufficiently protects the rights of the people, and the control by the military and its supporters of wide swathes of the economy. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and at least the NLD got the percentage of parliamentary seats needed to control the selection of the president.

In Venezuela, too, the opposition swept parliamentary elections after sixteen years of Chavismo, a significant victory considering how much Chavez and his successor Maduro did to undermine democracy and entrench their rule. As recently as September last year, opposition leader Leopoldo López was sentenced to nearly 13 years and 9 months in prison on entirely trumped up charges related to protests in 2013. And yet, the people prevailed. It took a grassroots movement coupled with Chavez’s death and low oil prices which exposed the economic and political mismanagement of Chavismo and brought about a signficant loss of popular support for the regime amongst erstwhile supporters. As in Burma, the opposition gained a supermajority, 112 out of 164 National Assembly seats. Still, the job’s only half-done since Maduro’s still the president and in only the second year of a six-year term. It remains to be seen what the relationship between Maduro and an oppositional parliament will be. Still, the victory was huge.

While in Burma and Venezuela election victories were achieved by broad-based grassroots movements persevering through years of adversity and persecution, the opposition election victory in Sri Lanka was largely engineered by a rebellion by the political establishment against Rajapaksa’s attempt to turn the government into a family dynasty. The rebellion of the elites provided the electorate with a clear alternative to Rajapaksa, and the people of Sri Lanka took advantage of it. Still, unlike in Burma and Venezuela, it was close: in the Presidential election, Rajapaksa was beaten by Sirisena by only 4%. An anti-Rajapaksa coalition also gained control of parliament, though it needed the support of members of Rajapaksa’s erstwhile coalition to do so, a sign that even within his own power basis, enthusiasm for Rajapaksa-style leadership has waned. It’s amazing how quickly the tide appears to have turned. Sri Lankan democracy may be back on track after all Rajapaksa did to compromise and even destroy it. The jury is still out and Sri Lanka remains run by the same political elites who have taken many missteps over the years, but the change in its tone toward the United Nations regarding investigation of war crimes committed by the two sides in the civil war with the Tamil Tigers has so far been encouraging.

The victory in Guatemala was quite unique: The president and former general, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned under pressure and within hours was jailed on corruption charges. The pressure came from two distinct sources: months-long street protests coupled with the corruption inquiries of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Previously scheduled elections were held less than a week after the president’s jailing. There were no leading candidates or parties closely aligned with the street protests’ main objective of ending corruption and impunity, and it remains to be seen whether the resignation of Molina will result in significant changes in Guatemalan politics or improved democracy and accountability. Still, the opening is there, and the politicians must be looking over their shoulders at that formidable combination of institutional and grassroots pressure that at least for now has succeeded in putting on alert a political establishment accustomed to impunity.

Burkina Faso held free and fair elections for the first time in 27 years. Protests in 2014 against a constitutional amendment to abolish presidential term limits lead to strongman president Blaise Compaoré, who’d come to power through a coup d’etat in 1987, stepping down and calling elections. The route to the November 29 elections was long, hard and twisted, including an attempted coup in September by the presidential guard closely affiliated with Compaoré. The winners of the election were Roch Marc and his new party, the People’s Movement for Progress. Roch Marc was for years a high-up and, even for a time, head of Compaoré’s poltical party, so it remains to be seen just how much of a change this election will prove to usher in. Just the fact that it was held at all was an accomplishment, and if it leads to future competitive elections, it will be a milestone in democratic development. That, of course, remains a big if.

The Bihar state Legislative Assembly elections in India did not perhaps get the international attention they deserved, considering Bihar has a population of nearly 100 million, which would make it the thirteenth biggest country in the world. In India, Bihar is synonymous with poverty and corruption. The elections were billed as a referendum on the national rule of Modi and the BJP since coming to power in 2014. The BJP threw everything it had into winning, and Modi put his reputation on the line, visiting the state dozens of times in the lead-up to the elections, an intervention quite unusual in Indian state politics. The Chief Minister of Bihar was (and after the elections, still is) Nitish Kumar. He has remarkable personal popularity. Over his nearly one dozen years in power he has made has significant improvements in governance and people’s lives. Still, to win, he had to go into coalition with a number of quite unsavory figures and parties. Thus, the election was characterized by some as “a victory of corruption over communalism,” and there was a debate amongst secular liberals over whether or not they should celebrate its results. It’s fair to say they constitute a massive repudiation of the noxious communalism that has been a cornerstone of BJP politics. The three-party Mahaghatbandhan coalition (which included Kumar’s Janata Dal Party) won 178 seats, while the BJP’s four-party coalition got just 58, and the BJP itself won 38 fewer seats than in the last election. It remains to be seen what the repercussions of the election will be, in Bihar and in the rest of India, but let’s hope it’s a sign that cynically pushing the communal agenda will only get you so far with the Indian electorate.

Most victories are half-victories, and the Nigerian elections are an example of that. The good news is that for the first time ever, a presidential incumbent lost and power was handed over peacefully. The at-best mixed news is that the winner is a former military dictator. Supposedly, he’s turned over a new leaf and has become a true believer in democracy, but I’m not one to trust former dictators of any stripe. It also remains to be seen whether Muhammadu Buhari governs any more democratically or effectively than the woeful Goodluck John. God knows Nigeria has suffered decades of bad governance, and that can’t be changed quickly, even by those with the best of intentions. Buhari’s All Progressives Congress also trounced the ruling People’s Democratic Party in parliament, 225 to 125 in the House of Representatives and 60 to 49 in the Senate. It was largely a changing of the guard from one group of elites to another, but at least it set a precedent that the guard can be changed democratically in Africa’s most populous state.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is widely and misleadingly seen to have failed to achieve genuine universal suffrage with its 2014 Umbrella Movement, but it’s important to remember that its first objective was to thwart the Communist Party’s imposition of fake universal suffrage. It achieved that objective on June 18, as the HK government’s so-called electoral reform package was defeated in the Legislative Council. The defeat was the culmination of a year-and-a-half-long pro-democracy campaign and crucial since the package was not only part of the Communist Party’s effort to tighten its grip formally on the HK political system but also of its wider efforts to redefine human rights and attack the concept of their universality. Thus, in the case of HK, the CCP redefined “universal suffrage” to mean “you select your own dictator from two or three chosen by us.” HK said no. Sometimes defeating the efforts of the dictator is as great a victory as one can expect. The CCP’s attempts to mainlandize HK continue unabated and the pro-democracy movement has a long hard struggle ahead. But on this occasion at least, it stood tall.

In the UK national elections, the Scottish National Party took an astounding 56 of the 59 seats allotted to Scotland in the House of Commons. All three establishment parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, firmly English in their internal power structures, were decimated. This was a loud and clear assertion of national autonomy, of the view that none of the UK-wide parties really took Scotland’s interests seriously, occurring only eight months after Scots voted against independence in the September 2014 referendum. The rift in the political cultures of Scotland and England has widened nearly to the point of unbridgeability; many have said Scotland resembles more its social democratic Nordic neighbors than merry olde England. Unless the UK can address the gap, something its current political establishment appears unwilling or unable to do, Scottish independence may eventually occur. Territories worldwide that yearn for greater autonomy, from Hong Kong to Tibet to Catalonia, took heart. Of course, both the referendum and the election results showed that democracy is alive and well in the UK and Scotland.

The immediate precipitator of the downfall of the Romanian government was protests over a nightclub fire that killed 32 people in November, but really, that event was the last straw. The sitting prime minister, Victor Ponta, had been indicted on corruption charges in July, which in turn are part of wider corruption investigations affecting most of the political establishment. All of this is a legacy of the Communist era, and in that sense, part of Romania’s long transition. Unlike, say, Poland or the Czech Republic, Romania hadn’t such a clear break with Communist dictatorship, with many of the same sorts remaining in the political mix. Among other legacies, the judiciary has struggled to achieve full independence. In 2003, a new anti-corruption agency was formed. It took a while for the agency to become effective, but the recent investigations are a sign that it has come into its own, and with it as an ally, people no longer feel it is futile to protest against corruption. It remains to be seen to what extent the government’s resignation will lead to a substantial realignment of politics as opposed to business as usual in a new guise. After the government’s resignation, the president appointed a prime minister who formed a technocratic cabinet regarded by many as an incremental step forward. Perhaps the next elections will tell.

2015 also saw the continued rise of political alternatives to the establishment in southern Europe, precipitated by the economic crisis. Those alternatives have arguably been most successful in Spain, where they made a strong showing in regional elections in Catalonia and then in the national elections at the end of the year. First and foremost is Podemos, a leftist movement with its roots in the indignados movement that in turn arose in response to the financial crisis. Podemos finished third in national elections, with 20% of the vote. There was another new party, the centrist Citizens, which finished fourth, with almost 14%. Between them, they upset the cozy establishmentarian politics of the ruling conservative People’s Party and the Socialists. It remains to be seen what kind of government can be formed from the election results, but Spain could very well be on the verge of a new political era following the successful transition to democracy from Franco’s dictatorship. Meanwhile, Greece endured a turbulent year. The PM called a referendum on EU bailout conditions, to which 61% of the voters said no. Then the PM acceded to those conditions. Then the PM called a general election, which his party, Syriza, won. About all that can be said is that, whenever they have the choice, the Greek people have chosen the option most aligned with sovereignty, though that’s been almost completely undermined by their economic situation and the EU response to it. Meanwhile, quietly in Italy, PM Matteo Renzi, the youngest ever since Italian independence in 1861, has managed to slowly but surely enact much needed political reforms, including a radical overhaul of the Senate and changes to the electoral system (as well as, more controversially, economic reforms). These could lead to a new, more democratic political order in Italy. By contrast, the emerging political alternatives in many countries of northern Europe are decidedly anti-progressive, xenophobic, far-right anti-immigrant parties such as the Front Nationale in France. What both situations have in common is increasing distrust of the ineffectual, elitist long-standing political establishments of many countries and the EU itself.

Tunisian democratic resilience: Tunisia held successful presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, the first since the adoption of a new constitution earlier that year. But in 2015, it endured two major terror attacks, one near the Bardo National Museum and the other in Sousse, a tourist resort, resulting in a total of 61 deaths. You don’t have to look hard to find examples of democracy and rights being damaged by state responses to terrorism, and the danger is all the greater in a fragile, new democracy such as Tunisia. Recently an article appeared in Foreign Policy entitled “Why counter-terrorism could be the death of Tunisian democracy” pointing out this very real danger. But so far, Tunisia has withstood. Most impressive has been the cooperation of parties across the political divide in the common interest of preserving democracy. Tunisia’s also the only Arab country where an Islamist party, Ennahda, appears to have fully accepted the terms of pluralist democracy, giving up power after losing the 2014 elections. It was therefore all the more heartening at the end of the year to see the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of civil society organizations that have played a leading role in guiding the country through the difficult transition from dictatorship. Being the only country that managed to emerge from the Arab Spring as a solid democracy, we should all be rooting for Tunisia.


Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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