The liberal democratic world order which was accepted as a preferred governance model in major parts of the world has been under assault by the increasing authoritarian leaders since the last few years. The monopolization of power by subverting the in-build checks and balances of the democratic institutions is now a new norm in even the large democratic countries like the United States or India as well. The International Democracy Day, which falls on 15 September, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the present state of liberal democracy in the world.
Monopolization of Democratic Institutions
In recent years democratic institutions across the world have shrunk into the hands of a few.
In the United States, President Trump is interfering in the running of independent democratic institutions. John Torpy—American academic, sociologist, and historian—currently Professor at City University of New York—fears that US democracy under Trump is going under “swamps”. Mentioning about President Trump’s obstruction of the democratic institutions, he writes “As many people have noted, if the president can simply refuse to cooperate with Congressional requests for documents and witness testimony, we live not in a democracy, which requires that officials be accountable for their actions, but in an autocracy, in which the executive can make decisions without the possibility of oversight by others.”
In Hungary, democracy is on the proverbial deathbed. Hungarian President Viktor Orban—amidst COVID-19 pandemic—passed a bill in parliament granting his government access to emergency powers. This bill—which is now the law of the land in this European Union country—gives the absolute power to the executive without any checks by the parliament. Political commentators like Zoltan Cegledi argue “The government’s will to destroy, limit and exhaust democracy is permanent. Its future victims will be the remnants of autonomy.”
In India, lately the government scrapped the question hour from the parliament citing the spread of COVID-19. Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad expressing his concern on the decision said "In a democracy, the government is answerable to people of India through Parliament and the Parliament comprises members of Parliament representing different states, political parties, and regions of this country. People of the country have no access or means to ask the question to the minister inside the Parliament. So, their representatives are the members of the Parliament. These MPs ask questions on behalf of people of India."
This is not the first time the government of India changed the rules for the conduct of those institutions where it may get questioned. The RTI Act gave people of India the right to seek information from the different institutions of the government (excluding the intelligence). In 2019, the Indian parliament passed an amendment to the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, which is being criticized widely.
Prabhash K Dutta mentions in his article published on India Today that this amendment removes the fixture of duration for the five years for chief information commissioners as well as the information commissioners and altered their salaries, for both they will be separately notified by the government. He furthermore mentions “This, in a political sense, means that the government can threaten or lure the chief information commissioner and information commissioners with arbitrary removal or extension and curtailment or increase in salary depending upon their suitability for the ruling dispensation.”
In some countries, the executives are also interfering in the judicial process. President Andrzej Duda of Poland has lately signed a law that gives him power to appoint the judges as well as penalizes the judges of the court to question any appointments done by the President in the judiciary. Malgorzata Gersdorf—the president of Poland's Supreme court—termed it as “Muzzle Law”.
In Hong Kong as well, after the implementation of the New Security Law by the Mainland severely affects the independence of the judiciary and gives China-appointed Chief Executive the power to appoint judges in the “cases of security.”
In Egypt the government under Al Sisi has subverted the judicial system by expanding the scope of military courts. These courts are directly controlled by the army (not the judiciary) and the defendants can neither access a lawyer nor are brought to a judge after the arrest.
Throttling the flow of information on internet
The assault on democratic discourse has extended to the internet, which has emerged as an important tool for easy and quick access of information. However the authoritarian streak in the ruling establishments do not not want the information to spread so fast.
An apt example is the widespread shut down of the internet during the time of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) across India. These shutdowns were not only to gag the Anti-CAA protestors but also unconstitutional according to the law of the land.
In Indian province of Kashmir, the internet was totally shut down for almost 5 months from 5th August 2019. The services were later restored but even today, 16th September, 2020 there is no access to the high speed internet in the region.
Similarly the popular social media platforms like facebook, twitter, reddit, and many others which are used to freely share information, are restricted or banned in many countries.
This all happened in 2019-20 despite the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution stating that cutting access to the internet violates article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights back in 2011.
Suppressing the dissidents
In Egypt, the government is resorting to Military Court trials, and ditching the normal judicial system. The detainees are put under inhumane conditions (people tried here are mostly the dissidents against the government). Vanshita Banuana from Global Views 360 writes “There have been multiple reports of torture, sexual assault while placed in detention. In prison too, detainees face inhumane conditions, not being allowed to see family, exercise or get sunshine and fresh air. Thousands of student protestors, journalists and political dissidents have been tried in these military courts, and hundreds more have been killed extrajudicially. At the same time, citizens’ tools to criticise these steps are undermined, such as by limiting the domain of NGOs, censoring news and social media, and blocking around 600 websites.”
In India the government uses many draconian laws to suppress activists working for the marginalised communities. The Unlawful Activities Act (UAPA) is the most controversial and draconian law which is being used frequently by the government to curb the dissenting voices.
Indian government, as a part of its ambitious smart city project, is installing CCTV camera systems in the major towns across India. The footage from these cameras along with the AI based facial recognition technology is a deadly combination for curbing dissidence. Privacy experts like Arun Mohan Sukumar fear “If you don’t have adequate checks and balances, there’s a high chance the government will be tempted to use the data for highly dubious purposes.”
A ray of hope
As Victor Hugo said “When Dictatorship Is A Fact, Revolution Becomes A Right.” The people across the world have started speaking up against the assault on democratic values and institutions. They face hardship, vilification, and incarnation but remain committed to fight for the protection of liberal democracy. This gives us hope that the liberal democracy will ultimately prevail as it is what Abraham Lincoln described, “The government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”