Democratic backsliding

With “American Exceptionalism” such a dominant strand in America’s self-image for over half a century projected to the rest of the world, their democratic credentials were seen as unassailable. While other countries may slide into authoritarianism, it could “never happen in the land of the free and the home of the brave”. But in the single month Donald Trump has been at the helm of the US, analyses on rising authoritarianism have been sprouting faster than “jumbie umbrellas”.
One, put out last week by the political and social “explanatory” site VOX, was particularly interesting since it also has lessons for Guyana. It explains how an autocratic government may slip into harness without carrying out coups, with which regime change was usually associated. The authors insist – showing evidence – that while coups are decreasing, what they call “democratic backsliding” – a slow descent toward partial autocracy – is on the rise.
How is this backsliding achieved? The article offers a pithy summary: “The most important reason the sudden collapse of democracy is rare… is that a sudden derogation of democracy simply isn’t necessary. Would-be autocrats have a cheaper option to hand, one that is far less likely to catalyse opposition and resistance: the slow, insidious curtailment of democratic institutions and traditions. Autocrats often target the three pillars of democratic society using tools permissible under law.
“To understand democratic backsliding, it’s important to understand the essential components of a democracy. First, there must be elections, which must be both free and fair. Elections by themselves are not enough: Both Russia and China, after all, have elections that formally reflect the choice of the people, but allow only limited choices.
“Second, democracy needs liberal rights of speech and association so those with alternative views can challenge government on its policies, hold it accountable, and propose alternatives. Finally, democracy can’t work if the ruling party has the courts and bureaucracy firmly in its pocket. The rule of law — not just the rule of the powerful and influential — is essential. Take away one of these attributes, and democracy might wobble. Sap all three, and the meaningful possibility of democratic competition recedes from view.”
While the authors went on to apply the variables to the unfolding American scenario, it is instructive to apply them to ours in Guyana. Let us begin with elections. We know to our cost that not only can elections be rigged, but as the PPP claimed in an election petition that is still to be decided on, (so we cannot comment further), elections can also be surgically manipulated so the outcomes are prefigured. In Guyana, objective observers have pointed out that the staffing of GECOM lends itself to manipulation, because of our ethnically polarised electorate. In his farewell speech two days ago, the GECOM Chair for over 15 years admitted that he could not explain how some “fake Statement of Polls” found their way into the ballot boxes. Yet, the President had now made it clear that he will appoint his own Chairman, compounding the partisanship of GECOM.
In terms of the right to protest, it will be very interesting to observe how the Administration deals with the incipient stirrings from within its base to protest its betrayal of promises to achieve the “good life” and clean governance. But more compelling is the evidence on the Government’s asserting control over the judiciary. The A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) Government has placed the Judiciary squarely in its sight, exemplified by the treatment of the Chancellor. He was practically hounded from office and with two vacancies to be filled, in light of the GECOM Chair vacancy, the mandated “meaningful consultations” with the Opposition Leader will be perfunctory. Expect “acting” appointments.
With the bureaucracy, the Administration has appointed loyal, retired military officials in almost every government agency and combined with the “contract” workers it once criticised, but has now increased, the bureaucracy is firmly under its control.
How far will the people allow our democracy to backslide?