Illiberal ills


Bhanu Bhattarai

Across the world, from the Philippines to the United States, and in Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, we have seen worrying signs of democratic reversal. Even in open societies like the UK, Germany, France and India there has been a recent ascendance of the racist right.

Extremism and populism have taken centre-stage as demagogues whip up xenophobia and bigotry to get elected in democracies that are abandoning a rule-based society. They are systematically gagging the free press, using the power of the social web to spread hate and lies, and encouraging violent extremism. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán boastfully calls his country an ‘illiberal democracy’. Using the Trump administration as a shield, Israel is mowing down Palestinians. Cambodia has just sold its last independent newspaper to a Malaysian tycoon.

The decline is not isolated, and it is not a temporary occurrence. The Freedom in the World Report 2018 notes that political freedom is in retreat across the globe. More than 70 countries have seen declines in political and civil rights in recent years, and there were gains in only half that number of nations.

The only recent silver lining is Malaysia, where the people last week voted out a brazenly corrupt and openly racist cabal, even though the electoral system had been rigged, and the judiciary coopted, to bring back 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad.

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Hopefully, Malaysia’s example will spread, and send a message to those struggling against despots: sooner or later democracy will prevail.

Even so, in many Asian countries today there is open admiration for China’s economic growth and the Singapore miracle. This has led to a growing attraction for strong-man rule. Political and civil liberties are seen to be putting the cart before the horse, and freedom is seen as a luxury that is keeping people poor. The emphasis is on economic and cultural rights, and citizens are asked to give up their basic freedoms while waiting to prosper. The state’s priority has become national security, fighting terrorism, stopping migration, to ensure stability and prosperity.

All this is now getting to sound disturbingly familiar in Nepal where the slogan of the ruling coalition that was elected last year is ‘prosperity through stability’. The alliance is made up of a moderate leftist party named after Marx and Lenin which on Thursday, merged with former communist rebels who are inspired by Mao.

The UML changed its spots to espouse the People’s Multi-party Democracy line, but the CPN-MC did not convincingly abandon its ideology of revolutionary violence. It wanted the People’s War to be glorified and enshrined in the guiding principles of the new Nepal Communist Party. There is no move towards transitional justice, or to say sorry.

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Recently, we saw how easily both parties as well as the NC, now in the opposition, were held hostage by their own appointee to the anti-corruption commission as he terrorised the press and dismantled the rule of law for three years. The warning to us is that Lokman Singh Karki can easily happen again.

Communists are guided by the principle of ‘democratic centralism’ which is an antithesis to federalism and devolution. And the ruling coalition is doing just that: centralising power in the PMO. The recently released draft National Integrity Policy, while seeking to lay legitimate ground rules for the conduct of public officials and outside agencies, has some disturbing provisions.

As we report in this edition, the restrictions appear to be guided by the perception of aggressive proselytisation and donor funding for indigenous and excluded groups during the Constitution-drafting process.

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There may have been a need to regulate the proliferation of NGOs, and the government does need to keep track of where outside funds go. But some of the points in the draft are so open-ended that they seem intended for control rather than regulation. The government now wants only foreign assistance in ‘hardware’ and not ‘software’, and is turning away aid on anything to do with inclusion, human rights and democracy.

Given the spread of illiberal democracy around the world, there is reason to be worried that ‘stability and prosperity’ could be a euphemism for control, and silencing dissent.

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