“The era of liberal democracy is over.” So said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban last week as he began his fourth overall term in office. It’s a persuasive message coming from a self-proclaimed champion of “illiberal democracy” who has consolidated near-dictatorial power by fomenting anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic prejudice, rewriting electoral laws and installing his cronies to run the media, law enforcement, the judiciary, cultural institutions, churches, schools and universities.
What Orban is doing in Hungary is reflective of a global trend. According to Freedom House, 2017 represented the “12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” This is the era of strongmen, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Nicolás Maduro and Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who have brutally snuffed out the remnants of democracy in their countries.
In China, collective rule has given way to Xi Jinping’s cult of personality. The Arab Spring led to greater despotism and chaos; only in Tunisia did a democracy emerge. Freedom House frets that President Donald Trump is eroding freedom even in the United States with his attacks on the media and the rule of law while supporting dictators abroad.
The “end of history” consensus of the 1990s, which held that liberal democracy was fated to triumph, has given way to despair that, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argues in a new book, fascism may own the future. But just as it was a mistake to assume that the spread of freedom was inevitable, it’s also wrong to assume that the “spirit of ’76” is as passé as the tricorn hats and knee breeches worn by the Founding Fathers. No one in the world lived in a democracy in the 18th century if defined to mean universal suffrage; today, 39 percent of the world’s population lives in free countries and 24 percent in partially free countries. And wherever you look, you see the struggle for liberty.
On Saturday, more than 10 million Iraqis voted in elections that were competitive and free of violence. Turnout was low, but it was an indication that Iraq’s democracy — which appeared to be stillborn in the dark days of the American war, 2003-07, and again during the Islamic State war, 2014-17 — remains alive. The top vote-getter unexpectedly appeared to be an alliance between secularists and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite firebrand who has positioned himself as a foe of corruption and Iranian influence.
In Malaysia, an election last week dealt the first-ever defeat to the United Malays National Organization, the political party that has ruled since independence in 1957. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been accused of massive peculation, will be replaced by his mentor, 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. He promised to release opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim from prison and even to turn over the country’s leadership to him. Given that Mahathir once imprisoned Anwar himself, this is a welcome sign of reconciliation between old enemies.
Armenia has seen another advance for democracy. Peaceful demonstrations in Yerevan toppled Serzh Sargsyan, who had ruled for the past 10 years as president and tried a Putinesque move to stay in power as prime minister. He has been replaced on an interim basis by the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, who became distinctive for protesting in a camouflage T-shirt. A peaceful, democratic revolution in a former Soviet republic is no small achievement, given how hard Putin works to support dictatorships. The price of regime change is that Armenia’s revolutionaries, unlike their predecessors in Ukraine and Georgia, have vowed not to reverse a pro-Moscow foreign policy, but this is still progress for a country struggling with the usual post-Soviet corruption and stagnation.
Protesters in Nicaragua haven’t been as successful, but they keep coming out in force against the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega even though more than 40 people have already been killed in clashes with security forces. Having scrapped term limits, President Ortega has been in power since 2007, ruling with his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. They have bought off big business, silenced the media and squelched civil society. But now the power couple are forced to compromise with demonstrators by rescinding unpopular cuts to social services.
Finally, in Poland, more than 50,000 protesters took to the streets of Warsaw on Saturday to protest the growing corrosion of democracy at the hands of the populist Law and Justice Party.
I don’t mean to suggest that democracy is destined to prevail in Iraq, Malaysia, Nicaragua or Poland. But the fact that so many people in those countries, separated by vast differences in history, religion, ethnicity and culture, are struggling for similar rights is a sign that self-determination retains universal appeal.
Unfashionable as it may be to say so, President George W. Bush was right when he told the U.N. General Assembly in 2004: “The desire for freedom resides in every human heart. And that desire cannot be contained forever by prison walls or martial laws or secret police. Over time and across the Earth, freedom will find a way.”
It’s just going to take longer — maybe a lot longer — than Bush imagined.