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Deepening democratic recession

The annual ‘Freedom in the World’ report released by Freedom House makes for dismal reading for advocates of democracy. The organisation rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties across more than 200 countries, by taking into account individual freedoms ranging from the right to vote to freedom of expression and equality before the law.

In its comprehensive coverage, the report surmises that the lethal Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated democratic losses against tyrannical forces. It further analyses how authoritarian regimes across the globe have used the convenient excuse of public health and safety to crack down upon political opponents and civil rights activists.

While the pandemic may have contributed towards enhancing repression, the report notes that 2020 marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Alarmingly, this decline is showing no signs of slowing down, with 2020 being the year where countries with deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since this negative trend began in 2006.

This steady decline has the usual proponents of authoritarianism clamouring for a rollback of democratic values, citing its perceived inability to deliver as a system of governance. They extol the economic success of China and the rise of autocrats including Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Modi among others as examples of democracy’s inherent weaknesses, and the trust that the general populace places in strongmen and the cult of personality over principles.

Many naysayers of democracy in Pakistan point to China as a model worth emulating. They disregard its unique history, culture and traditions, and the fact that its mixed system represents an anomaly in the comity of nations. It would be interesting to note whether these same experts would wish for a bloody peasant revolution in Pakistan or even famine and purges such as the Cultural Revolution to achieve their aims. One would seriously doubt any response in the affirmative.

While this trend towards suppression appears to be steadily increasing across the world, it is particularly noticeable in the region we inhabit. As the Freedom House report describes, over the past year alone, China has been rampant in its “global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days”.

While China has never made any claims of being a free and vibrant democracy, India, the world’s most populous democracy, has also dropped from a “Free” to “Partly Free” status in the Freedom House report. The BJP government’s suppression of critics in the media and the opposition has heightened since the fallout from its disastrous response to the pandemic.

While the scapegoating of Muslims has been a persistent feature of the right-wing government, spearheaded by Modi and Doval, the repression and targeting of a significant minority of over 200 million citizens has exacerbated through lynching by vigilante mobs. A discriminatory citizenship law and the prohibition of religious conversion through interfaith marriages in Uttar Pradesh -- the country’s largest state -- provide further evidence of the marginalisation of the Muslim community.

The report notes that as this tyranny intensifies in unfree societies, the damage to institutions that form the building blocks of a progressive state becomes greater. This makes it increasingly problematic to enhance freedom and prosperity as political rivals compete for space on the right of the political spectrum -- burnishing their hyper-nationalist and bigoted credentials to garner the support of a populace enthralled by this incendiary rhetoric.

The report also makes for sober reading for those who dream of a progressive Pakistan. On the Global Freedom scale, Pakistan scores a dismal 37 out of 100, rendering it the status of a “partly free” country. This score is further broken down into 15 on the “Political Rights” scale and 22 on “Civil Liberties”. In comparison, the countries in our region do not fare much better; with China obtaining 9, Iran 16, Afghanistan 27, Bangladesh 39, and India 67 marks.

It is interesting to note that some of the countries and leaders that Imran Khan cites as models to emulate rank on opposite ends of the Freedom spectrum. While Scandinavian countries with a strong egalitarian ethos and social democratic systems such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden top the charts with 97, 100, and 100 respectively, Turkey and Saudi Arabia score 32 and 7. One cannot blame critics for wondering how Khan aims to coalesce two vastly opposing ideologies to implement his vision of a Naya Pakistan.

Persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and crackdowns on civil liberties, political rights, media and internet freedom are not the hallmarks of the kind of state our government claims to aspire to build. This is precisely the approach that feeds into the false narrative of those who claim that democracy is incapable of addressing peoples’ needs. In fact, it is because of the lack of protection leaders assign to these values that we find the pillars of democracy in erosion.

Half-baked notions of introducing a presidential form of government or a system littered with technocrats are also not part of the solution. These experiments have been tried and tested, and have failed spectacularly in Pakistan. Only a serious and sustained effort geared towards reforming and strengthening democratic institutions, provision of basic rights and civil liberties to all people and not just a privileged few, addressing the structural roots of extremism and improving service delivery can lead towards positive developments.

The writer works as a development practitioner for a local consultancy.

Twitter: @ShahrukhNR