It hasn’t been a great year for democracy.
In February, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ironfisted leader, shocked the world by invading Ukraine, which sparked a global energy crisis and left Western democracies scrambling to respond. Weeks later in April, strongman politician Viktor Orbán was reelected as the president of Hungary, despite being accused of rigging the election and using his power to jail and intimidate journalists.
Soon after, far-right leaders with neo-facist roots were also elected into power in the Philippines and Italy, prompting warnings from civil liberties advocates and surprising political analysts who have expressed concerns in recent years that liberal democracy around the world is in decline.
Many have since reiterated those fears after Chinese President Xi Jinping secured his third term over the weekend, solidifying his rule for several more years and further shifting the country away from the shared power system it had moved toward in recent decades. And this Sunday, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro—who has long been accused of human rights abuses and authoritarianism—will face a contentious reelection that could ultimately decide the direction of a country that houses one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks: the Amazon rainforest.
Experts have been sounding the alarm over the decline of democracy for years, saying the world appears to be entering a new era of strongman politics that jeopardizes global cooperation on efforts such as fighting the climate crisis. A growing number of countries—even those supposedly run by free democratic elections—are embracing authoritarianism over civil liberties and democratic rule, they warn. And recent research shows that autocratic leaders have managed to strengthen their positions in recent years by continuing to restrict the rights and freedoms of their citizens.
A report released in February by Freedom House, a pro-democracy advocacy group, found that 60 countries suffered democratic declines in 2021, while only 25 improved, and that only 20 percent of the world’s population currently lives in countries the organization designated as “free.”
Former President Barack Obama, too, warned of the trend in 2018 during a high-profile speech at a memorial event for civil liberties icon Nelson Mandella, which took place the day after a controversial meeting between then-U.S.-President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The politics of fear and resentment” is “on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago,” Obama told a crowd of thousands in South Africa. “I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around—strongman politics are ascendant suddenly.”
In fact, the global divide between democracies and autocracies has only grown more stark in recent years, threatening many efforts to address shared global challenges, said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Problem of Democracy,” which talks in part about the growing popularity of modern autocratic leaders.
“With the rise of existential politics—where elections come to be seen as a matter of life and death—it is also the case that voters are less focused on long-term challenges and much more focused on short-term survival,” Hamid told me in an email. “Of course, the irony is that climate change is itself a potentially existential threat.”
Hamid also noted that having a democracy doesn’t necessarily translate to the adoption of strong climate policies, especially if voters don’t agree that global warming is an important issue. [Continue reading…]