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In Pursuit of an Alternative to Democracy

For the last few years, there have been many hues and cries over the apparent decline of democracy or democratic values around the world. Freedom House, an American think-tank that measures the state of global freedom, reckons that 2016 was the eleventh consecutive year in which the declines in the global freedom outnumbered improvements.

Setback in the Western Democracy

In some parts of the West, the issues that democracies face are deep-seated with an advanced and matured rise of populism or nationalism. In Hungary, an authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is overseeing his country’s descent into fascism. In Poland, the ruling party is trying to snatch judicial independence—an act more fitting with autocratic or nascent democratic states.

In general, the ever-increasing influence of donors and lobbyists over politicians has made many voters skeptical of the efficiency of their political system. In the European Union, too much power is vested in the hands of unelected bureaucrats. The nattering parliaments at times fail to come to an agreement over delivering fundamental legislations such as the budget. The Brexit deadlock in the UK, for example, severely frustrated voters.

Skepticism is also on the rise over the influence of large international organizations such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund (IMF). Britain’s decision to exit the EU was, perhaps, the strongest sign that the populace believes these large multinational organizations do not protect the interest of the many.

Western voters are also becoming distasteful of their governments’ interventions abroad, because of the liabilities they bring—like migrants who supposedly steal their jobs and pollute their cultural purity. Additionally, America’s military interventions in many countries, often in the name of establishing freedom and democracy, resulted in profound doubt about the kind of democracy it preaches.

One of the two reasons identified by The Economist to have caused the latest misgivings about democracy in the West was the financial crisis of 2007-08, which compelled the constituents to view politicians as sold off to corporate power (other being China).

The Russia and China factors

The re-emergence of Russia as a critical force in the world stage, along with the current US administration’s apathy to promote democratic values, emboldened many autocrats around the world. From Turkey to Cambodia, Thailand, and the Phillippines, democratic forces are in genuine retreat.

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring, which raised the hope of democracy and freedom across the region, miserably failed. After the Egypt experience, the public seems less adventurous about change.

In India, Narendra Modi’s electoral triumph proves that a population as large as, and a democracy as old and stable, as India’s is willing to embrace the chauvinistic identity politics that stands in contrast to fundamental democratic values.

Some from Bangladesh’s ruling party seems to take inspiration from the fact that the partial or nominal democracy in the South East Asian countries resulted in significant economic prosperity, essentially arguing that democracy can take a back seat to development. Sri Lanka remains the solo success story in this entire region.

So, does the overall grim state of democracy signal its irrelevance in this age?

The Chinese case against democracy

The most commonly made case against democracy is its inefficiency and messiness. The rise of China makes this case even stronger. Why should one consider democracy as the ideal form of government when China has doubled its living standards nearly every decade while America at its best pace took 30 years to do the same? “Democracy can make certain matters that are very simple under undemocratic conditions overly complicated and frivolous,” Yu Keping, a noted Chinese academic, wrote in his widely noted book, Democracy is a Good Thing.

The Chinese argue that a political system that allows its constituents to elect inefficient leaders simply because they had the ability to stimulate voters through their charming rhetoric is flawed. They offer an alternative method—meritocracy—in which talents are recruited in the leadership. Leaders are evaluated based on what they do, not what they say.

Daniel A. Bell, chair professor at Tsinghua University and a distinguished China observer, stirred quite a buzz in 2012 when he presented the so-called Chinese “meritocratic” as an alternative to liberal democracy. In 2016, he expanded on his ideas into a much-talked-about book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.

However, even Mr. Bell, a prominent China optimist, concedes, “At some point in the future, the [Chinese] government will have to choose between a more open society and Tiananmen Square-style repression to preserve stability.” If the latter turns into reality, he said, “I’m lost and I’ll change my views.” But after President Xi Jinping came to power, China has adopted an aggressive posture, both at home and abroad, which makes it clear that China will not welcome any liberal reform. So, will Mr. Bell finally have to back down from his optimism?

The Chinese euphoria

While China did generate a spectacular growth, its euphoria may be short-lived. Since 2010, its growth rate, with few exceptions, has steadily slowed: From 10 percent to 6.7 percent. It matters because China’s debt level is on a ‘dangerous’ trajectory—235 percent of its GDP—more than double the figure in 2008, meaning it is struggling to maintain the growth rate upward. Pundits and economists are predicting that an economic recession is almost inevitable—a recession “sharp and possibly calamitous.” That makes us come to the first reason that the Economist cited to explain why the West is showing distrust to their own liberal political system.

Is it possible that a severe economic recession, which severely weakened the Western liberal democratic system, could also damage the Chinese meritocratic system?

Like the West, China is also facing a serious inequality problem. The rising inequality coupled with the prevalence of corruption within the Chinese ruling party may exacerbate the public unrest at a time of a recession. It remains to be tested as to how the Chinese political system performs in a turbulent and uncomfortable time. China’s response to turmoil has always been repression, but how long will it be able to do so in the face of popular unrest triggered by a crisis in the economy?

From Singapore to Taiwan, economic progress has been met with a continued democratic transition. So, a dictatorship has to eventually democratize or stagnate. This is what led David Shambaugh, an authority figure on China issues, to argue in his much-talked-about WSJ piece, that the mighty dragon would finally suffer a protracted but inevitable fall.

Democracy, in contrast to Chinese or any other autocratic models, allows the constituents to install fresh leaders in place of failed ones. This feature of democracy gives the constituents a sense of stake in the performance of the state, whereas the Chinese system would directly be held liable for a major failure that impacts everybody.

Even if the Chinese system withstands all crises, it can be argued that it is an exception and not an example to be emulated anywhere else. Whereas the greatest strength of democracy is, perhaps, its universality. That’s why its appeal is so powerful and palpable anywhere in the world. And, that makes democracy the only truly relevant universal system of governance. And once the slide towards illiberalism halts, there would be a profound sense of realization that the alternative to democracy is more democracy, not less.

(The article was written to commemorate the International Day of Democracy on September 15)

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