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Democracy and its discontents in a multipolar world

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A demonstrator holds a scarf during a march in Dakar on March 2, 2024, against the new amnesty law and for elections to be held before April 2, 2024. The election of new and young candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye is a refreshing beacon and tribute to the power of the people of Senegal, the writer says. – Picture: John Wessels / AFP

By Ashraf Patel

Half of humanity goes to the polls in 2024 as news and social media headlines remind us everywhere.

It was Hency Luce of Time magazine, in the 1950s that boldly proclaimed “The American century. Alongside God, Church, the Dollar, McDonalds and McKinsey – the greatest US export for several decades has been ‘promoting democracy globally’.”

As the decolonial wave of the 1960s spread in the developing South, the US strategy had been one of ‘democratisation and multiparty elections against the backdrop of the Cold War rivalry. Billions have been spent by the US State and powerful foundations promoting ‘democracy’ and elections globally.

To be sure, the US itself is not a multiparty democracy that it promotes globally; but a corporatist duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties that have ruled the US since the mid-1850 with no diversity in party politics since. Even today high barriers to entry, the PAC committees and super PACs, makes US democracy today essentially a rigged system and private citizens have to be backed by powerful interest groups to gain access to high office. Its no surprise then that lobbying US-style is a feature of ‘democracies everywhere’.

What the US establishment promotes as democracy globally is not the ‘everyday democracy’ variant that ordinary Americans are so passionate about. These include democracy at local level – election of the local county sheriff, the school boards, local jury etc, the vibrant participation in community life, that sociologist Alex de Tocqueville rightly observed was the vibrancy of US civil society. This is not the real democracy the US establishment promotes globally.

Democracy in Africa was always going to be challenging due to the at the infamous Berlin Africa conference in 1871, when European colonial powers formed arbitrary and artificial borders. Sadly, despite the unifying values of liberation movements, modern political parties are formed along regional and ethnic lines, and post elections powder kegs such as the Kenyan elections of 2018 where upwards of 1,000 people were killed.

The recent DRC 2023 election and Ethiopian elections have all been controversial and, with weak institutions, exclusion and foreign interference these states are in perpetual conflict.

It was the famous Nigerian musician Fela Kuti who famously rebranded democracy as ‘Dem all Crazy’.

To be fair, democracy and elections successes have included the historical South African and Nambian, ‘Freedom elections’ of the 1990s, the elections of Brazil in the 1980s, and those of the Indonesia and Philippines that saw the end of military authoritarian rule.

2024 The great litmus test for elections – and democracy

Despite widescale promoting and marketing turnout at polls in the North hovers around 38 percent and are low in most Global South. Russia’s latest election has polled 77 percent, a significant achievement.

Senegal: The Senegal elections on March 24, 2024, has seen the election of new and young candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, and is a refreshing beacon and tribute to the power of the people to bring to an end – through the polls – the 12 years in power of Macky Sall, an establishment figure.

Pakistan: The recent elections in Pakistan has once again seen the military as the final power broker in cahoots with the elites, and the new government, thus rendering the popular vote – and democracy redundant. This ‘authoritarian Jackboot democracy’ has for decades eroded public space and institutions, confining Pakistan to a ‘permanent rigging of the system for the benefit of the politico-military elite’. The same democratic-election model is being reproduced in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and much of South Asia.

India is the ‘world’s largest democracy’ but in the past decade has seen a slide into a nationalist authoritarian system. While elections and formal procedural democracy takes 6 months, involving 600 million voters, and costing upwards of $3 billion, has substantive democracy and inclusion been achieved? Severe repression is the hallmark of the current elections and most democratic institutions (media etc). Above all, it has seen a slide into authoritarianism, and over the past decade, various caste, class, and religious minority group exclusions from public life, with women and small-scale farmers languishing on the margins of the ‘democratic’ society and economy.

South Africa: South Africa’s 2024 election is fast descending into a democratic circus, with a mushrooming of political parties in this jamboree. Concerning factors are the power of billionaires, corporates and powerful ‘old money’ families backing both establishment and new parties as the nation descends into a corporatised democracy, US-style. Moreover, with the mushrooming of parties, even the Alphabet cannot accommodate them. The majority of citizens cannot even distinguish the policy manifestos of the various parties and what they actually mean. The democratic circus goes on.

Democratic dividend has not led to Development dividend

At the end of the Cold war in the early 1990s it was Francis Fukuyama’s premature ‘End of History’ narrative that gave the US and Western world a liberal false sense of triumphalism. Hence democracy was the official programme, and neo-liberalism become the unofficial economic policy and ideology of the Western world as they reshaped global institutions – the World Trade Organisation, IMF and World Bank.

While exporting democracy, the US empire has also led many invasions and wars in much of the Middle East, Afghanistan et al, and drained its own resources, deepening inequalities in the US and at the same time destroying the nations it had invaded in the name of democracy, ironically leaving them more authoritarian than before.

Although the democracy marketplace is mushrooming, the Democratic dividend has not led to the all-important Development dividend. In Europe, UK’s Brexit and the rise of populism has fuelled and created a deepening crisis on the democratic orders. The global financial crisis of 2008 was a turning point. The ubiquitous social media chaos and mass polarisation-extremism of the public sphere and society has let the ‘genie out of the bottle’ during elections, and user content and AI [Artificial Intelligence] wreak havoc, with regulators unable to tame big tech social media behemoths.

These multitudes of ‘imperfect storms’ have witnessed a deepening chaos and divisions of societies and an existential crisis of US-style democracy as another Trump election seems probable in 2024.

Rise of China, BRICS and the new Multipolar order

In all of the chaos and polarising democracy and neoliberalism in North and much of the Global South, the quiet rise and rise of China has been the noteworthy successes of our era.

From a manufacturing powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s it has, in a post-Covid world now scaled in economic development, and its new technology prowess is matching and even exceeding the US and Europe in AI, Autos, 5G, and the new Electric Vehicle EV Green industries of the future.

China is not a formal democracy and doesn’t claim to be one. Yet under the stewardship of the CCP, the government has deftly managed the state and society to deliver 500 million out of poverty and a middle class of a few hundred million.

Its Belt and Road initiative BRI invests in real development, and with BRICS+ partners and numerous programmes, translates into real economic development for swathes of the Global South. In just few decades it is now on the cusp of world superpower status, a feat unmatched in millennia.

A remarkable achievement – one without the noise, chaos and ‘Discontents of Democracy’.

Ashraf Patel is senior research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD)