Global Challenges For Liberal Democracy As Electoral Churn Is Seen Worldwide

Global Challenges For Liberal Democracy As Electoral Churn Is Seen Worldwide

Electoral churn in four major democracies across three continents over next five months will determine the future of liberal democracy as the organising principle for nation states

K C SinghUpdated: Friday, May 31, 2024, 11:24 PM IST
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Representative Image | Gordon Johnson/Pixabay

As India concludes on June 1 its protracted Lok Sabha election, two other elections, on different continents, raise identical issues.

South Africa went to polls on May 29, with results on June 2. The African National Congress (ANC), like the Indian National Congress in 1947, won freedom from white supremacist apartheid regime. Mahatma Gandhi, who honed his non-violent protest in that country, was the role-model for South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Their 1994 election produced a popular ANC government, under his leadership, with 86/% vote.

Mandela, like the Indian founding fathers and especially Nehru, guided South Africa onto the path of democratic and tolerant governance. The erstwhile white oppressors were provided space to coexist. But, again like India, slippage began from that high path. With the presidency of Jacob Zuma, from 2009 and till his forced exit in 2018, the systemic collapse and moral decline started. His successor Cyril Ramaphosa has tried to restore order and governance in the last six years. But the dominance of the ANC may now be declining, like Congress’ did in India.

Jacob Zuma has been barred from holding high office. But like many political leaders in India, regardless, in December established his party uMKhonto we Sizwe (MK Party). He dominates the politics of his KwaZulu province. The projections of likely vote share are: ANC 42%; MK 13%; and Democratic Alliance 24.7%. The president is elected indirectly by members of parliament, selected on a proportionate basis, depending on the party’s vote. Thus South Africa may be headed towards a coalition-based presidential selection and not an automatic choice by the ANC. Stuck in this political slugfest are the Gupta brothers of Indian origin whose proximity to Jacob Zuma led to charges of corrupt practices. Two are detained in Dubai and one in India.

The other important presidential election is in Mexico. The Mexican constitution limits the presidency to a single term. The incumbent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, has been in office since 2018. He has established a direct equation with the masses but has weakened the media and independent institutions. His popularity depends on patronage extended to the elderly, students, farmers etc. This is akin to the model propagated by BJP under prime minister Narendra Modi. He argues that his presidency is the “Fourth Transformation”. His top priority was to end corruption.

The contest to replace him is between two female politicians. Claudia Sheinbaum, belonging to AMLO’s party Morena. She is a former Mexico City mayor. Her rival is Xo chitl Gálvez, a former senator and businesswoman, supported by a coalition of opposition parties. Mexico’s transition to democracy began in 2000, after decades of single party control. AMLO has cut funding to an independent agency overseeing elections and to an institute guaranteeing freedom of information. Civil servants have been replaced by party functionaries. He publicly berates the media and civil society. During his tenure AMLO has used the preoccupation of the US with immigration to divert attention from other issues like commercial barriers in Mexico, proliferation of crime and degradation of democratic institutions.

Thus the dilemmas confronting the Indian public due to BJP’s domineering and autocratic governance over the last decade are not unique to India. The institutional collapse can follow populist leaders in power. Americans are unhappy with the South Africans not so much for domestic instability or economic mess as the evangelical pursuit of allegations of genocide against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Donald Trump has been held guilty, by a New York court, for covering up payments to an adult film star with whom he had sex. The travesty of US constitutional arrangement and rule of law is that despite his conviction Trump cannot be barred from contesting in the November presidential election.

Thus the state of play in four democratic countries i.e. India, Mexico, South Africa and the US indicate that the liberal democratic order is under challenge, if not threat across three continents. In India signs are that BJP may underperform. In South Africa the incumbent president C Ramaphosa may be able to contain the resurgence of tainted Jacob Zuma, albeit after deals with opposition parties. In Mexico a populist-socialist may be succeeded by one of the two female candidates, with diverse experiences.

But the uncertain factor is the possibility of Donald Trump’s return. PM Narendra Modi had deftly handled him during his presidency (2017-20), employing flattery and theatrical welcome ceremonies replete with pomp and show. Mexico has a diaspora in the US numbering 37.2 million, almost nine-times that of Indians. It was Mexican president Vincent Fox who in 2000 started seriously engaging the diaspora like Modi. He then enfranchised them.

Electoral churn in four major democracies across three continents over next five months will determine the future of liberal democracy as the organising principle for nation states.

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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