Democracy is not failing, but the global political class is in crisis

The global swing towards right-wing populism may be a questionable political choice, but it doesn't mean it is illegitimate

There has been an increasing vogue over the past couple of years to bemoan the unhealthy state of democracy around the world. Many have warned of its fragility. That it is in retreat is widely accepted. Comparisons with the 1930s are frequently made. The Guardian newspaper has even named 2018 "the year of the autocrat".

No doubt, the election of populists, the erosion of liberal norms and the chipping away at the independence of institutions have alarmed those who thought the broad contours of the western-led world had been settled upon.

But there is another, more positive way of looking at events over the last year. And that is to celebrate the resilience and perseverance of populations across the globe who have merely become more assertive in declaring what they want – and, just as importantly, who they don't want.

First, take the theory of democratic retreat. That is certainly belied by the first-ever change of government in Malaysia, achieved peacefully in May, via the ballot box. At around the same time, tens of thousands in Armenia took to the streets to secure what has been termed a reformist and pro-democracy revolution. The strongman president of the Maldives Abdulla Yameen unexpectedly lost elections in September, "reversing a half-decade decline into authoritarianism" as one authority on the country put it. In the United States, the Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives in November.

"Ah," doubters will ask, "but what about Brazil?" After winning the nation's election in October, Jair Bolsonaro – a man with an open nostalgia for the country's former military dictatorship and a very weak attachment to human rights – will tomorrow be formally sworn in as president.

One answer to that is that Brazilians have seen the extent to which the labyrinthine Operation Car Wash corruption investigation has felled politicians across the party spectrum. In light of this, it is not so surprising that they were tempted by a “none of the above” candidate who promised to put the country’s affairs in order.

The other answer, however, is that it is their democratic right to vote for whomsoever they please – just as in past years it was the right of Americans to vote for Donald Trump, of Britons to vote for Brexit, of Filipinos to elect Rodrigo Duterte, and of Hungarians and Polish people to back Viktor Orban's Fidesz and the Law and Justice Party, respectively.

What the handwringers are upset about is the failure of the post-war left-to-right mainstream to maintain its appeal and, crucially, its dominance. To say that means there is a crisis in democracy is an example of liberal intolerance, for it means that only one broad set of electoral politics and one form of democracy is acceptable. Who are they to make that judgement? I would say that many populations have shown they beg to differ. The democratic doomsayers do, in any case, go too far.

Look at Poland, for example. In a powerful and widely read essay for The Atlantic a couple of months ago, the author Anne Applebaum – married to a former Polish cabinet minister – rued what she called the transformation of many of Poland's leading politicians into "nativist ideologues" and asked if they had always been "closet authoritarians". "Given the right conditions," she concluded, "any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will."

A corrective was offered to this in the New York Times yesterday by two Polish scholars who pointed out that "many Poles are willing to overlook the government's disregard for the rule of law and its trampling of the constitution" on the grounds that for years they felt both the state and the judiciary were distant from and had done nothing for them. Further, in recent municipal elections liberal candidates achieved a wave of victories, and decisions at the European Union level have gone against the current administration. The situation is, in other words, nowhere near as "black and white" as the likes of Ms Applebaum present it.

Now, if institutions and legal processes are undermined by illegal means, that is obviously a problem for any country, democracy or not. But if changes are made according to the law and as an expression of the will of the people, I see nothing anti-democratic in that. That includes moves that may restrict liberties, for any country has the right – indeed in this age of terrorism, has the duty – to revisit the balance between personal freedoms and the powers exercised by the state.

To those who would say that this is a reductionist and majoritarian approach to democracy, I plead guilty. Any democracy that is not inherently majoritarian has turned into an unrepresentative oligarchy – for the people must always have the final say. The trappings and chandeliers of liberal democracy properly belong to that concept, not to democracy itself, which requires a certain degree of freedom to function, but not the full suite demanded by those so distressed by the populist trend.

So, were Americans wrong to vote for Mr Trump and Brazilians for Mr Bolsonaro? Although I wouldn’t have done so myself, I would not be so presumptuous as to tell them what to do. But I would rather be on the side of peoples who have decided to reject the whole panoply of establishment parties than of elites who regard their dismissal not just with horror, but as somehow illegitimate.

Far from there being a democratic recession, there is a crisis among much of the global political class. By their reaction, they appear to think that the problem is with their electorates rather than with themselves. They have got democracy on its head. Until they realise that it is the people who are the masters, not them, they will continue to be rejected at the ballot box, because the truth is that it is they, not democracy, who are failing.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National