Liberal democracy isn't finished, but its advocates need to understand its progress isn't inevitable

Sholto Byrnes writes that its proponents should ask themselves some serious questions

Police stand guard during a rally near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, March 18, 2018. Vladimir Putin cruised to a landslide victory in Russia's presidential vote, extending his 18-year rule amid escalating confrontation with the West. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
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After Vladimir Putin's latest resounding victory in the recent Russian presidential election, and the removal of barriers to long-term office-holding for China's Xi Jinping, the old assumption that liberal democracy and liberalism were inevitable has never looked less convincing.

There are, of course, many countries that have the appearance of being liberal democracies, with all the institutions, theoretical separation of powers, reasonably fair and regular elections, and space for opposition voices that implies. But many are dominated by variants of essentially conservative and communitarian politics, to the extent that while they are certainly democracies, the term “liberal” in the broader, more individualistic sense would not be appropriate to apply.

In fact on that basis, it would be hard to think of any country in the whole of Asia that counts as a liberal democracy. Not the India of the BJP, with its emphasis on Hindu nationalism. Not one of the ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where even in thriving democracies such as Malaysia and the Philippines the word “liberalism” is viewed with suspicion in the former while a fiery populist rules over the latter.

None of the “Stans”, the former Soviet Central Asian republics. Maybe South Korea and Japan; although Japan, with its problematic relationship with its militaristic 20th century history, fails to tick some significant boxes, as does South Korea, with such a level of corruption that almost every president over the last 30 years has been embroiled in charges or allegations after stepping down from office.

In Africa and Latin America, finding long-lasting and stable democracies is to be celebrated, never mind whether they’re liberal or not, while in Europe Hungary and Poland have been criticised by the European Union – much to their leaders’ irritation – for deviating from the path of liberal democracy.

The problem for the “liberal democracy is inevitable” advocates is that they still fail to see that they have lost the war they thought they had won after the end of the Cold War. They continue to believe that given the choice, populations could only rationally choose liberal democracy.

This leads to an unwillingness to admit that Vladimir Putin, for instance, is genuinely popular - and according to data compiled by the independent Levada Centre in Moscow ahead of this week's election, while he is approved of by 81 per cent of the Russian population, that figure rises to 86 per cent among 18 to 24 year olds. Those same young people have never been so knowledgeable about the outside world. It’s not that they don't know about liberal democracy. And yet they are choosing something different.

But there are still many who cling to a belief in the universalism of liberal democracy – which is not merely to aspire that every country will adopt that system, but that every country should, and that every other system is inferior.

That always struck me as a rather high-handed assumption, and a mostly unexamined one at that (and I say that as a believer in liberal democracy, with the important caveat that I believe it is the best system for countries with the deep seated liberal values that make it historically and culturally the right fit).

With the evidence of popular mandates piling up to the contrary, it is time to be honest about this: the crisis of liberal democracy is not just that it is being rejected, but also that the notion that it is a stage of progress that all societies will one day reach is unsupportable.

There is now a clear contest of ideas and systems of governance. And if liberal democracy is losing hearts, minds and votes, the reasons are not hard to list. Among them: the failure to provide equitable growth; allowing social provisions to wither or outsourcing them to greedy private firms; the insistence that motivation should be spurred by the search for profit – both personal and corporate – rather than notions of duty and service; and underestimating the need for cohesion, whether it be national or communal, stability, an appropriate place for religion and tradition in the public square, and a life not at the mercy of the relentless buffeting and capriciousness of the market.

At the same time, other systems have proven their worth. China and the more authoritarian-leaning democracies of East Asia have shown that tremendous growth is still possible in societies where less emphasis is placed on free speech and human rights. (The late Lee Kuan Yew would have said that it was precisely because of what the West saw as restrictions on liberty that Singapore made the journey in one generation “From Third World to First”, as the second volume of his memoirs put it.)

Russians remember the 1990s – when the free market and liberal democracy turned the country into a Wild West of state looting and crime – with horror. Is it any wonder that the strength and certainty projected by Mr Putin, under whose rule, according to the Economist, GDP per person has risen more than sixfold, has so much appeal by contrast?

Liberal democracy is not finished. But its proponents need to wake up to the fact that, in a multipolar world, it would be foolish for them to dream that it will one day dominate, still less that its triumph is inevitable. They need to revive the project, perhaps starting by asking the one question that they never pose to themselves, on the grounds that the answer is self-evident: just why is liberal democracy the best system of governance? Once they have worked out an answer to that, they may have a better chance of persuading the rest of the world.

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