In Belarus this week, protests over rigged elections have been met by mass arrests and a hail of rubber bullets from the thuggish security services of “Europe’s last dictator”. In Hong Kong, China has stepped up its crackdown on democracy and press freedom. Surveying the urban tumult in many parts of the world it is easy to form an impression that the democratic cause is under siege. Yet it is not necessarily authoritarians who should be taking heart.
The clampdowns appear to confirm an intensifying assault on democracy and pluralism. Freedom House, the US-based watchdog, found 2019 was the 14th straight year of decline in global freedom. Some 64 countries experienced a deterioration in political rights and civil liberties. Only 37 witnessed improvements.
Yet positive conclusions can be drawn, too. In Hong Kong and Minsk, protesters have taken to the streets specifically to defend or demand democratic freedoms. Hong Kong’s unrest last year grew out of opposition to an extradition bill that threatened to corrode rule of law. Imposing a draconian national security law was Beijing’s response. Belarus has seen political consciousness flower after 26 years of one-man rule. The autocrats may force the democratic impulse underground, but it will not die.
Not just outright autocrats are facing resistance. Bulgaria has seen weeks of rallies against government corruption. In Beirut, protests amid the wreckage of this month’s port explosion have toppled a second government in under a year. Many of those protesting are part of a new movement. The people power they represent is something politicians everywhere must take account of.
Indeed, though dampened by the pandemic, 2020 has marked at least a partial continuation of 2019, when demonstrations were the most numerous since the Arab Spring in 2011, or even since 1989. They had few parallels in terms of geographical spread.
Nor has coronavirus delivered a boost for authoritarian systems. China has sought to contrast its success in containing the outbreak in Wuhan with the Trump administration’s inept response in the US. But China’s initial cover-up, which allowed the virus to spread more widely than it should, highlighted the shortcomings of its system.
The political scientist Francis Fukuyama argues a competent state apparatus, trust in government and effective leadership count for more in tackling the pandemic than the type of political system. But some democracies have performed notably well, and especially some female leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Strongmen who tried to deny the virus — Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Mr Trump, and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko — have come off badly.
Not all protests in the past 18 months were democracy-related; some of the biggest were calls to act on climate change. Taken together, however, they suggest an innate impulse among peoples across geographical boundaries to rise up against inept, corrupt or repressive leadership. Black Lives Matter rallies in the US and elsewhere demonstrate the urge even in richer countries to oppose injustice.
Western countries face a dilemma over how far to intervene in support of democratic movements — especially when, as in Hong Kong or Belarus, that might bring them into conflict with China or Russia. Aside from rhetorical support, acting as exemplars is vitally important. This year’s US election will be a test. If, as some Americans fear, Mr Trump adopts tactics verging on the authoritarian, the damage to the global democratic cause will be hard to repair.