Viewpoint: Robert Beck – Democracy holds serve in 2022

  • Robert Beck

Published: 12/9/2022 9:20:17 AM

In spite of growing global angst about the state of democracy in the world, this much-maligned form of governance has shown impressive staying power during 2022. 

From Tehran to Brasilia to Beijing to Paris to Moscow to Washington, democratic forces have pushed back against autocratic leaders. While autocracies continue to oppose the U.S.-led liberal international order, their leaders are facing growing domestic challenges to their grip on power. 

It is highly unlikely that a year ago, as he planned his military adventure in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin could have imagined how badly it would backfire. Instead of a lightning victory over his weak neighbor against the backdrop of a quibbling and cowered America and European Union (EU), Putin’s gambit has spawned a stirring democratic resilience among his adversaries in the West. 

The unified actions by the United States and its allies, in the realm of political, economic and military support to Kiev, have helped turn the tables on the battlefields in southern and eastern Ukraine as well as in the court of public opinion. 

Furthermore, the war has burst the bubble of autocratic efficiency, manifesting instead the inflexibility, lack of accountability and moral and ethical decadence of the Putin regime. The brain drain of educated young Russian men fleeing the country in response to Putin’s September partial mobilization is a poignant reminder of the dwindling domestic support for the war.

Additionally, the recent spasms of Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure highlight Moscow’s weakness, not its strength, and ensure that the country’s time in the geopolitical penalty box will extend long after this war is over. 

In Iran, the theocratic regime is facing the greatest domestic threat to its rule since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The killing of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman by the country’s feared “morality police” has unleashed a wave of violent protests that have shaken the Iranian government to its core.  The key aspect of the current unrest is that it is broad-based, including diverse elements of society, all calling for respect for human rights, economic opportunity and a less-aggressive foreign policy.  The leadership in Tehran has slowly started to loosen its grip on society, hoping to placate its citizenry.  History has shown, however, that mass protests are rarely satisfied with governmental half-measures.

A similar scenario has recently developed in China, where the Communist Party’s highly touted “Zero COVID” policy has finally reached a breaking point.  Sparked by a late-November apartment fire in the country’s Xinjiang region that resulted in a tragic loss of life, caused in large part by COVID restrictions impeding rescue efforts, the nation has experienced the most serious wave of dissent since the 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy. 

The unrest turned violent in some places, with isolated calls for the resignation of recently re-elected President Xi Jingping. In an effort to relieve the pressure of these protests, Beijing announced in early December several measures aimed at relaxing pandemic restrictions, hoping to satiate the populace’s appetite for change with a slow return to normalcy. As in Iran, it remains to be seen if the change in government policy will pacify the masses. 

The results of major elections across the globe also lend credence to the view that respect for democracy remains strong in many areas.  Take France, for example, where Emmanuel Macron soundly defeated the extreme right candidate, Marine Le Pen, in a runoff in April for the French presidency. Brazil can be considered another victory for the democracy team, as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defeated the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who was widely criticized for his openly autocratic tendencies while in power, particularly his intimidation of the country’s Supreme Court and his frequent questioning of Brazil’s election process.  

In another positive trend, several countries have turned to a new generation of democratically elected leaders, including Australia, New Zealand, Finland and Estonia, the last three of which are now proudly led by female prime ministers, all of whom are under 50 years of age.  They provide a stark contrast to the autocratic gerontocracy in many countries: Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to name a few, who monopolize their respective countries' press, courts and legislatures in a quest to rule for life. 

Last but not least, developments in the United States during the year have, for the most part, shown the resilience of democracy. The recently completed 2022 midterm elections, with extremely high voter turnout, underscored the appeal of candidates looking forward, in the process dealing a strong rebuke to most politicians still espousing debunked conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election. Though extremism in America is far from  dead, the results of the November polls clearly showed the center reasserting its power.  

While the struggle between democracy and autocracy will undoubtedly intensify in the coming years, 2022 will likely be remembered as a period when democratic forces across the globe made important progress in countering the false narrative of the supposed superiority of autocratic rule.  Let’s hope that this trend continues in 2023. 

Robert Beck of Peterborough served for 30 years overseas with the United States government in embassies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He now teaches foreign policy classes at Keene State College’s Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning.


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