Threatened by populists and “fake news,” democracy is in crisis. But it remains better than alternatives — and a holy grail for states ditching dictators.

democracy
Britain’s Big Ben clock tower, a symbol of parliamentary democracy, with a nearby statue of
former Prime Minster Winston Churchill (AP Photo/ John Redman)

By Julian Nundy

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

So said Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in 1947. Two years before, he and his party had lost elections after he had brought Britain through World War Two.

In the post-war years, the Cold War pitted parliamentary democracies, sometimes centuries old, against the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe freshly imposed by the Soviet Union until Communism crumbled in the late 1980s.

In a classic parliamentary democracy, citizens elect members of the legislature; the winning parties then install a leader as prime minister with the task of picking a team to run the country until the next vote, usually four or five years later.

More than 70 years after Churchill’s remark, parliamentary democracy is in crisis.

Disillusionment with regular politicians

It’s in crisis in the era of “fake news” — the era of cyber-subversion when a damaging rumour planted on social networks quickly gains currency and is believed by many. Some are more skilled than others at doing the planting, buffeting traditional politics.

In Britain, the 2016 referendum on European Union membership plunged the country into protracted political chaos after the “Brexit” camp won. Alongside laments that referendums are a risky form of consultation that should have no place in a long-established parliamentary system came claims that the Leave camp was shamelessly dishonest on social networks.

In the United States, the election of Donald Trump the same year is believed to have been aided by internet interference by Russia.

France has been jolted since November by a grass-roots revolt of gilets jaunes, or “yellow vests,” people blocking road junctions throughout the country and complaining that ever higher taxes make it hard to make ends meet.

Some of the protesters in France are calling for a different sort of democracy — the right to hold citizen-initiated referendums.

Like many Trump or Brexit supporters, the “yellow vests” are often low earners outside the big cities, disillusioned with regular politicians. Far-Right and far-Left parties are jostling to capitalize on the movement ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

These developments coincide with a rise in “populism,” a political appeal to citizens who feel neglected by the establishment. Critics say populist arguments are simplistic and encourage dangerous prejudices. Governments backed by populists rule in Hungary, Poland and Italy, where hard-Right politicians have come to power through elections, rattling the foundations of their democracies.

“I am struck by the faith that people show in their young democratic process.”

In 40 years as a journalist, I reported regularly on elections, credible and not so credible.

My very first were in the Soviet Union in the 1970s when I worked for Reuters in Moscow. Those were simple: there was only one name on the ballot paper in each district, and there was no need to stay up late to see who had won.

In a similar vein was the National Unity referendum in Egypt in September 1981, called by President Anwar al-Sadat to consolidate power. That was carried by a healthy 99.5 percent of the vote. The following month, Sadat was assassinated.

Other elections were more conventional — and more complicated to report — such as French legislative and presidential elections.

Then came Ukraine in 2004. Charges of vote fraud prompted the Supreme Court to order a re-run of the second round of the presidential election. My interest was stirred by the role of international election observers whose findings bolstered opposition allegations of cheating.

I have since become an election observer myself, mainly in former Soviet republics.

To modernise the process and fight abstention, a common proposal for a while was to find ways to move voting to the internet. Opponents argued that voting on a computer would lead to “deconsecration,” or erasing the sense of ceremony of voting in the secrecy of a polling booth. Such ideas are less popular now as more evidence of internet trickery surfaces.

Working in emerging democracies, I am struck by the faith that people raised under totalitarianism show in their young democratic process. However shaky democracy is looking elsewhere, it still appeals to many who have known the “other forms” of government.

Western governments are today plainly outwitted by those skilled at manipulating public opinion on the web. For democracies to survive in any meaningful way, they must find ways to turn the tables and fight back. And fast.

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. What did Winston Churchill mean when he said “democracy is the worst form of government”?
  2. Why do some advocates of democracy oppose regular recourse to referendums?
  3. Is the internet good or bad for democracy?

Julian Nundy joined Reuters in 1970 and was posted to Moscow, Paris, then Brussels, with stints in the Middle East reporting on the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. As a staffer for Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, The Independent and Bloomberg, he covered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, conflict in Bosnia and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

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