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April 10, 2021
by: Sana Hashmi and Alan H. Yang
Democracy globally is now under siege due to the purposeful export of one-party-rule authoritarianism, rise of dictatorship, and the spread of populism. No man is an island and no democracy should be left alone; democracies need sincere mutual support for safeguarding democratic values and improving the quality of democratic governance, particularly in Asia, where the civilisations, religions, and cultures are so diverse.
Democracy is a term that owes its origins to the Greek term dēmokratia, which combines dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”). With transformative political evolutions taking place over centuries, democracy in the modern times evolved from being just a political system to a way of life and an ideal in itself. In a world where animal instincts of power grabbing and control run parallel to virtues of modern civilisation, it is not easy to run a system as delicate as democracy where weak, vulnerable, and downtrodden are supposed to decide for themselves how they wish to be governed and by whom as their representative. After all, democracy, in the words of Abraham Lincoln is “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Considering that democracies are people and popular opinion-centric, mistakes and mismanagements of democratic governments are debated in public with minimal control. Often even vibrant western democracies are found picking up the pieces in the face of public protests and media criticisms. Whether that makes such countries weaker is purely dependent on how the issue is perceived.
The Covid-19 pandemic came up with another such occasion where a narrative was built that authoritarian regimes had fared better than democracies. However, peddlers of such narrative fail to understand the ethos of virtues of liberty, equality, and freedom. True, some democracies could not do as good as they should have in dealing with the pandemic, but dealing with the pandemic on a war footing was not the only issue at hand. Welfare of people and compassion on part of the government was another key objective authoritarian regimes failed to sufficiently address.
Assessing the state of political and civic rights, some surveys and reports in the western countries released in 2021 came up with a rather gloomy picture of the state of democracy in the world today. The pandemic has been most lethal in affecting democracy, which is also evident in the fall in overall performance of democracies across the world.
One such report was problematic in terms of categorisation. For one, the very fact that it presents just one list comprising democracies, authoritarian regimes, monarchies and constitutional monarchies, and even dictatorship, is methodologically problematic. Civil rights or not, it is unimaginable to put the US and Russia, or China and Taiwan in one table. These are different systems dealing with their own peculiar challenges. Boxing them all in one is unfair. A very intriguing example in that regard is that of Hong Kong and India. According to one particular report, Hong Kong has gone down by 3 points as “Beijing imposed harsh new restrictions in a bid to smother democracy protests, and the government postponed elections it was set to lose.” India on the other, surprisingly, lost 4 points as “the Hindu nationalist government cracked down on dissent, driving the world’s most populous democracy into the partly free category.” Another report even identified India as an electoral autocracy. These judgements show harsh criticisms against democratic diversity in Asia as even an informed lay person would be in a position to state that the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong is far more severe than arguably India. Unlike Hong Kong, people are not fleeing India, and thousands are not put in jails just because they were protesting. Most important of all, in poorly organised democratic systems like India, which is the biggest in the world, numbers are certainly going to be large. Statistical adjustment is one of the basic methods in research that makes the research impartial. The fact that India is a democracy and China is not, should be considered in making such reports as there is a qualitative difference in two systems. Moreover, political and civil rights in an authoritarian regime or a single-party rule cannot be compared with a multi-party democracy like India.
That said, one cannot deny the fact that India (67 points on a scale of 100 in one of the reports) has a lot to do to make its democratic system perfect or the one that can match up to Netherlands (98), Taiwan (94) or New Zealand (99).
Clearly, Taiwan too has gone underappreciated in some of the reports. With such an impeccable performance in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic without affecting people’s economic and civic liberties and losing the ethos of democracy is a landmark achievement as the pandemic put democracy globally at risk. One may argue that during the Covid-19 pandemic, New Zealand and Taiwan fared almost equally, and both countries led by two capable political leaders, should be appreciated in equal measure.
Both Taiwan and India are two robust democracies and democracies need sincere mutual help. This is one potential area for Taiwan and India to work together. India is the world’s largest democracy, while Taiwan is relatively younger. The electoral system in both India and Taiwan are examples of the deep-rooted democratic values. However, democracy is not just about casting votes and electing the government representative, it is also about economic, social, and political assimilation. Strengthening grassroots democracy, for instance, is one area where Taiwan could offer some key insights. More importantly, Taiwan could also help India with sharing its best practices in generating more enthusiasm and awareness about democracy and rights attached to it. It is often said that a democracy is as strong as its weakest and most vulnerable member. Strengthening the weakest link in a democracy not only involves imparting education and creating political awareness, it also involves making people economically and socially self-sufficient. Taiwan and India can work on those aspects together, and find new avenues of cooperation. In these difficult times for democracy, which is facing attacks from all fronts, mutual support is the way forward—not judgemental critics about one another.
Sana Hashmi is a Visiting Fellow at Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF). Alan H. Yang is Distinguished Professor and Deputy Director of Institute of International Relations (IIR), National Chengchi University, Taiwan and a Bush China Foundation Senior Fellow. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.