Barbarians at the gates of modern democracy
Irony or even a sense of timing seems to escape Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Last week, the autocrat-president of Kazakhstan, and protégé of former autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, ordered the country’s security forces to “shoot to kill without warning” to deter protests against rising oil prices and some gas. Ironies abound here. First, Kazakhstan is a net exporter of petroleum products and yet the prices of oil and gas remain out of reach for its ordinary citizens. Second, the Kazakh forces had Russian reinforcements. Beyond the ironies, there are other chilling implications: Tokayev’s orders came as the United States celebrated the first anniversary of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington by far-right rioters trying to undo by force the result of a legitimate election. It’s another deal they failed to succeed, but this foray left an imprint on the future of democracy and its continued legitimacy as political scientist Francis Fukuyama lamented in a guest essay for New York. Times: Atic practice has been shredded. What that might mean should concern us all, everywhere.
At first glance, it might appear that the American rioters on Capitol Hill were embracing a degenerate form of democracy seen in growing practice: a crass sense of mobocracy. As a concept, it has undergone reductionist revisionism from a succession of undemocratic rulers who have sought to define it solely through elections rather than institutions, structures, or human rights. Globally, the gathering of crowds to stuff the ballot boxes, often done legally but spreading distorted facts, has become the popular leitmotif for coating democracy with a thick autocratic patina. India has been afflicted in its own way. The republic began its meeting with strong democratic ideals, giving every citizen – male or female, high caste or low, rich or poor, loyal or unfaithful – one vote. The design of our democracy, with its federal structure, parliament and independent judiciary, has been a model for many postcolonial nation states. But this building is threatened today; The discovery of the Tek Fog app, which our ruling party apparatchiks have armed to defame critics, spread false narratives, fan the flames of sectarian hatred and win elections, is just the latest example of the efforts that certain forces are ready to do for they hijack the principles and practice of democracy for power.
Democratic ideals are in decline across the world: Putin from Russia, Erdoğan from Turkey, Bolsanaro from Brazil, Orban from Hungary and Duterte from the Philippines are all leaders who curtailed democratic rights in their countries after coming to power through the through the ballot. Oddly, the decline followed a global free market push that saw oligarchic business interests gain the upper hand, in disregard of what private competition was supposed to offer. Moreover, in the 32 years or so since the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalization, for all its benefits, has accentuated inequalities between economies and reallocated jobs and incomes upward, leaving vast multitudes vulnerable to populist calls. Over-reliance on healthcare (or education) markets and global inequalities in vaccine access, as exposed by the pandemic, both need to be addressed. But for democracy to ensure dignity for everyone, we must also safeguard the economic well-being of all. Stagnation at any level is seen as a void for demagoguery. The economy and democracy of a country must be part of a mutually assured development pact.
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