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 World Affairs

Democracy in retreat

Democracy is in retreat says Freedom House, an American organisation monitoring the progress and retreat of democracy in countries around the world based on specific standards which are not acceptable to certain countries. The latest report reviewed in The Economist January 10 issue speaks of a 'profoundly disturbing deterioration' in the global picture with reversals in 38 countries.

Last year was the second successive year when liberty as defined by Freedom House moved backwards. A number of countries in all regions of the world which indicated a hopeful trend have gone backwards.

Sri Lanka has been mentioned as one such country, the flaring up of the 'civil war' being given as the reason while other such countries mentioned are Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

South Asia

We have not had access to the Freedom House report but it could be said that in South Asia back pedalling on democracy was quite evident with Pakistan being the most prominent.

In Bangladesh the two squabbling Begums who led the two main parties have been thrown out by a military backed government which is also not performing up to expectations while in Nepal democracy is in the balance with the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist), better known as the Maoists, forcing the exit of a 245-year-old monarchy.

India among the free

There is the long standing rule of President Abdul Gayoom who has ruled continuously for well over 26 years and is being accused of being a dictator and is opposed very strongly. Only the giant of the sub continent, India, has been placed among the top 'free' group of 43 countries.

Freedom House classifies countries as 'Free,' 'Partly Free,' and 'Not Free.' Sri Lanka falls into the second category.

Freedom House was founded in 1941 as a counter to Nazism and after World War II turned its guns against the Soviet Union and its allies. Eighty per cent of its income is from the US government and some of its trustees such as James Woolsey, a former CIA Director, Donald Rumsfeld ex-Defence Secretary and Paul Wolfowitz, the neo conservative of President George W. Bush's administration raise questions about its impartiality.

Yet, as The Economist notes it has also been highly critical of pro-American dictators. Cuba has been placed in the worst category of 'Not Free' and its envoys to the UN have denounced the organisation as a blatant instrument of interventionist activities by dark forces in Washington.

Economic factors

Like most Western nations and institutions Freedom House does not take into account the operative economic factors or the all round political climate a weak or fledgling democracy has to cope with. Thus a country with a weak economy and assailed by forces beyond its control would not qualify for higher rankings of Freedom House and would be judged on par with powerful and rich countries.

But a country that falls into ambit of national interests of a nation such as the United States, receives greater consideration.

Pakistan is certainly not categorised as a 'free country' but attempts to get the late Benazir Bhutto to reach a power sharing agreement with the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf is still being talked of by the leaders of the West and Western media as an experiment to restore democracy in that country but one which failed.

The hard facts that Benazir Bhutto, though a former prime minister who had been convicted for money laundering in Spanish and Swiss courts and that Musharraf had thrown out an elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and seized power, were not matters for consideration because it was in the interests of America and its Western allies to have the besieged military dictator in the seat of power to fight their war against the Taliban.

Desire for democracy

People in poor, underdeveloped countries irrespective of their religions and culture have shown a desire to have the people of their choice as their rulers and they resent foreign interference in their internal affairs.

Following the end of the Cold War, the move to make such interventions, if necessary by force, in the name of freedom and democracy is gathering momentum. Sri Lanka has been experiencing such pressures under the name of the Right to Protection (R2P). It is done in the name of protection of minority rights but such interventions make nonsense of a country's independence and sovereignty and leave it physically in shambles.

Whether democracy can be planted by military bayonets or the bayonets of the UN forces is yet to be demonstrated. It would certainly result in this kind of enforced democracy being resisted.

Chaos in Kenya

Today we see on TV the pathetic outcome of the poor Kenyan people's attempt to elect their leader in a democratic way but how it has ended in disaster. We also see on TV, elegant debates such as between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton with all their sophistry on gender and race but not transgressing the accepted norms. The difference is the money.

The quotation of British philosopher Bertrand Russell on democracy, which we often resort to, is apt in this instance too: If a man offers you democracy and another a bag of grain, at which stage of starvation would you prefer the bag of grain?


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