Flipping the script on democracy’s decline

The world’s old democracies can find renewal in the determined struggles elsewhere for rights and rule of law.

In Nairobi Aug. 31, Kenya's Supreme Court hears petitions challenging the result of a recent presidential election. Losing candidate Raila Odinga and others filed the petitions.

A current view of global trends is that the world is in a new rivalry between the United States and both China and Russia, complicated by a rise of so-called middle powers such as Turkey and India. This view also sees an erosion of free trade, international agreements, and democracy.

Yet a counternarrative is plain to see. From Africa to Afghanistan, individuals and local communities are pushing against repression and isolation, reflected in their aspirations for equality, economic opportunity, and compassion.

“Our hands are not empty,” Shahlla Arifi, a female activist in Afghanistan, told The Washington Post after a year of frequent protests by women against the Taliban’s newly restored repressive rule. “We exposed the Taliban’s faults. We showed the world their brutality.”

This drive for open, pluralistic societies may be flipping a long-standing script. During the Cold War and its three-decade aftermath, mature Western democracies sought to export their models of government. Now the civics lessons may be flowing the other way.

“As Africans, we should realize that it is our duty to stand with the people of America and Britain,” wrote Kenyan editorial cartoonist Patrick Gathara in Al Jazeera in July, “and to support their aspirations for democracy, accountability, and transparent government.”

A bit of cheek, perhaps, but he had a point. August elections in Kenya and Angola, for example, showed that judiciaries and election commissions are gaining independence and transparency at a time when those same democratic institutions are under attack in the U.S. Zambia tossed out an incumbent last year. In Senegal, the opposition fell just two seats short of a legislative majority in the July elections; that provides an important buffer for democracy at a time when President Macky Sall has hinted at seeking constitutional changes to prolong his power.

In each of those countries, challenges to election results have strengthened the rule of law by recognizing the legitimacy of courts rather than political violence.

“Africans express a stout preference for democracy,” noted Tiseke Kasambala, director of Africa programs at Freedom House, on the organization’s website. “Young people who yearn for reform are the continent’s biggest drivers of change. ... Social movements that successfully mobilized communities have played a critical role in keeping the continent’s civic space open.”

The threats to the world’s liberal order cannot be dismissed. But neither should the gains. They are reflected in the hard-won reproductive rights secured by women’s movements in Argentina and Colombia, and in the resolve of Ukrainians to protect their democracy from Russian aggression.

That kind of courage is a powerful rebuttal to despair or “democracy fatigue,” argues Henry Giroux, professor of cultural studies at McMaster University in Ontario. It shows that there is an “opening up [to] the possibilities of thinking in a different way so that one can act in defense of the common good, equality, social justice, and democratic ideals,” he told Slate.

For many established democracies now facing the strains of legitimacy, lessons for renewal can come from unlikely places. It just takes looking past the accepted narrative.

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