Sad Times for Democracy

July 5, 2020

China had a two-term limit on its president since the 1990s. Xi Jinping became president in 2012. In April this year, the National People’s Congress approved the removal the two-term limit, effectively allowing him to “remain in power for life”.

China is one of world’s leading powers. Henry Kissinger has said, “No other country can claim so long a continuous civilization, or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.” However, without even an interlude of democracy in its history, China has failed to make progress in that direction and President Xi’s two terms in office are no exception.

During the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union Western countries lectured Moscow on the merits of democracy and free market. Russia implemented a radical privatization program encouraged by the West. The fall in oil prices added to Russia’s economic woes. GNP fell by 43%. Inflation reached record levels leading to social problems. Some former members of the Warsaw Pact crossed over to the “other side” in exercising what was their indisputable right under international law. Nonetheless, the West could and should have done more to manage Russia’s frustration. The loss of an empire is more than a disappointment.

On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly announced his resignation and named Vladimir Putin acting president. Since then Mr. Putin has ruled over Russia. The constitutional amendments which were recently approved by the Russians by a large majority have given Mr. Putin the possibility to run two more times for president after his current term expires in 2024.

President Putin has by and large restored Russia’s status a major global player. He seized every opportunity offered by the West like in Georgia and Ukraine. The restoration of their country’s power understandably makes the people of Russia happy. Russia, like China, is a great nation. It has made outstanding contributions to world culture, science, and technology. However, like China, without even an interlude of democracy in its history, Russia has also failed to make any progress in that direction. Mr. Putin’s two-decade rule is no exception. This not to say that Russians never aspired to democracy. They did, but their hopes were always frustrated.

What is disappointing in the Russian case is that the people of Russia voted for a leader in a constitutional referendum. They could have taken a closer look at what the change meant in the long run.

On April 16, 2017 Turks voted also in a constitutional referendum. And, with only 51.41% “yes” votes, the country switched from a decades-long parliamentary system to an alla turca presidential system. Since then our democratic decline has gained more momentum.

All of this is happening at a time when “democracy’s decline” has become a current topic in the West. It goes without saying that the discussion is not about China or Russia but the West itself. Because the world’s leader’s own record of democracy and respect for human rights is being questioned. Statues of prominent figures of American history are being torn down for their racist stands. President Trump’s self-centered and divisive policies contribute to democracy’s global decline. The E.U. has ceased to be a source of inspiration. There is a leadership crisis across the West.

This is what the Guardian’s Shaun Walker reported today under the title “Knife-edge Polish presidential race could slow the march of populism”:

“In both Hungary and Poland, the twin bastions of illiberal politics in central Europe, opposition candidates have shown they can win in big cities. Winning the whole country will be much harder, but would send a signal that Poland is not travelling further down the path of illiberalism towards Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.”

Let us hope so.

The current picture leaves the peoples of the Middle East only with wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and pessimism for their political future.

Presidents Xi Jinping and Putin are no icons of democracy but by changing their countries’ constitutions for their extended rule, they have set a bad example. The question now is “who is next?”



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