Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What brings democracy down?

It was only 16 years ago that Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, a best selling book that celebrated the "victory" of democracy. Things look different in this part of the 21st century. What accounts for the changes?

After decades of triumph, democracy is losing ground
The world has grown far more democratic since the second world war. In 1941 there were only a dozen democracies; by 2000 only eight states had never held a serious election. But since the financial crisis of 2007-08, democracy has regressed.

Most watchdogs concur. The latest survey by Freedom House, an American think-tank, is called “Democracy in Crisis”. In 2017, for the 12th consecutive year, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains… According to the Democracy Index from The Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist, 89 countries regressed in 2017; only 27 improved…

What these indices measure is not simply democracy (ie, rule by the people), but liberal democracy (ie, with a freely elected government that also respects individual and minority rights, the rule of law and independent institutions)…

This system is now under siege. In many countries, voters are picking leaders who do not respect it, and gradually undermine it, creating what Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, proudly calls “illiberal democracy”…

The mature democracies of the West are not yet in serious danger. Donald Trump may scorn liberal norms, but America’s checks and balances are strong, and will outlast him. The real threat is to less mature democracies, where institutions are weaker and democratic habits less ingrained…

Meanwhile, China supplies an alternative model. Having grown much less dictatorial after the death of Mao Zedong, it is reconcentrating power in one man, Xi Jinping, whose term limits as president have just been removed. Some would-be autocrats cite China as evidence that authoritarianism promotes economic growth—though what they often mean is that they too want to be presidents for life.

Globally, public support for democracy remains high. A Pew poll of 38 countries found that a median of 78% of people agreed that a system where elected representatives make laws was a good one. But hefty minorities approved of non-democratic alternatives. A worrying 24% thought that military rule would be fine, and 26% liked the idea of “a strong leader” who “can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts” (see chart 2). In general, autocracy was more popular among the less educated.

To oversimplify, a democracy typically declines like this. First, a crisis occurs and voters back a charismatic leader who promises to save them. Second, this leader finds enemies. His aim, in the words of H.L. Mencken, a 20th-century American wit, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Third, he nobbles independent institutions that might get in his way. Finally, he changes the rules to make it harder for voters to dislodge him. During the first three stages, his country is still a democracy. At some point in the final stage, it ceases to be one. All four stages are worth examining…

Would-be autocrats need a positive agenda, too. Often they pose as defenders of an identity that voters hold dear, such as their nationality, culture or religion. Poland’s ruling party, for example, waxes lyrical about the country’s Catholic way of life, and lavishes subsidies on big families, who are likely to be rural and religious…

To remain in power, autocrats need to nobble independent institutions. They do this gradually and quietly. The first target is often the justice system…

The media must be nobbled, too. First, an autocrat in waiting puts his pals in charge of the public broadcaster and accuses critical outlets of spreading lies. Rather than banning independent media, as despots might have done a generation ago, he slaps spurious fines or tax bills on their owners, forcing them to sell their businesses to loyal tycoons…

Getting the security forces on side is essential. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former president, took their loyalty for granted and was thrown out. Other strongmen are less complacent…

With the courts, press and armed forces in his pocket, a strongman can set about neutering every other institution that counts. He can sideline parliament, redraw the electoral map and bar serious opponents from politics…

Much has been said about the failures of liberal democracies. Although they are typically rich and peaceful, many of their citizens are disgruntled. Globalisation and technology have made them fear for their jobs. The culture wars ensure that more or less everyone feels disrespected by someone. The rise of autocracy is in part a reaction to these big historical trends. But it is also because power-hungry leaders have learned how to exploit them. You cannot have autocracy without an autocrat.

Most authoritarian regimes are filthy. Of the countries and territories in the dirtiest third of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, not one is rated “free” by Freedom House. Of those in the cleanest 20, only Singapore and Hong Kong fail to qualify as free…

That strongmen make up their own rules is why liberal democracy is worth defending. And in the long run, it seems to deliver better material results. A study by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that switching from autocracy to democracy adds 20% to income per head over 30 years, though some economists dispute these findings. Guillermo Vuletin of the World Bank argues that autocrats fall when economies slump, and the democrats who succeed them take credit for the inevitable recovery.

What is certain, however, is that freely elected governments bound by the rule of law have less power to abuse citizens. “Little by little they took away our rights,” says a journalist in Diyarbakir, who was recently arrested for five innocuous tweets. “Every day I check the news to see which of my friends has been detained.”

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Civil unrest on Chinese roads

When public protests become visible to outsiders, I'd assume that we're just seeing the surface of the situation.

Chinese truck drivers, activists warn of more protests over fuel, fines and cutthroat rates
Thousands of truck drivers are believed to have taken part in protests in a dozen places – including Shanghai and Chongqing…

Footage and photos posted online showed drivers honking horns, driving slowly, chanting slogans and holding up banners.

As well as complaining about high fuel costs and random traffic fines, the drivers were protesting over changes to an Uber-like online truck logistics platform that pairs owner-drivers with freight shippers.

Long-distance truck drivers have protested before but the action this time is significant for breaking through the heavy censorship of China’s media to show the impact of internet companies on Chinese workers…

“We are struggling just to survive,” one driver based in Yantai, Shandong province, said, refusing to rule out similar action later this year.

“We did not plan the strikes, there is no leadership or organisation. We speak out from time to time.

“We can’t make a living any more now that haulage rates are under fierce competition and the diesel price is 7 yuan (US$1.09) a litre ... We are also often randomly fined for traffic violations.”

Diesel prices have climbed steadily – this time last year the price was 5.6 yuan per litre.

In the online videos, a number of trucks were also vandalised after their drivers refused to take part in the protests…

According to Ministry of Transport, there are 18 million long-distance truck drivers but other estimates put the number at 30 million – a sizable group whose growing grievances the authorities cannot afford to overlook…

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

Just The Facts! 2nd edition is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.


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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Brexit in danger?

At least, Brexit is more complicated than it was in the referendum.

Facing Defeat on Brexit, May Gives Ground to U.K.’s Parliament
Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, on Tuesday promised greater control for Parliament over withdrawal from the European Union, after a threatened rebellion by lawmakers forced her into a new and potentially significant retreat in the country’s troubled exit from the bloc.
Brexit protesters in London
The day began on an ominous note with the resignation of one of Mrs. May’s ministers over her plans for withdrawal, known as Brexit, and got steadily worse for the prime minister when some of her rebel lawmakers combined with opposition parties, posing the threat of a damaging defeat.

The vote concerned an amendment that had been added by the House of Lords to Mrs. May’s main Brexit legislation. The amendment would have given lawmakers more control over the process…

Mrs. May had appealed to lawmakers not to support the amendment, arguing that it would weaken her negotiating hand with the European Union…

All this is before Mrs. May meets other European Union leaders at a summit this month for talks that are likely to be difficult…

Since losing her parliamentary majority last year, Mrs. May has been forced to adjudicate between warring factions within her Conservative Party, something that has led her to postpone a number of important decisions.

As a consequence, almost two years after the 2016 referendum that mandated British withdrawal, the British government has been unable to outline what type of economic relationship it wants with the European Union, which is its biggest trading partner.

Mrs. May’s cabinet is split between those who want to keep close ties, in order to protect the economy, and hard-line Brexit supporters who want to cut free in the hope of striking trade deals further afield.

A fierce dispute has also broken out over a British contingency plan to prevent the imposition of border checks between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland which will remain in the European Union…

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

Just The Facts! 2nd edition is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.


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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

New national holiday

Chinese leaders want people to forget about June 4. Many people in Nigeria want June 12 to be commemorated.

Nigerians want June 12 general elections taught in schools
Some Nigerians have called for the introduction of June 12, 1993 general election into the nation’s history curriculum for both secondary schools and tertiary institutions…

The call is coming on the heels of the 20th anniversary of June 12 presidential election slated for Tuesday, which was presumed to have been won by the late business mogul, Chief Moshood Abiola.
Mr Abdullahi Haruna, a Public affairs Analyst, said that in spite of the long period before the pronouncement, introducing it as part of the country`s historical study would help the youths to understand the history behind the event.

He noted that the annulled presidential election and the attendant controversy must be taught in Nigerian schools to draw the needed lesson that would help the country in the future...

Mrs Dorcas Joseph, a lawyer also called on the Federal Government to ensure that such event and the crisis that followed was taught as history in schools to forestall a recurrence…

Joseph, who said she voted for late MKO Abiola under the scorching sun, and expressed worry about the annulment, adding that the country almost collapsed from that singular act…

President Muhammadu Buhari on June 6 declared June 12 as the new date for the celebration of Nigeria`s Democracy Day as against the May 29, to honour late Abiola, the presumed winner of the presidential election…

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

Just The Facts! 2nd edition is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.


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Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Elections and social media in Mexico

Some people in Mexico are serious about exposing online political manipulation.

Mexico election: Concerns about election bots, trolls and fakes
Political parties in Mexico are using bots and fake accounts in an attempt to influence voter behaviour and in some cases spread false stories ahead of the country's presidential elections on 1 July, according to researchers, journalists and activists…

Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher with Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project, has been tracking automated accounts, or bots, which attempt to manipulate public opinion by boosting the popularity of social media posts.

But there are other tricks deployed in aid of politicians. "Troll farms"… are run by actual humans, each of which might control dozens or hundreds of accounts. And often accounts are semi-automated, pumping out messages with a mix of computer power and human know-how…

In a paper published in 2017, Bradshaw along with researcher Philip Howard, concluded that government-sponsored "spam-bots" were used in Mexico to "target journalists" and "spread misinformation".

"These bots are often used to flood social media networks with spam and fake news. They can also amplify marginal voices and ideas by inflating the number of likes, shares and retweets they receive, creating an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance," the researchers wrote…

The previous use of bots and the upcoming election has concentrated the attention of the public and activists on online trickery.

Alberto Escorcia, founder of the blog Lo Que Sigue ("What's Next"), says that although the use of bots for political purposes has been detected in Mexico since at least 2010, this type of activity has intensified in recent years…

Although the PRI has been the focus of much of the attention of the researchers, both Bradshaw and Escorcia agree that online tricks haven't been limited to one party. All the main political parties in the country are using bots in their current campaigns, they say.

However the main political parties, including the PRI, have consistently denied they are using bots…

The bots and trolls are spreading political messages, but there's a more fundamental concern - that they are seeding the web with false news stories.

As a response, more than sixty Mexican media outlets, universities and NGOs formed an anti-fake news initiative called Verificado 2018.

Verificado is encouraging people to send them stories on social media using the hashtag #QuieroQueVerifiquen, or "I want you to verify this." The organisation's researchers will then fact-check and publish their findings.

"In this election we are finding a lot of bots that are being used in order to promote or to attack other candidates," says Yuriria Avila, a Verificado 2018 fact-checker." "We're seeing bots are being used to promote hashtags that people wouldn't naturally use, and they become trending topics."

One piece of false news she detected in March was a report that said an opinion poll commissioned by The New York Times showed Meade - the PRI candidate - leading the presidential race with 42% of voters behind him.

The poll was fictional; most polls have instead consistently shown Meade trailing third in the race…

Avila says that a number of false stories are being shared through the messaging app Whatsapp, and because of the closed nature of that system, they have been among the most challenging things to track and debunk…

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Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Vote buying in Mexico

Strict laws about campaign financing don't mean much without enforcement.

Mexican campaigns awash with dirty money, pre-election report finds
For every peso spent by Mexican parties on campaigning and reported to electoral authorities, another 15 pesos goes unreported, according to a new study showing that the country’s political campaigns are awash in cash from dubious sources.

The report, published… by the anti-graft group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, comes four week’s before the country’s presidential elections…

Mexican political parties are showered with public funding and electoral laws impose strict spending limits in election campaigns. But individual campaigns regularly race past those limits while illegal money can also come from corrupt local governments, businessmen buying future concessions and contracts, and even drug cartels.

Until 2000, the outcome of Mexican elections were never in doubt as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled uninterrupted for 71 years.

But according to the authors of the study, entitled Cash Under the Table, the advent of competitive, multi-party elections has increased competition and costs, especially as vices such as vote-buying persist.

Analysts say the cost of buying votes has ballooned in what has become a vote-sellers’ market, and poor voters sometimes view their suffrage as an asset.

Parties also spend enormous amounts to maintain patronage groups, which marshal the vote come election time…

The exact scope of the spending is uncertain, though the authors pointed to troublesome signs such as an inexplicable increase in the amount of cash circulating in the economy prior to elections.

Parties break the spending rules because oversight is minimal, fines are modest, and the country’s electoral tribunal has issued rulings appearing to forgive egregious examples of campaign overspending, the report found…

Political parties in Mexico can only collect private donations equivalent to a small percentage of the total public moneys they receive. Such policies were meant to keep out shady sources of funding such as narco money, but has ended up attracting rent-seekers and politicians with few ways of being held accountable…
See also: Glossary of graft lays bare Mexico's lexicon of corruption

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

Just The Facts! 2nd edition is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.


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Monday, June 04, 2018

Ancient history

In political terms the events of May and June 1989 are more ancient than the Qing Dynasty. The massacre that took place in Tiananmen Square on June 4 has been hidden from or forgotten by most people, but the political elite remembers well. Should we?

Portraits of persistence: the Hongkongers refusing to let memories of China’s 1989 Tiananmen crackdown die
Ahead of Monday’s anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters, the Post spoke to two of the few Hongkongers who witnessed the chaotic clearance operation. The pair shared how they narrowly escaped death amid the gunfire and tanks that ran across the city on the night of June 3 and early morning of June 4.
Tiananmen Square, 1989
Kenneth Lam, then a student leader at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has since become a local human rights lawyer, fighting for the rights of grass-roots workers.

He considers his work an extension of the spirit that drove the Tiananmen protest movement almost three decades ago.

Taking a different path, Gloria Fung Yuk-lang left China in 1989 for Canada, from where she keeps a close eye on her hometown and works to raise awareness of the crackdown in the face of Beijing’s continued attempts to muzzle any mention of the incident inside the country’s borders.

Both Lam and Fung see it as their responsibility to tell the world what happened, and keep up the struggle against fading memories. Their stories are often harrowing…
Beijing 1989


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Friday, June 01, 2018

Echo of civil war

Fifty years ago, Nigeria nearly dissolved in war. Some people still wish for dissolution.

Biafra shutdown cripples Nigerian cities
A stay-at-home protest by Biafran separatists in Nigeria has crippled cities and towns in the south-east.

Streets are empty and markets, banks and schools are closed to mark the abortive attempt in 1967 to gain independence for the region.

It led to a bitter three-year civil war in which more than one million people were killed.

The authorities have warned the secessionists against street protests and security forces are on patrol.

South-eastern Nigeria is mainly inhabited by the ethnic Igbo community, who often complain of marginalisation - accusing successive governments of failing to develop their areas…

The BBC Igbo service says there has been a total shutdown in the Igbo heartland of Enugu and Anambra states…

People have been sending in photos to BBC Igbo of deserted streets, including one of the iconic Niger River Bridge in Onitsha, known as the gateway to the east, which is usually congested with traffic…
Onitsha Bridge


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