by Maciej BartkowskiFebruary 08, 2021
In the past two decades, autocracies have been on the rise and aspiring autocrats in democracies have been gaining in numbers and strength. The 2020 democracy report by the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute noted that by 2020, autocracies have formed a clear majority for the first time since the beginning of 2000, constituting 92 countries with 54% of the global population or 4.2 billion people. Furthermore, 35% of the world’s population, an additional 2.7 billion people, live today in countries that are experiencing a significant decline in their democracy index and that are often headed by elected anti-democratic demagogues.
This is colloquially known as the third wave of authoritarianism, or “autocratization” as a pun to Samuel Huntington’s thesis articulated in 1991 on the three waves of democratization. If we consider relatively static elements of democracy such as respect for human rights, free and fair elections, and democratic rule of law inclusive of minorities, Huntington’s third wave of democratization that began in 1974 slowed down in the second half of the 1990s and eventually died down by the beginning of 2000.
Yet, if we focus on the dynamic aspects of democracy, namely its mobilized citizens, the picture might not be as gloomy for democracy as the third wave of autocratization might suggest. Together with this negative wave for democracy in the past decade, the world has experienced what can be called a tsunami of popular nonviolent upheavals against the autocrats of the world.
In the outgoing decade (2010-2019), we saw the onset of no less than 96 nonviolent campaigns against undemocratic rulers, twice as many as what took place during the peak of Huntington’s third democratization wave in the 1980s. This tsunami also dwarfed the first decade of this century with 60 nonviolent campaigns against dictatorship, and the 1990s with just slightly more than 40 nonviolent campaigns challenging repressive governments. At the same time, violent means of resistance against repression dropped precipitously.
The state of democracy is in peril today, but anti-democratic forces are neither all-encompassing nor the only force to be reckoned with in the political sphere. Against them stands impressive grassroots power. These forces of light, mobilized to illuminate democratic principles and practices, are far from being invisible or quiet.
According to the already cited V-Dem study, between 2009-2019 the number of countries with substantial pro-democracy movements rose from 27% to 44%. These mass peaceful mobilizations have successfully pushed for momentous democratic opening and stood for democracy defense in more than 20 countries during this time. 2019 alone, the report observed, was the year with the highest number of pro-democracy protests of all time, even larger than mobilizations that saw the Soviet Union collapse and the Arab Spring.
Several weeks into the new year, the lives of billions of people continue to be upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Dark and light forces have arguably continued their ascendence. Authoritarians have dug their heels and used the health emergency as a pretext to tighten their grip on power. By July 2020, 106 elections were postponed in 61 countries. Militaries across Latin America, tyrannical regimes in China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Belarus, Egypt, Burma and Uganda, and aspiring autocrats in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Tanzania, Nigeria, Guinea, and Ethiopia, to name a few, all seized the Covid-19 crisis to gain a more prominent role in governing the country and amass even more powers for themselves and their cronies. In the process, they’ve clamped down on political opponents, abused or rigged electoral politics, and intensified media censorship, including capturing and manipulating digital information space and engaging in corruption schemes.
At the same time, 2020 saw the largest protest mobilizations in some countries’ recent history, including in the United States, Poland, and Belarus (since the fall of communism), and Thailand. Many movements and campaigns took place and/or their struggles continue into 2021—from Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Guinea, Hong Kong, Ivory Coast, and Lebanon to Nigeria, Panama, and Tanzania, among others. People are not only refusing to remain silent, they are actively pushing against repressive rule, even under—and also because of—the added constraints on physical movement as a result of the pandemic. This is manifesting through unprecedented creative organizing and resistance actions.
Nonviolent mass mobilizations remain visible despite parallel processes of autocratization and unscrupulous, opportunistic handling of the global health crisis to suppress dissent. The mobilizations and resistance alongside these processes constitute an integral part of real and imagined democracy in the making—and this is what autocrats want to destroy. Civil resistance not only advances democratic practices but is in fact a natural extension of those practices.
The arc of the universe, to paraphrase Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is not destined to bend toward democracy unless organized and mobilized people bend it that way. This is what movements have been doing in ever greater numbers in the past two decades, boding well for freedom struggles to continue unabated in the year that lies ahead.
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Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is a Senior Advisor to ICNC. He works on academic programs to support teaching, research and study on civil resistance. He is a series editor of the ICNC Monographs and ICNC Special Reports, and book editor of Recovering Nonviolent History. You can follow him @macbartkow