As 2014 opened, democratic governments around the world were under mounting stress, and authoritarian leaders chose to confront popular demonstrations that threatened a breakdown in public order. In come cases, political freedom was all but extinguished. Here are four examples.
The most dramatic demise of democracy was in Egypt. Its democratically elected government was ousted last summer after massive protest demonstrations resulted in military intervention. The ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, was jailed by the new rulers and faces charges of treason. Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Party that won national election in 2012, failed to revive Egypt's economy, and prevent impending bankruptcy and political chaos. Democratic government, which seemed so promising in Egypt during the "Arab Spring," is all but dead.
Another example of democracy under stress is Russia. When Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000, there was great hope in Russia and abroad that the chaotic nine years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency was over.
Despite expectations that he would strengthen democratic institutions, Putin embarked on a decade devoted to accumulation of power in presidential hands and to silencing his critics. In 2003, for example, he jailed an outspoken critic, billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and a compliant court then sentenced him to nine years in prison, for corruption. Today, Putin's Russia is an authoritarian state that retains the trappings of democracy but stifles its political opposition.
Huge demonstrations in Bangkok over recent weeks demanded that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra resign. Her crime? She is the sister of a former prime minister, Taksin Shinawatra, whose arbitrary rule and corruption led to his ouster in a 2006 military coup. Although Taksin now lives in exile, opposition leaders charge that he continues to exercise power at home through his sister. Opposition leaders say they will boycott the Feb. 2 elections and interfere with balloting at polling stations.
Thailand is a country that had free elections and democratic governments since the 1970s. However, the confrontation between more conservative voters in Bangkok and the restive ones in the poorer, neglected rural areas could lead to violence in coming weeks and result in a military coup and an end to democratic government.
November's huge demonstrations in Kiev, demanding that President Victor Yanukovych resign, were in response to his rejection of the parliament's desire to accept an invitation for Ukraine to join the European Union. Instead, he traveled to Moscow and accepted an offer from Vladimir Putin to align Ukraine to a Russian-sponsored customs union with other neighboring states. In return, Ukraine received a $16 billion Russian loan to bolster its faltering economy.
The widely publicized Kiev protests underscore Ukraine's political divide between its Russian-oriented eastern and southern parts and its European-oriented western regions. Those in the west strongly support the European policies of former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was narrowly defeated by Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election. His new government quickly brought charges of corruption and abuse of power against Tymoshenko, and a compliant court sentenced her to seven years in prison. As a result, Ukraine's democratic freedoms are in jeopardy.
How should America respond to growing threats to democracy abroad?
Some thoughtful people say: We should not interfere in how other countries run their affairs, so long as it doesn't affect us. Others argue: The United States has spent too many years, and too much money trying to get other people to adopt our ways. It's time we think more about our needs here at home.
The counter arguments run like this: America's prosperity and high standard of living result of a relatively peaceful world in which democratic governments are actively backed by U.S. policy. Because democracies are more peaceful than authoritarian regimes, we should give democratic movements major support. A more ideological theme is: America was founded as a democratic system and has promoted freedom and democracy around the world as a national interest. It must support freedom movements wherever they need support.
The hard reality for America is that, for all our good intentions, we have limited political and economic resources to significantly influence internal workings of other governments, especially those determined to maintain political control at the expense of personal freedoms, as in Egypt and Russia.
Also, our rhetoric about the merits of democratic forms of governments abroad would be strengthened if our own institutions in Washington functioned more effectively than has been the case recently.
File last modified on Monday, 07-JAN-2014 5:23 PM EST