Democracy in decline?

Dr Ali Riaz

Dr Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University (USA) and a Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council. In this interview with Eresh Omar Jamal of The Daily Star, professor Riaz talks about the old and new challenges to democracy and whether democracy globally is on the retreat.


Historian and author Yuval Noah Harrari said during a Ted Talk that in the past few decades, the common story propagated was that "the economy was being globalised, politics was being liberalised and the combination of the two would produce paradise on Earth." That did not happen, leading many people globally to question our existing democracies and democratic institutions. What is your opinion on that?

I tend to agree with that. But the point is that democracy unfortunately is in decline. Over the last years and decades, or if I use the Freedom House's indices, then for the last 14 years, we have been experiencing a decline of democracy. If we look at the world now, almost 61 percent of the global population live in a situation that Freedom House calls "partly free" or "not free". During this period, we have seen a deterioration of democratic institutions. So anyone who predicted paradise on Earth, at this point, would be devastated.

But the trend was clear for the last 16 years. If we talk of the economy, the neoliberal economic policies that has created this world has already revealed the inadequacies, bankruptcies and hollowness of the economic policies pursued. That raised questions about globalisation, but globalisation of a certain kind I would say, not necessarily the concept, because we do live in an interdependent world. Take for example the environment. What you do in Dhaka, Bangladesh, would affect me here living in a small US town.

With respect to the questioning of democracy, democracy as a concept as well as in statecraft now faces challenges. Yet, we need to understand what is the alternative and how did we arrive here. We arrived here because of the rise of "charismatic/populist leaders" and the debilitation of democratic institutions—democratic backsliding, i.e. state-led debilitation of democratic institutions.

Just because people are questioning democracy doesn't mean that they want authoritarianism. What it actually means is that they want better democracies.

You have mentioned the rise of populist leaders. But should we not also question democratic institutions, because in democracies we are supposed to have these checks and balances along with different branches of power—legislative, executive and judicial—that are expected to hold each other accountable?

They are not functioning properly because of institutional decay. One thing is alienation from the people. And the institutions have been captured by a small group of people.

Populism by definition is not right-wing or undemocratic. But the rise of the populists that we have seen in the last few years is right-wing populism. Why did that happen? One is the rise of identity politics, which has its own limitations. I am not opposed to all identity politics. But what has happened is that identity politics has been abused to create an "us versus them" situation. This binary has been created for the benefit of a very few people. And why has that been possible? That is where the institution part comes in. The institutions have failed, or partly failed, to deliver to the people, leading to this situation.

You mentioned the US, but recently a court in the US ruled that the mass surveillance exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden may have been unconstitutional. So you still have the judiciary or other branches of government holding the executive accountable. If we return to our country, what is your analysis of how the different branches of our government have performed, if you look at history?

When Bangladesh moved from the presidential system to the parliamentarian system, it shifted all the president's power lock, stock and barrel to the prime minister. This created a path for constitutional authoritarianism. And I have been speaking about this since 1993. I was afraid that this kind of power has been put on the plate of the prime minister—it doesn't matter who is the prime minister—because that kind of power can "practically" undermine the importance of the legislative power. Not only is the prime minister part of the legislative body, but also the head of the executive. Hence you are giving the majority of the power to the executive.

Then, of course, there is a lack of democracy within the political parties, and an absence of a political culture of tolerance. Whoever goes to power forgets that they too will be in the opposition, because they think this is a perennial thing and is going to go on for eternity.

And frankly speaking, I am afraid to even talk about the judiciary, because I don't know who is going to tell me that I have actually crossed the line. Because I don't know where the line is. The citizens don't know. The separation between the judiciary and the executive that should have been done a long time ago never happened. And the saddest part is that an unelected government tried to do it between 2007 and 2009. What a pathetic thing! Something that should have been done by the people's representatives was not done by them, but attempted by an unrepresentative government, which did not work.

Executive power grab has been done in a fashion that has not only weakened the legislative body but the judiciary as well. And that is where the problem is, and where we have seen the inadequacy and failure of the entire democratic practice—that would have allowed us to get to a position where we could say, "okay, we are on the path to democracy". Instead, Bangladesh is digressing from the pathway of democracy, and we have seen it become a hybrid regime.

Aside from the failure of these historical democratic structures, we now see new challenges arising—mass surveillance, for example, and how that generally discourages dissent. But how can democracy exist without dissent?

The dissent question has another element, that is the freedom of expression and freedom of press. Dissention itself seems to be seen pretty much as seditious.

And dissention has been stopped by various other means—which I call "franchising the violence". If you say something on social media, the supporters of the ruling party will actually troll you, harass you, vilify you, etc. And that is being done while the government is taking a step back. Look at the Digital Security Act of Bangladesh. What is happening with all the cases? The government is actually not filing most of the cases—it is filing very few. It is being filed by others, often the party's operatives.

What does this franchising of violence create? It creates a situation where people are afraid of talking, it creates self-censorship, which practically is a part of this democratic backsliding. Controlling information and providing misinformation are detrimental for democracy and they are basically being done under the patronage of the government or the state.


This is an abridged version of an online episode of Star One on One, a live video interview series, from September 19. The full interview can be viewed at



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