Week of 10 January 2022
2021’s turn towards autocracy has been met with instances of popular pushback—how can we continue to support democratic ideals in 2022?
Our key takeaway: 2021 was a mixed year for democracy, accountability and transparency in nearly every country in the world. In 2022 we could turn the tides back on autocracy, but only if global leaders are willing to clear the way, including tackling crises like climate change, the pandemic and inequality.
In the foreword to Human Rights Watch’s 2022 World Report, Executive Director Kenneth Roth pulls out top themes from 2021:
- “Autocracy is ascendent, democracy on the decline”: In 2021, significant political crises in countries from Myanmar to China to Sudan to Russia to Nicaragua to Guinea to Chad and beyond, demonstrated a disturbing rise in anti-democratic moves like arrests of opposition leaders, violent force used against peaceful protestors, threats and attacks on civil society organisations, and delayed, canceled and corrupted elections. These trends have been bolstered by the global instability and social and economic uncertainty and suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensifying impacts of climate change, rising economic inequality, openly rising xenophobia and racism, and more.
- Popular demand for democracy and representation remains strong: Per Roth, the events of 2021 showed that many people around the world are still clamouring for democratic rule, even in the face of brutal repression: “Repression may yield resignation, but that should not be confused with support. Few people want the oppression, corruption, and mismanagement of autocratic rule.” Some electoral victories of pro-democratic leaders, in the Czech Republic, United States, Hungary, Israel and beyond, showed that citizens are ready to change the tide. Roth makes the point that this is the moment for democratic leaders to make their stand: “If democracies are to prevail in the global contest with autocracy, their leaders must do more than spotlight the autocrats’ inevitable shortcomings. They need to make a stronger, positive case for democratic rule. That means doing a better job of meeting national and global challenges—of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends. … But if democratic officials continue to fail us, if they are unable to summon the visionary leadership that this demanding era requires, they risk fueling the frustration and despair that are fertile ground for the autocrats.”
- Although autocrats are reacting with more force, they face a “bleaker future”: According to Roth: “As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot. There are few rallies for autocratic rule.” In countries where the trappings of democracy still exist, but without much substance (e.g. weakened opposition parties, manipulated voter bases, corruption), Roth predicts that autocrats will need to report to “overt electoral charades that guarantee their desired result but confer none of the legitimacy sought from holding an election.” Ultimately, the more that autocrats are forced to operate in the open, the more citizens may begin to push back (as in, for example, Hong Kong and Myanmar). In other cases, “opposition political parties have begun to paper over their policy differences to build alliances in pursuit of their common interest in ousting the autocrat”—leaving some room for optimism.