Mari-Liis Jakobson: Democracy on a downward spiral in the world

Mari-Liis Jakobson.
Mari-Liis Jakobson. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Tallinn University docent of political sociology Mari-Liis Jakobson told Vikerraadio in an interview that of 200 countries in the world, just 35 are fully liberal democracies today, and that global democracy has been on a downward spiral in recent years.

We are closing out a year that has seen war return to Europe, and it seems that most Russians still support it. At the same time, there are unprecedented protests in Iran and China. What is the state of democracy in the world today?

There is no shortage of news in the world. That said, I'm not sure it necessarily speaks of the state of democracy. Rather, it seems telling in terms of the state of authoritarianism. It is not a scale where authoritarianism doing poorly automatically means a chance for democracy. Events in China or Iran rather show that authoritarian regimes, which have become very good at manipulating people, manipulating feelings of well-being even, cannot always manage perfectly.

But talking about democracy, we need to first ask what are we really talking about. Democracy is, on the one hand, an ideal or idea, which is not doing too brilliantly today. Let us take the V-Dem Institute's democracy rating that looks at the entire world and according to which there are just 35 fully liberal democracies in the world, including Estonia.

There are roughly 200 countries in the world

Exactly, and the situation hasn't been this bad since 1989. Therefore, democracy has been on downward spiral since 2011. But looking at democracy as a method, a decision-making process, asking people what they want, we find that the state of democracy is just fine as even authoritarian regimes have adopted these methods quite effectively. Of course, their goal is not to offer people maximal freedom and the right to self-determination, according to the original idea of democracy, but rather to use these methods to manufacture feelings of well-being. That life is not all that bad, and since it's impossible to achieve everything in one lifetime, let things be what they are, because it could be much worse.

In a situation where most Russians support Putin's war in Ukraine, the country seems to be doing what the people want and we could consider Russia a democratic country?

Certainly not. The people's satisfaction does not equal democracy. Authoritarian regimes have become adept at buying political apathy. They keep an eye on the situation and should dissatisfaction grow to a certain point, the regime needs to make adjustments, meet with soldiers' mothers.

Why is fully liberal democracy in decline?

Democracy is a rather demanding form. Why was liberal democracy doing so well for a time? It seemed like a brilliant solution. It was also suggested for a time that democracy was becoming the only game in town. Or if we go back to 1989, democracy was a part of the Cold War, the struggle between democratic and undemocratic powers. Back then, it seemed democracy was all sunshine and butterflies. Real life is a lot more complicated and full of disappointment.

There are plenty of definitions of democracy. But to settle on one, considering how we perceive it here in Estonia.

The question is whether we want to define it as an idea, regime or method?

How about we find a golden mean?

Democracy is often defined as the people's rule from Ancient Greek. This definition has always been a little uncomfortable for me because the people is a key factor in another term scholars of democracy use, which is populism. The logic of populism is that of a noble people being oppressed by a malicious elite. The populist sets out to rescue the people, put the people in charge.

We hear a lot of it in the world today.

Therefore, we should rather define democracy as citizens' rule. And a citizen is not just someone who is miserable, who needs to be delivered. A citizen wants to decide for themselves and is prepared to bear obligations in the name of their rights. We are all equal, irrespective of our social position, and we ensure this equality through rules and laws that apply to everyone the same.

Mari-Liis Jakobson and Astrid Kannel. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

We can also read that the people demand something in Estonia, especially on social media. But these supposed representatives of the people are often individuals or small groups. How many individuals constitute the people in democracy?

This is one of the things that make democracy complicated. Society is always made up of different people with different interests. Democracy is complicated by the need to balance these interests. Finding sensible compromise is the logic of democracy. The logic of populism is having a representative who says that they know what the people want, that they are the people or its embodiment. And that now we need to do what the people want done. In other words, no compromise is needed.

What are the problems of democracy that are causing loss of interest in it?

Firstly, its level of complexity. And frustration born out of the fact that a good compromise always leaves everyone wanting a little more. Whereas this disharmony is difficult to hide. We have free speech and can always say what we find not to our liking.

A citizen needs to be a participant in democracy. Plenty of people would like it if a political father or mother made decisions for them. Is democracy even a good fit for everyone?

It has been suggested that some people like to have order and do not want to hear any protest. However, life tends to be better in the conditions of a functional democracy.

But this would require them to decide for themselves, propose solutions.

Herein probably lies the answer to the question of why not everyone wants to become a politician. Because it is a very complicated and frustrating profession.

But even in democracies, when problems become truly disruptive, people want someone to just come along and solve them. A recent study by the Friedrich Elbert Foundation found that even Estonian voters are willing to make democratic concessions if it can help people who would do what they want come to power. The thing worth keeping in mind here is that undemocratic rulers might also do things they haven't promised by which point it will be too late to do anything about it, as we have already surrendered our mandate and it is not easy to get back.

What effect has the coronavirus pandemic had on democracy?

It was quite exciting to see for a time how democratic countries would fare with the pandemic. It seemed at first that authoritarian states were doing a better job. Telling people to stay in and welding front doors shut. But now, two years later, we can see that democratic countries have overcome it.

Whereas China is a good example of how door welding hasn't worked. While I cannot see the Chinese system crumbling as a result of what is happening in the streets, it is nice to see students also demanding freedom of speech and democracy, in addition to Covid restrictions being lifted. What do they want? Cut off from the rest of the world's information, do they have any idea what democracy even is?

Civil society studies have shown that while people in China do protest, these are mostly over local issues. For example, local environmental movements have cropped up, which is no wonder, looking at how aggressive Chinese developments can be, levelling whole villages if need be.

Mari-Liis Jakobson. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

When people demand freedom, are they automatically demanding democracy? Is democracy the only facilitator of freedom?

Having talked to students in China, it seems they hold in high regard market freedoms and the freedom to consume. And Covid restrictions mostly affect these, not so much political freedoms.

China is a rapidly developing country and increasingly a global powerhouse where many people no doubt lead good lives. In other words, it is an example of how a country does not have to be democratic to have all these things.

Yes, we should not believe that authoritarian regimes are systems where the dictatorship uses all available resources for its own benefit, as such regimes were once described. Countries like China have developed a very different model. But there are limits to what they can do, of course.

We are always on the edge of our seats when a country looks like it is about to become a democracy. The process is not a simple one, as we can remember from our own 1990s, and it is easy to relapse, as we can see from Russia. A risky process of transition needs to be undertaken. How long is an average democratization process? I suppose it is easier for small countries and harder for states like China?

It is easier for small countries if they have people with vision, plot the right course and are fortunate enough to have smooth seas. When I was studying in the first half of the 2000s, it was believed that major institutional reforms need to be carried out first, people need to catch up and then democracy will somehow be ready after 30 years. Thinking about Estonia, the V-Dem index puts our democracy in sixth place in the world. We are behind Scandinavia and New Zealand, while we're ahead even of Finland. The question is whether we achieved this in the last three or four years? No. The roots go back to the 1990s, these initial reforms, people and cast of mind that brought us through the transition.

We were rooting for the Arab Spring not that long ago. It seemed democracy was in the air. What was it really?

People taking to the streets is not necessarily a sign of democratization.

But the people were expressing their opinion.

Being dissatisfied with an authoritarian regime did not mean they had something to put in its place. Only one country, Tunisia, had a measure of readiness to carry out reforms and move toward a functional democracy in the wake of the unrest. Generally, there was no preparedness to pick up the ball and take it all the way to the goal of democracy.

Syria is among the worst cases of how protests led to destruction. Is it an example also of how the spark of democracy can end up burning a country to the ground?

Well, no. It was not the fire of democracy that burned Syria – it was the authoritarian regime's desire to remain in power at all cost.

Had they left the regime alone, all those killed would be alive today.

Had the regime been even a little different, developments could have eventually moved in another direction.

I believe that the idea of democracy never burns anything down. Rather, it is a question of the lengths people who head such regimes are willing to go. For which I have no answer, also in the context of Russia. How far are they willing to go with their aggression in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Mari-Liis Jakobson. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

What about Iran?

Iran is another example of an authoritarian regime that cannot ensure sufficient so-called well-being for its people. That does not mean the people are calling for democracy at protests. Some are, some aren't. Free speech has been their loudest demand. Authoritarian regimes can also have different rates of free speech. In Iran, too, free speech is tied to the freedom to consume different fashion and music. Therefore, I'm usually quite skeptical when it is suggested that people have taken to the streets and democracy is coming. It pays to take a closer look at what people are protesting and who become leaders, whether there are any preconditions for a democratic turn.

How do religion and democracy go together? Protesters in Iran are saying that they are not against Islam and just against the regime. On the other hand, religion tends to be an inflexible set of fixed tenets, which is seemingly at odds with democracy from the first.

There are plenty of democratic societies where religion plays an important role. Let us look if only at the United States. But also India, where democracy seems to be in a bit of a decline today. Talking to people from India, the second or third thing they'll ask you is your religion. Who are you. Whereas they do not understand you when you say you're not religious. Faith or religion definitely do not rule out democracy. The question is whether religion is used to justify the regime.

India is referred to as the world's largest democracy. At the same time, the caste system is still in place and women's rights have no protection. I would not like to be a little girl in India.

India could be described as a dysfunctional democracy. Elections do take place and there is a measure of separation of powers, but not all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law, which is the number one concern for India.

The caste system only concerns the Hindu people. But because a Hinduist party is currently in power, their rhetoric is largely built on making other religious groups out to be the scapegoats, protecting Hindu women from Muslim men who they are not allowed to marry, for example.

How is democracy doing in the United States today?

USA was the flagship and dream of democracy for us in the ideological struggle 30 years ago. Things are what they are when it comes to American democracy today. We cannot overlook the colorful personality of Donald Trump. This is where I would step off the political trail for a moment to quote American comedian Dave Chapelle who said that Donald Trump is an honest liar. He says what people think the elite is keeping from them. Trump makes no secret of the fact that social injustice is benefitting him. Talking about the U.S. tax system, for example, and how the rules should be the same for everyone. But if you are wealthy, like Trump, who openly says that of course he doesn't pay taxes because he can take advantage of the same tax exclusions other political sponsors use, the fact that politicians are not really motivated to change the system is revealed.

Of course, USA remains a democratic country in many aspects. It has rule of law and functional democratic institutions, but injustice does happen.

One problem that is clearly reflected there is people feeling they have lost control of their environment. A recent study showed that populists are the choice of people who feel they no longer control the situation around them, that democracy is no longer working for them. That is when people start looking for a knight in shining armor to make the world fair again. Okay, he's a dirt bag, but at least he doesn't lie about himself. Rather, he confirms my understanding of the world as ruled by dirt bags.

Doesn't that amount to there being a lot of people who are tired of democracy in America?

We can put it like that. Thinking about how candidates should be on an equal footing at elections, maximizing one's chances of winning requires campaigning. The latter in turn requires money. Money comes from those who already have a lot of it. Those people might not be willing to part with it without a little quid pro quo. It's a major problem. Whether these decisions or rules are the same for everyone and manufacture equal citizens, or whether they manufacture inequality instead.

Is Europe doing better?

The state of democracy is not all that rosy in Europe either. Every country has its own problems. Several are struggling with transparent legislation, which problem the coronavirus slightly amplified when heads of government or the executive branch took a little too much control into its own hands.

I have been rooting for Russia throughout my career as a journalist, hoping for the best in Yeltsin's day in the 90s and being bitterly disappointed later on. I suppose no one is talking about democratization in Russia anymore?

I have not come across any optimistic notes. Science tries to understand how processes unfold, their inner logic and how one thing leads to another. And what we can learn from Russia these days is how it is possible to move very much in the opposite direction from democracy.

And I suppose nothing can be changed there until the people start wanting it.

The people must want it, but the elite that has the capacity to phrase it and create relevant institutions must also want it. Dissatisfaction alone will not be enough also in Russia.

I'm tempted to also take this interview to Africa where we have a rapidly developing continent and a very young population. How much democracy can we see there?

Africa is the wealthy bride everyone is trying to woo in global politics today. The West long dominated there as a potential partner, demanding reforms in exchange for aid. Now, we see Russia, India and China offering an alternative, a way to develop without the need for democracy.

Only two tiny African countries are considered full democracies today.

South America is not really contributing either.

Latin America, in some ways, is the home of modern populism. We have seen the will of the people, putting the elite in its place, a kind of messianic democracy as it is sometimes called. We could give the example of Hugo Chavez, while there have been others. It has favored this interesting blend of liberating left-wing populism with its irresponsible fiscal policy and putting Western institutions in their place. Today, it has been replaced with right-wing populism and its irresponsible fiscal policy and also identifying foreign enemies, next to domestic ones. Perhaps Ecuador is still one country that doesn't have a radical right party, while demand for it has started to show in polls.

Mari-Liis Jakobson and Astrid Kannel. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Luckily, things are still pretty good when it comes to democracy in Estonia, despite the air being thick with verbal manure leading up to elections. It sometimes reminds me of the coarseness of the early 90s.

That things are pretty good doesn't mean they're brilliant. We can also feel like we're losing control of it all on the backdrop of these crises.

A massive transformation has taken place in rural parts of Estonia over the last 30 years. Life has disappeared from many parts and is only now slowly coming back. But it takes the ambulance or fire truck a long time to get there and local services are no longer available. The local person feels that all they have left are obligations, that they are constantly being told what else they need to do to be a good citizen. One feels that none of it is offset by new rights, frustrated, not in control and unable to pay the next power bill. And in that context, one might also feel that someone else is doing great, perhaps looking at reality shows depicting villas and wealthy brides and what have you. It seems someone somewhere is living large.

How to nurture democracy to make sure it doesn't shrivel up?

Democracy must not be taken for granted. While this does not mean a person should spend their evenings thinking about just how bad everything would be in an authoritarian regime, it pays to know that our high place in the democracy index did not just come about by itself. That officials somewhere are pushing buttons and systems are self-improving. Democracy can work if we let it work and refrain from working against it ourselves.


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Editor: Barbara Oja, Marcus Turovski

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