We must ensure that electoral democracy remains a cornerstone of modern political systems and a beacon of hope for future generations
This article is part of the series—Raisina Edit 2023.
Electoral democracy is currently under attack, as the two largest countries in the Americas showcase. Both the storming of the United States (US) Capitol building in January 2021, and the recent assault in Brasília—where rioters invaded three governmental palaces at once—embody the gross impact of violence and terrorism on today’s democratic process. To recapitulate this issue succinctly, electoral democracy is a system where citizens have the right to participate in free and fair elections to select their leaders and make decisions about their own society. Despite its widespread recognition as a pillar of modern politics, it today faces a number of challenges that jeopardise its stability and credibility. A tentative causal chain to account for the latest undemocratic experiences in the world could be synthesised by one recent addition to the political landscape—the rise of the Woke. “Wokeness” usually refers to an acute awareness of social justice issues, and a desire to bring attention to them through activism and public discourse. This movement seeks to challenge existing power structures and create a more equitable society by addressing topics such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.
< style="color: #0069a6;">A tentative causal chain to account for the latest undemocratic experiences in the world could be synthesised by one recent addition to the political landscape—the rise of the Woke.
Woke talk often involves the massive employment of ‘politically correct’ expressions, not to mention high bets on symbolism and identity politics. Along with Newton’s third law of motion, however, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the Woke started gaining traction and ground, thus winning hearts and minds across the West and beyond, far-rightist strands strongly reacted to it, and quickly became organised to fight it back, taking political disputes to venues other than traditional institutions. Such juxtaposition might have brought us to this current state of affairs, as social polarisation mounted over the course of the last decade. Corruption has always been a critical factor in politics, but this time, it has apparently reached new heights as these lines are typed. In both Trump’s US and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, top officials are said to have abused power—if not for their dubious appointments to government positions—certainly for pressurising bureaucrats to (not) do the things they were supposed to do, and even for inducing voter suppression and disenfranchisement when elections finally came. Foreign powers have been accused of direct interference in elections, featuring Russia’s arguable role in the 2016 race to the White House. The novelty about Brazil’s Bolsonaro was electoral self-sabotage, meaning the South American president spent the second half of his term in office complaining about electronic voting machines, in a way he could claim elections had been fraudulent if he was beaten. And that’s precisely what happened in October 2022—he lost but never conceded.
< style="color: #0069a6;">The novelty about Brazil’s Bolsonaro was electoral self-sabotage, meaning the South American president spent the second half of his term in office complaining about electronic voting machines, in a way he could claim elections had been fraudulent if he was beaten.
Massive sums of money have also been mobilised to skew the outcome of presidential elections, particularly in Brazil, where key businesspersons have turned a blind eye to undemocratic gestures and scandalous omission by the country’s former president, as long as they could continue profiting from a relatively solid civil-military alliance on which Bolsonaro relied. Adding one more layer to this disturbing scenario, media outlets in both countries, US and Brazil, are to blame for carrying out massive misinformation operations. These big communications enterprises have mingled with ‘independent’ journalistic sources to bring up an entirely new information ecosystem, one not based on sourced and trusted data, but on ideological readings instead. On top of it all, there is the question of economic inequality, which has been aggravated by the COVID pandemic in Brazil and the US alike—two of the sanitary crisis’ hardest-hit countries. This can compromise the current status of electoral democracy even further, as dissatisfaction and mistrust of the government grow higher. As a consequence of the unequal distribution of resources, unequal access to education and healthcare, or other forms of economic distress, democracy becomes easy prey to populist discourse. The recent violent protests in Washington and Brasília raised deep concerns about the road ahead for democratic institutions, and the ability of law enforcement to protect citizens and uphold the rule of law. These events show the importance of strong and effective institutions—such as the armed forces, the police, and the judiciary—in maintaining the stability of contemporary pluralistic societies and protecting the rights of the people.
< style="color: #0069a6;">As a consequence of the unequal distribution of resources, unequal access to education and healthcare, or other forms of economic distress, democracy becomes easy prey to populist discourse.
Truth be told, though, grotesque antidemocratic episodes are obviously not restricted to the Western hemisphere. The next instantiation of an orchestrated assault on electoral democracy could well happen in Europe (Hungary?), Asia (Myanmar?), or Africa. The clash of political strands might lead to extremism and foster instability to an extent never seen before in many countries. If not contained, this wave may be disruptive in a way that would ultimately transform democracy as we once knew it. To address these challenges, it appears essential that democratic societies work to strengthen their institutions, protect the integrity of their elections, and promote a more inclusive and participatory political process. This can be achieved through a number of practical measures, ranging from increasing access to trusted information, encouraging public participation in the political process, and promoting dialogue and cooperation between different stakeholders, to ensuring that political leaders are held accountable, addressing root causes of economic distress, and investing in technological literacy.
< style="color: #0069a6;">The clash of political strands might lead to extremism and foster instability to an extent never seen before in many countries.
By working to address these issues, we can ensure that electoral democracy remains a cornerstone of modern political systems and a beacon of hope for future generations. It is therefore important for governments and international organisations to remain vigilant and take proactive steps to protect and strengthen democratic institutions while they are still alive and kicking.
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Dawisson Belm Lopes is a professor of international politics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) a researcher of the National Council for Technological ...Read More +