Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Sep 15, 2022
The threat to the global democratic order needs to be tackled by developing joint strategies, especially in light of the rising belligerence of authoritarian actors.
The time is ripe for an alliance of democracies To mark the 15th anniversary of the International Day of Democracy, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke about the rising backsliding in major democracies, shrinking civic space, a growing culture of intolerance, distrust and disinformation, and polarisation undermining independent institutions on a massive scale. Guterres’s dire message about the deteriorating health of global democracy should not come as a surprise. In 2021 alone, the world witnessed a series of military coups in Myanmar, Chad, Ghana, Mali, and Sudan, a presidential ‘self-coup’ in Tunisia, and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, dealing a body blow to the democratic order. For many years, a number of prominent democracy watchdogs and their annual assessments have been routinely warning of a serious downward spiral and steady erosion of democracies across all geographies. For instance, Freedom House in its report ‘Freedom in the World 2021’ marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The report says “Countries experiencing democratic deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.” Such long-term decline prompted eminent democracy scholar Larry Diamond to call it a democratic recession. The net effect of such recession is the autocratic cheering (particularly in China and Russia) of the democratic breakdown and opportunistic weaponisation of liberal democracies’ inherent weaknesses to further exacerbate the erosion. Taking advantage, China has been assiduously using the geopolitical vacuum to penetrate and coopt soft tissues of democracy—research centres, think tanks, universities, political parties, and corporations to name a few, to expand its influence. Simply put, democracies face internal and external challenges.

A number of prominent democracy watchdogs and their annual assessments have been routinely warning of a serious downward spiral and steady erosion of democracies across all geographies.

Does this signal the end of the road for the democratic system as the world knew for centuries and more prominently since the post-war period? History is witness to periodic predictions of the death of democracy by many eminent personalities. For instance, as far back as 1787, Benjamin Franklin, a leading light of the American Constitution predicted that the American democracy would soon end in despotism. However, America went on to emerge as the greatest and most influential democracy in the world. Similar predictions were made by scholars during the periods stretching the two World Wars. Yet, the postwar period saw the global resurgence of democracy spreading from southern Europe to Latin America and further down to Asia, which prompted political scientist Samuel Huntington to call it “democracy’s third wave”. The same story goes for India. Given its mind--boggling diversity, poverty, and mass illiteracy at the time of independence, some of the leading political analysts predicted the eventual collapse of the state and its democracy. However, decades later, India proved to be the greatest success story amongst the post-colonial democracies. Thus, it is highly speculative to predict irrelevance to democracy and the growing appeal of authoritarianism. Asr Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary-General observed, “People rarely take to the streets demanding more autocracy.” Having said this, however, there are a few major areas that democracies need to manage to arrest the erosion and accelerate the effectiveness/appeal of democracy as the most acceptable form of the governance system.

Bridge polarisation

A major challenge facing democracies is intensifying political polarisation. While polarisation is natural, over the last few decades, it has become extreme even in many matured democracies. The most visible case is the United States (US) where the entire society seems to split into two political camps. Jennifer Mccoy, who has been studying this phenomenon for many years, succinctly notes in her recent study, “At the elite level, deep political divides in Washington have crippled efforts at legislative compromise, eroded institutional and behavioural norms, and incentivised politicians to pursue their aims outside of gridlocked institutions, including through the courts. Yet these divides extend far beyond the corridors of power, as polarisation at the mass level is pushing Americans across the country to divide themselves into distinct and mutually exclusive political camps. The rise of an ‘us versus them’ mindset and political identity in American sociopolitical life is evident in everything from the rise of highly partisan media to the decline in Americans’ willingness to marry someone from the opposing political party. Even more concerningly, these dynamics are contributing directly to a steep rise in political violence”. While the sharp divide between the Republicans and the Democrats in America is widely known, in recent years, leading democracies in global South such as India, and Indonesia are experiencing severe political polarisation at multiple levels with grave implications on democratic institutions, values, and trust in diverse and plural societies. Thus, a key priority must be to bridge the political and social divides and restore the trust in key institutions.

The rise of an ‘us versus them’ mindset and political identity in American sociopolitical life is evident in everything from the rise of highly partisan media to the decline in Americans’ willingness to marry someone from the opposing political party.

Digital Tech and democracy

Once billed as the most transformative tool for expansion of liberalism, democracy, and inclusion, the Internet and digital technologies have emerged as the biggest threat to democracy. The spread of online disinformation, hate, extremism, and tech-enabled foreign interference particularly shaping election outcomes have emerged as the biggest concerns for democracies including the matured and advanced western nations. In a of two decades, a handful of tech companies (on America’s West Coast) now monopolise the entire digital sphere along with the overwhelming influence on discourse in democratic societies. The growing polarisation at elite and societal levels is largely facilitated by the advent of digital technology where Big Tech (social media) companies profit by promoting hateful content and creating polarisation in plural societies. However, the gravest threat to democracy in this dimension has emerged from authoritarian China. With a huge financial base and rising ambition to create its own tech giants like Google and Apple, China is making rapid strides to build a vibrant technology ecosystem to dominate the global innovation system. The manner in which China is already using digital technologies to create a Great Firewall of China allowing the Communist Party of China to maintain an iron grip over its own citizens while at the same time deploying these capabilities against the Uighur minorities in Xinjiang clearly indicates “the Middle Kingdom” would not shy away from using them to manipulate adversarial democratic regimes. In short, rising authoritarian control of digital technologies poses the single biggest threat to democracy and this needs to be prevented at multiple levels; via regulation as well as a strong wall of accountability.


It is true that the overall health of global democracy does not portray a pleasant picture. It is also true that the metrics of democracy and freedom may never reach the highpoint of the 1990s and early 2000s, when a large number of countries embraced democratic governance in the background of the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. However, rather than getting trapped with past performances (as evident from the assessments of many democracy rating agencies), the key stakeholders of global democracy must reckon with the far bigger threats that have emerged in recent decades. From tech-enabled and social media-induced polarisation to Big Tech holding a massive monopoly over digital technologies to the threats posed by authoritarian powers like China, the democratic order has its task cut out. These threats have to be tackled both locally and globally. And this calls for an alliance of democracies to develop joint strategies for addressing today’s most pressing global challenges to democracy.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

Read More +