In recent years the NED and other organizations working to advance democracy have been challenged by what is commonly called a democratic recession. The term refers to a global crisis of democracy that has a number of different dimensions: the rising power of authoritarian countries like China and Russia, the backsliding of many new democracies like Hungary and the Philippines, the closing space for independent civic organizations, and a crisis of pluralism in many long established Western democracies. According to Freedom House, civil and political rights in the world have declined for twelve consecutive years.
While these trends continued during 2018, the year was also marked by a surprising and potentially significant counter-trend consisting of popular uprisings against corrupt and abusive autocratic regimes. These uprisings took place in Ethiopia, Armenia, Malaysia, and other countries, and they appear to be part of a larger trend, with one study noting that there have been corruption-driven leadership changes in more than ten percent of the world’s governments over the past five years.
But such revolts, frequent as they have been, will have no lasting political significance – and will do little to reverse the democratic recession – unless they lead to real reforms that respond to the needs and aspirations of the people. For that to happen, new democratic institutions will have to be developed that will enable citizens to hold political leaders and economic elites accountable, foster economic growth and opportunity, protect the rights of ordinary people, and enable society to resolve ethnic and other divisions in a peaceful way. NED has no higher priority than to help these countries build such institutions so that they can become inclusive and stable democracies.
NED was in a position to respond rapidly to the changing circumstances in Ethiopia, Armenia, and Malaysia because it was already engaged in these countries by supporting human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and others fighting for an end to autocratic rule. Supporting democracy activists in authoritarian countries who are fighting for basic rights is part of NED’s core mission, and it has the practical advantage of positioning NED to act quickly, with known partners, when a country unexpectedly opens up and a democratic transition suddenly becomes possible.
The Ethiopian transition is especially important because it involves a country of 105 million people with more than 80 different ethnic groups. In a world divided by ethnic and religious conflicts, Ethiopia’s example will resonate far beyond the country’s borders if it can succeed in building an inclusive, multi-ethnic democracy. Of course, it faces formidable challenges, including an economic crisis fueled by high levels of inflation and foreign debt, and rising ethnic tensions, with 1.4 million people having been forced to flee their homes.
Such problems have added urgency to NED grants that are promoting legal reform and ethnic dialogue, building the capacity of journalists and civil society activists, engaging youth in the political process, connecting party leaders in the capital of Addis Ababa to citizens throughout the country, fostering a public-private dialogue between the government and the private sector, and tapping the potential of the multi-ethnic labor movement to advance pluralism and economic inclusion.
Nothing better illustrates the potential for change in Ethiopia than the fact that Birtukan Mideksa, an admired judge and opposition leader who came to NED in 2010 as an emergency Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow after spending almost four years in prison, has just returned home to head the country’s National Electoral Board. The challenges ahead are indeed difficult, but Ethiopia is on the right path.
So is Armenia, which was selected by The Economist magazine as the Country of the Year in 2018, meaning that it has improved more in the past 12 months than any other country. NED’s many grantees in Armenia were in the forefront of the “Velvet Revolution” last spring that swept from office a corrupt and autocratic president who wanted to manipulate the constitution to retain power. In subsequent elections held in December, the party alliance of the new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won 70% of the vote, setting the stage for building accountable and effective government ministries, reforming the judicial system, and strengthening the media as a critical watchdog over government performance. Many reform-oriented but inexperienced people are now entering parliament and the government ministries, and they will need the assistance and expertise of NGOs and think tanks if are to develop effective policies. Civil-society organizations themselves will need help in revamping their strategies to address the new challenges. Supporting such groups will be a key NED priority in the period ahead.
In Malaysia, the change came about as the result of an electoral revolution that ousted a kleptocratic prime minister and his entrenched ruling party. Just a year earlier, NED had presented its Democracy Award to Cynthia Gabriel, a grantee who was a leader of the anti-corruption movement in Malaysia. Immediately following the election, she was appointed to a high-level committee tasked with investigating the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) embezzlement scandal that had sparked public outrage. NED grants are now strengthening the capacity of civic organizations to hold the new government accountable as well as providing public officials with the skills they will need to govern effectively.
The election in Malaysia on May 9 coincided with the conclusion of the Ninth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy (WMD), held in Dakar, Senegal. To highlight the importance of the transition underway in Malaysia, the Steering Committee of the WMD has decided to hold its next meeting in Kuala Lumpur in conjunction with a public conference of democratic solidarity that will also commemorate the WMD’s twentieth anniversary.
The Dakar Assembly also coincided with the local elections in Tunisia that Rached Ghannouchi, in his keynote address to the assembly, called “a landmark moment in Tunisia’s history and the realization of the promise of the Arab Spring.” Since the elections prevented Ghannouchi from attending the assembly, the address was read by his adviser Radwan Masmoudi, who is a member of the World Movement’s Steering Committee. In another gesture of solidarity, the Steering Committee decided that Tunisia would be the venue for its Tenth Global Assembly in 2020.
Tunisia is yet another country where a corrupt dictatorship was overthrown by a popular uprising. The transition that has followed the 2011 Jasmine Revolution still faces formidable challenges, but it is progressing, and Tunisia holds the distinction of being the Arab World’s first democracy. If Tunisia continues to progress, and if its transition is accompanied by similar transitions in Ethiopia, Armenia, Malaysia, and other post-kleptocracy countries, we may begin to see the end of the democratic recession.
NED and its four party, labor, and business core institutes face a moment of unusual opportunity. With dedicated and brave partners on the ground in each of the transitional countries, we’re positioned to provide practical assistance across a broad range of political, social, and economic institutions. With more than three decades of experience behind us, and with access to the most skilled practitioners and thinkers on democracy, we can feel confident that the help we give will meet the highest standards of professionalism and proficiency. We have the capacity to help by building local, national, and international networks of cooperation; giving activists the resources needed to construct platforms for communicating their messages; and convening actions of international solidarity to reassure those on the frontlines of struggle that they are not alone. We can do this as a family of democracy-support institutions united by shared values and a common vision of democratic possibility and human dignity.
The work will nonetheless be difficult and the outcome uncertain. But the opportunity for real democratic progress now exists, and the stakes are very high. It is now our task to rise to the occasion.