Democracy under siege: renewed liberalism or a different path for the Global South?

Wednesday 14 November, 17:3019:00, Investment Corps Lecture Room, St Anthony's College, Oxford, OX2 6JFUK satellites


As the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, US commentator Francis Fukuyama famously asked whether we were now at the ‘End of History’, entering a new era in which the Western model of liberal democracy would become universal. Nearly 30 years on, liberal democracy is under strain, thanks to the upsurge of different forms of populism across the world. Even within those countries that have championed liberal values, such as the United States or Western European states, protectionist views of the world have become stronger during the past two years, seemingly at odds with a liberal, rules-based world order.

The Economist’s recent manifesto for renewing liberalism acknowledges the remarkable results that society has achieved due, in part, to the stability, openness and freedom provided by liberal democracies. It points out that in 175 years, global life expectancy ‘has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80 per cent to eight per cent and the absolute number has halved, even as the total living above it has increased from about 100million to over 6.5 billion.’ Liberal democracy appears to be a major success story.

However, the manifesto also concedes that liberal democracy ‘faces a looming challenge’ in promising a better future rather than relying on its past benefits. In this regard, diverse voices representing the Global South – from within governments, scholars and the wider population – have in recent years argued that liberal democracies have not fulfilled their promises. The economist Dambisa Moyo argues, for instance, that democracies have failed in producing economic growth and that reform is needed to produce the right results. Another example is the support for democracy in Latin America which, according to Latinobarómetro’s 2017 report, has fallen for the fifth year in a row, down to 53 per cent.

Such disenchantment with liberal democracies has been reflected during the twenty-first century in the way radical regimes – such as Venezuela or Turkey – that have been accused of being autocratic can still present themselves as representing the popular will. We have also witnessed the proliferation of diverse democratic instruments such as referendums that can be seen to be undermining representative democracy and imposing a tyranny of the majority.

Moreover, the increasing influence of China in some of the regions of the Global South suggests that there is unlikely to be a revival of liberal democracy soon. Leading figures and electoral candidates in countries such as Peru and, more recently, Brazil seem to be looking back with nostalgia to undemocratic regimes of the past. Even one of the most important movements to acquire liberal values and rights, the Arab Spring, has been followed by what some scholars have called an Arab Winter, due to the reinforcement of anti-democratic government since.

How should the Global South react to these shifts in liberal paradigms from some of the developed countries? Should developing or underdeveloped economies try to find their own development path? Should they stick to the liberal-democratic ideal and help to promote a renewed liberalism? Can the Chinese model turn into a new paradigm that sacrifices liberal values for economic gains?