The resilience of democracy

Democracy contains the seeds of its own recovery

A global democratic recession need not go on forever

For all Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn this month’s election, American democracy never looked likely to buckle after polling day. 

Sure enough, on November 23rd, even as the president once again condemned “the most corrupt election in American history”, he agreed that the federal government should give Joe Biden the resources he needs to prepare for office.

Mr Trump has still done harm, as have the Republican leaders who indulged him. 

Given that four in every five Republican voters say the vote was “stolen”, trust in the fairness of elections has been shaken and Mr Biden unjustly undermined from the very start. 

Henceforth in close votes routine jobs like counting and certifying votes will risk being part of the battleground. That is not a threat to the republic’s existence, but it does mark a further partisan deterioration in American democracy.

It is also part of a global democratic recession. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a flourishing in the number and quality of liberal democracies, but the trend has now gone into reverse. Hungary and Poland are blocking the European Union budget because their governments refuse to bow to the rule of law. 

Our briefing describes how in the world’s largest democracy the Bharatiya Janata Party (BIP) under Narendra Modi is capturing institutions, including the courts, the police and now, it is feared, the election commission. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), our sister organisation, has been compiling a democracy index since 2006. Last year’s score was the worst ever. 

Covid-19 has accelerated the decline.

The threat is not from military coups but governments in power. Given time, unscrupulous leaders can hollow out democracy completely. 

Two decades ago Venezuela held meaningful elections; today it is about to eliminate the last kernel of opposition. 

But even in countries where such a calamity is unthinkable, the erosion of norms and institutions leads to worse government. To reverse this, you have to understand what has gone wrong.

Whether you support them or not, Mr Trump and his fellow populists came to power as a response to the failings of democratic governments. 

In rich countries working-class voters came to believe that politicians did not care about them, after their living standards stagnated and they became worried about immigration. 

In central and eastern Europe governments seeking to join the eu paid more heed to Brussels than their own voters. 

In developing countries corruption sent the message that the ruling classes were chiefly interested in their own bank accounts.

Enterprising politicians responded to these feelings by elevating identity far above policy so as to show voters that their grievances matter. Such was the upheaval that some old parties were swept away—in France in 2017 they won just a quarter of the vote between them. 

Poland had thrived under a centrist government, but Law and Justice told voters that their Catholic values were under attack from Brussels. 

In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro endorsed voters’ contempt for the political class. So relentless is Mr Trump’s focus on the identity of his base that he did not even propose a programme for his second term.

Identity politics, boosted by social media and partisan television and radio, has re-engaged voters. Participation is the only component of the EIU’s democracy index to have improved since 2006. 

Mr Biden and Mr Trump both won more votes than any presidential candidates in history. But in solving one of democracy’s problems, identity politics has created others.

That is because a politics that reinforces immutable identities leads away from the tolerance and forbearance a democracy needs to solve social conflicts. In arguments about who gets what, people can split the difference and feel content. 

In arguments about who they are—over religion, race and anti-elitism, say—compromise can seem like betrayal. When ways of life are at stake the other lot are not just mistaken, they are dangerous. Having not mattered enough, elections now matter too much.

In some countries majoritarian leaders have exploited this tribal loyalty to nobble the institutions supposed to check them. In Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan governs as if democratic power is absolute and condemns those who block him as enemies of the republic. 

In Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador sidesteps entire branches of government, which have supposedly been captured by the elites, and appeals directly to his supporters in referendums. 

In India, when the electoral commission pursued bjp candidates less scrupulously than their opponents, one of the three top commissioners objected—only to find his family investigated for tax evasion.

America’s institutions are protected by the professionalism of its judges and officials. 

Many of them feel bound by standards laid down by those who came before them. 

When Mr Trump tried to subvert the election, he failed abjectly because countless people did their duty.

As a result, the main harm identity politics does to America comes through animosity and gridlock. Politics is supposed to resolve society’s conflicts, but democracy is generating them instead. 

Partly because tribes live in different information universes, matters of fact like wearing masks and climate change are transformed into disputes about people’s way of life. 

The result is that American politics has once again become unresponsive. It fires people up so much that it obstructs the compromises needed for society to move forward.

Vote for change

Some warn that the discontent this creates will cause democracies to die—an outcome that its foes, championed by Vladimir Putin, have schemed to bring about. And yet, there are plenty of reasons to hope. 

One of democracy’s strengths is that it promises lots of chances to start again. So long as elections take place, there is always the possibility of kicking the rascals out even in places where governments stack the vote. 

In the cities of Hungary and Poland voters have begun to reject repression and cronyism. 

In EU elections last year populists did worse than expected. Perhaps the pendulum has already begun to swing. 

India is too vast and too diverse for a single party to rule on its own.

Democracy is adaptable, too. 

In America’s election Republicans picked up Hispanic and black votes; and in Britain last year the governing Conservative Party won Labour seats in the Midlands. 

That mixing is just what politics in both countries needs, because it encourages parties on the left and right to break out of their tribal redoubts and to tilt the balance of political effort away from identity and back towards outcomes.

Democracy is, for good or ill, also linked to the fortunes of the superpower that is most closely tied to it. America supports democracy partly through example and advocacy. 

At home Mr Biden will attempt to restore norms such as the independence of the Justice Department. Abroad, he will not indulge autocrats and tyrants as much as Mr Trump has. 

And America could boost democracy through power politics. 

If Mr Biden wants to create an alliance to help America keep ahead in the race against China for tech dominance, democracy will help define it.

Above all, democracy is something people strive for. Every weekend Belarusians risk their liberty and their lives by taking to the streets to defy the dictator who refuses them the right to choose who should govern them, just as Hong Kongers, Sudanese and Thais have. 

It is an inspiration that voters everywhere should carry with them to the ballot box.

What the world can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic

Important lessons are already emerging to help us manage the impact of such diseases better in future

Martin Wolf 

      © James Ferguson

The most important single thing we have learnt from Covid-19 is how much damage may be done by a relatively mild pandemic by long-term historical standards. To call it mild is not to belittle the suffering it has caused, and will continue to cause, before an effective vaccination programme is rolled out and sustained globally. 

But Covid-19 has demonstrated a social and economic vulnerability far greater than experts imagined. It is important to understand why this is the case and learn how to manage the impact of such diseases better in future.

In a recent paper, David Cutler and Lawrence Summers of Harvard estimate the total cost of Covid-19 to the US alone at $16tn. This amounts to 75 per cent of a year’s US gross domestic product. 

Almost half of this is the cumulative value of lost GDP estimated by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. The rest is the cost of premature death and impairment of physical and mental health, according to values customarily used for the world’s richest big economy. 

The total cost is, they judge, four times that of the recession after the 2008 financial crisis. If the cost to the world were also to be 75 per cent of annual GDP, it would be around $96tn, at purchasing power parity exchange rates. That is almost certainly an overestimate. Nevertheless, the cost is huge.

So far, the global death toll of Covid-19 is estimated at 1.4m. Deaths are now running at a little under 10,000 a day or about 3.5m a year. If this were maintained, cumulative deaths over the first two years might reach close to 5m, or just over 0.06 per cent of the global population. 

To put this in context, the Spanish flu, which emerged in 1918, lasted 26 months and cost somewhere between 17m and 100m lives, or between 1 and 6 per cent of the then global population. A comparable death toll for Covid-19 today would be between 80m and more than 400m. Some pandemics, notably the Black Death in the 14th century, have been far more lethal even than Spanish flu.

A 2006 report from the CBO argued that “a pandemic involving a highly virulent flu strain (such as the one that caused the pandemic in 1918) could produce a short-run impact on the worldwide economy similar in depth and duration to that of an average postwar recession in the US”. 

But Spanish flu killed about 675,000 Americans out of the then population of just 103m. That is equivalent to over 2m today. If the CBO had been right, the economic impact of this pandemic should have been vastly smaller than it has been.

A similar study for the EU Commission, also published in 2006, concluded that “although a pandemic would take a huge toll in human suffering, it would most likely not be a severe threat to the European macroeconomy”. That conclusion was quite wrong.

Why, then, has the economic damage of such a comparatively mild pandemic been so huge? The answer is: because it could be. Prosperous people can easily dispense with a large proportion of their normal daily expenditures, while their governments can support affected people and businesses on a huge scale. 

This is also what people expect from governments. The response to the pandemic is a reflection of economic possibilities and social values today, at least in rich countries. 

We are prepared to pay a vast price to contain pandemics. And we can do so far better than before.

Some argue that the methods chosen, notably undiscriminating lockdowns, have been largely responsible for these huge economic costs. Instead, they suggest, the disease (and so the ill) should have been allowed to roam freely, while seeking to shield only the vulnerable.

This is very questionable. One reason is that the higher the incidence of the disease, the more people will be determined to shield themselves, a point made in the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook.

Actual experience, as opposed to cost-benefit analyses of theoretical alternatives, further strengthens the case for suppressing the disease fully, where feasible. A recent paper from the Institute for New Economic Thinking, To Save the Economy, Save the People First, suggests why. 

A chart (reproduced here) shows that countries have followed two strategies: suppression, or trading off deaths against the economy. By and large, the former group has done better in both respects. Meanwhile, countries that have sacrificed lives have tended to end up with high mortality and economic costs.

Now, amid a second wave of infections and lockdowns in Europe, the failure to persist until they achieved full control over the virus in the first wave looks a big mistake. Of course, effective testing, tracing and quarantining would be better still. But that is impossible if infection rates are close to recent levels.

We still have a great deal to learn from Covid-19, and we must do so, because the next pandemic could be far more lethal than this one. In the meantime, we must seek to escape from the current disaster as well and as quickly as possible. This will need a high level of global co-operation. 

While the costs of the pandemic have been quite extraordinary, so, happily, has been the scientific response. Now vaccines must be produced and distributed across the world. An important step is for all countries, including the US, to join Covax, the initiative to provide vaccines worldwide. Global challenges need global solutions.

Covid-19 has been a far more devastating economic shock than economists expected. 

This is a huge lesson. An even more virulent disease is perfectly conceivable. Next time, we must suppress the new disease far more quickly. 

Many now prate about freedom. But the people’s safety should remain the supreme law of politics, now and forever.

Argentina, and Latin America, Mourn Maradona as a Man of the People

Known for siding with leftist leaders and causes, the soccer legend’s life, and his politics, never strayed far from his impoverished roots, and his fans loved him for it.

By Daniel Politi and Manuela Andreoni

Tens of thousands of Argentines gathered to to mourn Diego Maradona on Thursday in Buenos Aires, where he was lying in state in the government palace.Credit...Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

BUENOS AIRES — The tens of thousands of fans who gathered on Thursday to pay their last respects to Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina’s soccer legend, as he lay in state in the presidential palace were often the first to say their idol was a genius with the ball, but he wasn’t perfect. He never pretended to be.

He was a boy from the poor outskirts of Buenos Aires who led his country to glory in the soccer field, but he also had a chaotic existence, known for his public battles with drug addiction, his defiance of authority, the children he fathered whom he only recognized later in life.

Despite his fame, he remained, always, the “pibe,” the kid from Argentina’s rough streets. His life and his politics never strayed from his roots, and his fans loved him for it, in Argentina and around Latin America, where he was known for siding with leftist leaders and causes.

Tens of thousands of people stood in line on Thursday, including Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, to bid farewell to the soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, as his body lay in repose in the presidential palace.

Hebe Nelli, 35, who took her 9-year-old son, Caetano, to downtown Buenos Aires on Thursday, said Mr. Maradona was particularly loved “in countries that suffered colonialism” because “he stood up to the powerful and chose to stand on the uncomfortable side of life.”

So perhaps the defiance and confusion that erupted at his funeral when his fans were told that Maradona’s family had decided to conclude the ceremony, and that they wouldn’t all have a chance to say goodbye, was in keeping with the rebellious way Mr. Maradona had lived, and with his drive to bend the world to his will rather than accept a fate predetermined by his humble origins.

As officials prepared to take the coffin to the cemetery, people climbed onto the gates of the presidential palace, many of them chanting the five words that have become a mantra since Mr. Maradona died Wednesday morning: “Diego belongs to the people.”

This time they added three more: “Let us in!”

Fans revered Mr.Maradona for his prowess with the ball, but they loved him for remaining relatable, a man of the people despite his fame.Credit...Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

But suddenly, the hearse carrying Mr. Maradona’s coffin left from a back door of the presidential palace accompanied by a caravan of police motorcycles.

Thousands of Argentines crowded highways and bridges to wave their last goodbye as the hearse sped off to a cemetery 25 miles away, where Mr. Maradona would be buried next to his parents. Outside the cemetery there were renewed clashes between police and rowdy fans eager to get as close as possible to their idol.

Mr. Maradona’s tendency to confront the powerful, including targeting soccer executives early in his career, turned more political after his retirement, when he moved to Cuba to treat his drug addiction in the early 2000s.

There, he befriended Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and through the following years, went on to become a visible ally of a generation of leftist leaders who were then just beginning to transform Latin America, like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil.

Even as the power of this generation of presidents, known as the pink tide, faded in recent years, Mr. Maradona remained loyal to them.

Mr. Maradona with Fidel Castro in 2005.Credit...Canal 13, via Agence France-Presse

On Wednesday, Brazil’s leftist former president Dilma Rousseff thanked him for supporting her in 2015, when her impeachment proceedings began.

Celso Amorim, who had been Mr. da Silva’s foreign minister, remembered Mr. Maradona’s support when the former president, Mr. da Silva, was arrested on corruption charges.

“He was an important figure not only for what he did in soccer, but for the positions he took,” he said. “He was a symbol to all of us.”

Norberto Ferrera, an Argentine historian at the Fluminense Federal University in Brazil, said Mr. Maradona’s connections to Latin American leaders were more affectionate than strategic.

“His death also closes the cycle of a certain kind of Latin American left,” he said. “And it coincides with the emergence of a new left that is less utopian, and more realist.”

Mr. Maradona’s support for the left meant befriending some of the region’s most controversial leaders. He treated Castro as a father figure, and never stopped visiting Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan leader, even as he drove his country deeper into a humanitarian crisis.

On Wednesday, Mr. Maduro made a national televised address to mourn Mr. Maradona’s death: “Diego Armando Maradona was loyal to our friendship, to our cause, to the people of Venezuela. ”

Mr. Maradona’s allegiance with the underdog made him an ally of leftist leaders, even those with a tarnished legacy, such as President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, whose policies have drawn his country into a humanitarian crisis.Credit...Cristian Hernandez/EPA, via Shutterstock

That same day, the governor of Carabobo state in Venezuela, Rafael Lacava, one of Mr. Maduro’s top allies, organized a rally to pay tribute to Mr. Maradona. Hundreds of people showed up to pay their respects — and to collect food donations for distribution.

“The best soccer player in history and a great revolutionary has died,” he told the crowd from a stage, receiving halfhearted claps in return.

But to Mr. Ferrera, the historian, Mr. Maradona’s political activism was more closely related to the iconoclast image he had built for himself, trying to stay true to his origins, than any attempt to advance a political agenda.

“He had strong political opinions,” he said. “But he was also always putting himself in the shoes of the little guy.”

Fans lined up to get into the presidential palace to view Mr. Maradona’s coffin.Credit...Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

And it was that sentiment, as well as reverence for his talent with the ball, that drew the fans who gathered in lines 20 blocks deep to say goodbye to “El Diego,” as he was known. The government had planned to have him lying in state for three days, but cut that down to one at the request of the family.

After Mr. Maradona’s body arrived at the presidential palace early in the morning, members of his family got a few hours to mourn him with an open coffin, in private, before it was closed and visitors were allowed inside.

Once the procession of mourners began, many tossed flowers, cards and jerseys into a pile as they shuffled by the wooden coffin covered in the Argentine flag and several soccer jerseys.

Cries of “thank you, Diego” and “Goodbye, god” rang out amid the silence. Fans almost uniformly respected the family’s wishes and refrained from taking photos.

All the people packed in tightly was a stark sight in a country that has been under strict Covid-19 restrictions for months. For those who were there, saying goodbye was worth the risk.

“He’s my idol,” explained Juan Medina, a 57-year-old shopkeeper who traveled 100 miles with three friends to participate in the ceremony. “How could I not? He’s been making me happy since I was 15.”

Cristian Cuevas, a 36-year-old lawyer, summed up the feeling of many in the crowd.

“We’re all in Diego’s debt for all the happiness he gave us,” he said.

Daniel Politi reported from Buenos Aires and Manuela Andreoni from Rio de Janeiro. Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela. 

Bahrain’s Shiite-Sunni Apartheid 

The country’s Shiite majority has for generations been treated as an oppressed minority. 

By: Hilal Khashan

Like many other countries of the Middle East, Bahrain has been repeatedly conquered by foreign invaders, including the Abbasids, Jarwinids, Omanis, Persians and Portuguese. In 1783, a tribal confederation backed by a Kuwaiti naval force and Bedouins from Qatar’s Zubara invaded Bahrain and established the rule of the House of Khalifa. 

But their uninterrupted political control, beginning with the first monarch Ahmad bin Mohammad al-Khalifa, paved a path of hardship for the country’s Shiite majority. 

Treated as a renegade sect and group of outside eccentrics, Bahrain’s Shiites have been systematically oppressed by the country’s ruling elite for generations

Deep-Seated Inequality

Bahrain’s indigenous Shiites, referred to as Baharina, are hard-working people who do not shy away from manual labor. They work in the agriculture, manufacturing and services sectors. (Until the industry collapsed in the late 1930s, pearl fishing was also common.) 

For centuries, Bahrain was a commercial hub in the Persian Gulf and a station from which trade was conducted with Southeast Asia and the Far East. Its exposure to the outside world made its people tolerant of diversity. But despite their productivity and worldliness, they continued to live under poor conditions, oppressed by Sunni rulers and receiving little help from the British, despite Bahrain becoming a British protectorate in the late 19th century.

In the early 20th century, British diplomat John Gordon Lorimer described the situation of Bahrain’s Shiites as “little better than landless serfs.” In 1921, 50 Shiite public figures presented a petition to another British diplomat, Stuart George Knox, demanding the implementation of measures to mitigate discrimination against the Shiites. 

But Knox opposed meddling in Bahrain’s sectarian affairs and showed little sympathy for the Shiites’ plight. In 1923, he told them not to “expect equality with the Sunnis at all.”

Distribution of Shiite and Sunni Muslims
(click to enlarge)

In 1953, after Bahraini forces attacked Shiites participating in an annual religious procession that Sunnis oppose, Shiites began to revolt. The turmoil paved the way for the establishment of the Higher Executive Committee, an organization consisting of Sunnis and Shiites that was encouraged by the pan-Arab movement and demanded the formation of a parliament, labor unions and a supreme court. But authorities took advantage of the 1956 Suez War and anti-British demonstrations to clamp down on the group.

In 1968, Britain announced its decision to pull out from the east of Suez by the end of 1971. Bahrain’s fate would be put to a vote in a referendum over whether residents preferred independence or annexation by Iran, which had its own claims over the country. Sheikh Isa bin Salman Khalifa visited prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim to urge Bahrain’s Shiites to vote in favor of independence. The sheikh promised to respect Shiite rights and integrate them into the fabric of society. 

The country voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, and Iran renounced its claim. In August 1971, Sheikh Isa declared Bahrain independent, and the 1973 constitution declared its people sovereign. 

Shiite opposition grew in 1974, however, after the government introduced a state security law that allowed for the arbitrary arrest and torture of activists. The Interior Ministry immediately made use of the law, and just a year later, the constitution was suspended and parliament dissolved.

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Shiites started to organize. In 1982, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and the Bahrain Freedom Movement organized a coup, though it failed to overthrow the government. In response to the Constitutional Petition of 1994, signed by both Sunnis and Shiites, many Shiite activists were arrested. 

The repression continued until the death of Sheikh Isa in 1999.

His son, Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifah, took over the throne and declared Bahrain a kingdom in 2001. He repealed the state security law and called for a referendum on the National Action Charter, a document that would reinstate constitutional rule, carry out comprehensive political reforms and improve the country’s human rights. More than 98 percent of people voted in favor of the charter, believing it would help transition Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. 

But in 2002, King Hamad presented a constitution that actually gave him even more power, including the authority to appoint half of the parliament’s members, while limiting parliament’s legislative powers and oversight authority.

In February 2011, protesters gathered at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout demanding the regime’s ouster and the installation of a republican order. The army quickly moved in to quell the uprising. A few days later, the Saudi-led Desert Shield Force entered Bahrain to stabilize the situation and prevent another rebellion. Security forces then launched a massive campaign of terror against Shiite activists.

Scope of Discrimination

The authorities in Bahrain have systematically persecuted Shiites who have long seen themselves as an oppressed majority. Between 1869 and 1932, local authorities imposed a tax on Shiite Ashoura processions to commemorate Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala in 680. 

They also set high tariffs on Shiite areas under the pretext that they did not pledge their allegiance to al-Khalifa’s rule. In 1923, the British India Office instructed Knox to depose the governor of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Ali, after Sunni tribes affiliated with al-Khalifa attacked and ransacked Shiite villages. However, the move did not change Britain’s colonial policy under the Protection Act.

The government has also distorted Bahrain’s national history. Children are taught in school that their country was mostly uninhabited until Ahmad Mohammad Khalifa spread Islam to Bahrain.

In 1987, Sheikh Isa built the country’s largest mosque in the capital, Manama. He named it Ahmad al-Fateh, a title that offended Shiites because a “fateh” implies the conquest of non-Islamic territory, despite the fact that the indigenous people of Bahrain adopted Islam during the Prophet Mohammad’s lifetime. 

There is also widespread discrimination in issuing permits for building mosques. Of the 70 mosques built in the three cities developed since the 1970s, only 14 are for Shiites. 

The Bahraini army and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Desert Shield Forces destroyed 38 Shiite mosques in 2011. Many Shiite historical sites have been neglected or vandalized. 

The government has also prevented Shiites from managing their religious endowments. (Unlike Sunni endowments, Shiite endowments are not meant to be controlled by the state but by boards that are free to dispense their funds as they see fit.)

Local TV stations do not cover Shiite rituals, and their programs often incite hatred toward Shiites and their religious practices. Shiites are blocked from residing in more than 40 percent of Bahrain’s territory. 

Shiite students studying abroad do not have access to state funds, even if they qualify for them academically. The military controls Bahrain’s only public hospital, where Shiites do not seek treatment for fear of arrest. Hospitals operated by the armed forces do not employ Shiite personnel.

Even today, Shiites are still grossly underrepresented in Bahrain’s political system. Shiites represent just 15 percent of officials in the executive, 12 percent in the judiciary, 10 percent in state companies, and 1 percent in the Royal Guard and Royal Court.

Survival of Tyranny

Since the 2011 uprising, the government has cracked down on Shiite dissent, using executions and torture among other means to ensure that a repeat is unlikely. In 2012, opposition groups, including the al-Wifaq National Islamic Society and the Waad leftist and pan-Arab movement, pledged that they would not engage in violence or disorderly behavior.

The government insists that Sunnis are the majority in Bahrain, without providing any population statistics. In reality, Shiites account for 70 percent of the country’s estimated 680,000 residents. 

The government is pursuing an aggressive naturalization policy – granting citizenship to more than 120,000 people over the past 15 years – that aims to reduce Shiites to a demographic minority. It is also recruiting and naturalizing police officers from Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Iraq’s Anbar region. 

The size of Bahrain’s police force is six times the international average for a country its size.

As we’ve seen in Bahrain and many other countries in the Arab world, state resistance to revolutionary forces is still strong. The Arab uprisings nearly a decade ago did not succeed. 

But the time for change will eventually come, even if belatedly.