Politics in the rest of the world

Human Rights Watch on the democratic deficit

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2022 calls out the most egregious cases of human rights violations in countries such as Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Myanmar, Sudan and Syria, and in a host of other countries where autocracy rules, or where democracy exists only as a charade.

It criticizes governments in democracies for their often half-hearted defence of democratic values, and for their realpolitik deals with oppressive and autocratic regimes, noting their tendency to look the other way in relation to human rights abuses. Also democracies have fallen short in their own behaviour:

Democracies today hardly have a stellar record in addressing societal ills. It is widely understood that, ultimately, democracies rise or fall by the power of their example, but too often that example has been disappointing. Today’s democratic leaders are not rising to the challenges facing the world.

Its report on Australia draws attention to our cruel treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees, and to the over-representation of indigenous people in the criminal justice system. It criticizes Australia’s strong restrictions on free movement into and out of the country in response to the pandemic and notes how those restrictions left citizens stranded abroad and separated from their loved ones. Also in relation to the pandemic it specifically notes the low vaccination rates for indigenous Australians.

It draws attention to the Morrison government’s move to de-register NGOs and charities if they promote protests in which minor offences occur. (A reminder of these provisions is on the Australian Lawyers Alliance website.)

USA – is it really all Trump's fault?

January 6, the anniversary of the assault on the US Capitol, has attracted a great deal of commentary.

Some statespeople, such as Barack Obama, have made a simple statement, warning that democracy is fragile, and urging Americans and all who value it to defend it.

The theme of democracy’s fragility is taken up by Martin Pengelly, writing in The Guardian, in a review of the book How civil wars start, by Barbara Walter of the University of California, published this week. Pengelly sees the possibility of a steady escalation of acts of right-wing violence. Among Republicans, 30 percent agree with the statement “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”: US ‘closer to civil war’ than most would like to believe, new book says.

Columnist Dana Milbank, writing in the Washington Post, also reviews Walter’s work, focusing on indicators of America’s retreat from democracy that have been published by the Center for Systemic Peace and by the Stockholm-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which classified the USA along with Brazil, the Philippines and Poland, as a “backsliding democracy”. The Institute’s report The global state of democracy 2021: building resilience in a pandemic era identified “countries with deep political divides and embittered political controversies” as prone to backsliding.

Milbank’s article is We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe. (Warning: the Washington Post allows one download before their paywall goes up; you cannot re-visit an article you have previously downloaded.)

Stan Grant also sees the events of January 6 and the rise of Trump in a broad international context: Australians will soon get to prove the resilience of our democracy. The world shows us how precarious a privilege that is. “The parlous state of American democracy mirrors a democratic recession globally”, he writes. There are worrying signs in Australia, because “we have imported some of the worst of America – particularly the increasingly toxic influence of social media, fanning the flames of anti-democratic identity politics that erode a shared sense of citizenship”.

While most American commentators focus on the part played by Trump and his close circle in encouraging the insurrection, Robert Reich, writing in The Guardian, reminds us of the less obvious power of big money. “The big lie [the election was stolen] , big anger and big money reinforce each other because they all depend on Americans believing that democracy is rigged against them”: The enemies of American democracy? Big lie, big anger and big money.

James Piazza of Penn State University, writing in The Conversation, draws our attention to research showing the consequences when the losers of elections in democracies refuse to accept the outcome. Trust in political institutions is lost and “political violence is no longer seen as taboo”: The “sore loser effect”: rejecting election results can destabilize democracy and drive terrorism.

Christopher Douglas of the University of Victoria, also writing in The Conversation, examines some of the beliefs circulating among Republican supporters: Republicans draw from apocalyptic narratives to inform “Demoncrat” conspiracy theories, such as the QAnon belief that “government, media and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation” (a belief held by 18 percent of Americans). Although right-wing conspiracy theories are circulated by right-wing media that’s not where they originate. He suggests that such thinking can be traced to interpretations of certain books of the Bible – the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation (aka The Apocalypse of John). He notes that apocalyptic theology runs strongly in the cult known as “white” evangelicalism. (Coincidentally the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report has re-broadcast a session White evangelicals and the shaping of America today, in which historian Anthea Cutler explains how some evangelicals misinterpret biblical texts to justify the idea that people with dark skin colour are cursed by God.)

Canadian scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon, whose research has centred on the causes of war, social breakdown, revolution, ethnic violence and genocide, warns that:

By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.

He attributes America’s ills in part to people’s reluctance to contribute to the collective welfare, citing their distrust of government and unwillingness to pay taxes. The extreme laissez faire philosophy, pushed by the privileged and championed by the Republican Party, set the stage for Trump, who followed the path of European fascists, with his contempt for the rule of law and glorification of violence: States of emergency.

Another commentator who sees Trump as only part of the events of January 6 is Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former Chief of Staff, interviewed on ABC’s Breakfast program One year on, US continues to deal with the fallout from the Capitol riot. He condemns Trump for not stopping the riot, but he does not believe Trump instigated it: the discontent has deeper roots. Mulvaney admits, however, that the violence took him by surprise. He hadn’t realized how divided, angry and disillusioned Americans are. In the interview he politely asks if in Australia there is an undercurrent of similar sentiments.

An article on the events of January 6 with particular relevance for Australia is The party is the problem, by Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University, published in the current edition of Foreign Affairs. While he covers the same ground as many other American commentators, he also focuses on problems and dysfunctions specific to two-party systems. There was a time when both parties were drawn to the middle-ground, but increasingly parties of the “right” in two-party systems have drifted further away from the centre. It’s not that they necessarily articulate a traditional “right” agenda (apart from tax cuts for the wealthy). Rather it’s that their members’ unquestioning and uncritical loyalty is to the tribe and its “leader”.

Among reforms he urges for America are ranked-choice (preferential) voting and independent electoral commissions. OK, we already have these in Australia, but he also calls for stronger laws to protect democratic structures within political parties, as is the case in Germany and Spain – countries that have learned from their history the need for strong institutional protections against extremist takeover of political parties. (For articles in its regular publication Foreign Affairs has a fairly impenetrable paywall, but it’s worthwhile picking up a copy of its The Best of 2021 from a decent newsagent.)

The former Soviet Union – Kazakhstan and Ukraine

Remember the Soviet Union? Russia plus the republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Putin certainly remembers the Soviet Union, and he still sees these countries as within Russia’s sphere of influence. Writing in The Conversation Lena Surzhko of Penn State University sheds some light on the present situation in Kazakhstan: In Kazakhstan, Russia follows a playbook it developed in Ukraine. The Putin line relating to both countries is similar: point to the presence of Russian-speaking minorities in those countries whose rights need to be protected, attribute civil unrest to the influence of foreigners who are sponsoring terrorists, and claim that these republics have never really been separate countries. The Russians are there as peacekeepers in Kazakhstan and are ready to take that role in Ukraine.

Writing in The New York TimesUkraine, explained – David Leonhardt, while agreeing that Putin is trying to re-claim USSR territory, adds a NATO/US perspective. For both domestic and foreign reasons, Putin is trying to re-create a Cold War standoff. (Warning: the NYT allows one download before their paywall goes up; you cannot re-visit an article you have downloaded.)

On the ABC’s 730 program on Wednesday, Laura Tingle interviewed Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine, who confirmed Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion, and who pointed out that it would be mistaken to see Russia’s actions purely as a Putin initiative.


In Chile’s run-off presidential election, held on December 19, Gabriel Boric, leading a broad leftist coalition, won 56 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for his far-right rival Jose Antonio Kast.

Euronews summarizes Boric’s agenda. His is essentially a social-democratic platform, with emphasis on climate change and ending the nation’s private pension system, a legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship: Leftist millennial Gabriel Boric vows to remake Chile after historic win. Much of the discussion is around Kast’s Catholicism – a faction of Catholicism that’s a long way from the social teachings of Pope Francis.