Editorial, 28 December 2021
Facial Recognition Technology Showcase in Las Vegas DAVID MCNEW / AFP
The prestige of democracy is no longer universal. From the end of the Second World War until the end of the Cold War – thirty years after the implosion of the Soviet Union – the two great models of government were capitalist democracies and communist states. The former held free elections, the latter were allergic to giving the people a voice. Democracies worked, they guaranteed progress and welfare, while totalitarian states proved ineffective, stifling and ultimately unworkable. Today, the picture is blurred, and a review of events in 2022 suggests that conventional democracies, linked to the West, Oceania and Japan, face a year of curves, internal weakening and external tensions. The notion that a democracy is intrinsically the best form of government may falter depending, for example, on how they cope with and overcome the economic and social ravages of covid, the central issue of the year ahead.
Capitol Hill in November may welcome elected officials whose ideas are no different from those of the mob.
The prestige of democracy in the world is a matter of two (the United States and the European Union). The prestige of authoritarian models, too (Russia and the People’s Republic of China). Joe Biden’s presidency was forged by Americans’ electoral priority not to repeat Donald Trump’s second term in office. The worrying thing is that everything the former president stood for and said is still there. The great litmus test will be the midterm legislative elections in November 2022, which will renew the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, but above all they will portray the tenant of the White House and transmit to the rest of the world the perception of whether it is a solid or weak presidency. The sanctity of the Capitol suffered more than a material assault last January and many of the ideas that galvanised the mob have not only not gone away but will carry many members of Congress to the hill overlooking Washington DC and, to some extent, the rest of the country. The polarising role of the networks, the power of fake news and the vulnerability conveyed by President Joe Biden – see the Afghanistan withdrawal, a thorn in the side of the credibility of his “America is back!” are risks to the international prestige of the United States and thus of democracy in the eyes of humanity. The other pillar of democracy is the European Union, which faces its first year without Angela Merkel’s leadership and the unknown of who will win the elections to the Elysée Palace next spring. The EU’s reaction, imperfect but resolute, with vaccination and reconstruction funds, will be more palpable throughout 2022 and will determine whether Europeans continue to trust Brussels or whether the Eurosceptic forces, which have their candidates in the open French election race for the presidency of the Republic, will rise. In other words, another challenge to Europe’s democratic health.
The exit from the pandemic will decide whether democracies lose or gain credibility
Faced with the unknowns of the democratic world, a pole of governance is emerging that neither doubts nor leaves any room for doubt. We are referring to the Russia of President Putin, de facto tsar since 1999, and the China of Xi Jinping, the first communist leader who not only does not distance himself from Mao Zedong but is trying to succeed him in terms of control of all the levers (Communist Party, government and army). Although their interests diverge and in some respects are incompatible, Moscow and Beijing set themselves up – as in the 1950s – as a benchmark for the rest of the world: stability, economic growth and a firm hand. When President Joe Biden convened a sort of global democratic summit -via telematic means- in mid-December, the reaction of the big outsiders, Putin and Xi Jinping, was immediate and forceful: a common declaration, dominated by smiles, and a display of their “coordination model”, a prelude to an eventual alliance. There are two focal points of tension on both sides: Ukraine and Taiwan. And both are presented as non-negotiable by Moscow and Beijing. Discounting that the people of both countries under the spotlight have the right to think for themselves, the EU and NATO will be forced to balance support for the Western will of many Ukrainians with the realism of geography and Russia’s no less tangible military power in the neighbourhood. As for Taiwan, it is up to the People’s Republic to maintain the pragmatism – without renouncing the one-China principle – that has ensured East Asia’s prosperity.
Russia and China act without complexes and give wings to the emerging concept of ‘phallocracies’.
Russia and China are already acting in an uninhibited manner in the world and are jointly influential as they project the theory that authoritarianism is as effective as or more effective than democracy in the face of major crises. Hence the new concept of phallocracies – very much in vogue in the Anglo-Saxon media – which encompasses this disturbing rise of authoritarian countries where the role of women is secondary and, in the worst sense, traditional. This would include three lesser giants such as Turkey, India and Brazil. The risk of a landslide election victory in the influential state of Uttar Pradesh by the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modri’s Hinduist Hindu party, must be warned, and its consolidation would spell the end of the model of coexistence with Muslims and other minorities.
The Arab world also presents uncertainties, some of them very close to Spain, such as the growing antagonism between Algeria and Morocco over the Sahara and energy, while the other major state of the Greater Maghreb, Libya, continues to be stranded in instability and chaos, a reminder of the failure of the Arab Spring. In the Middle East, the battle to watch is between the Islamic Republic of Iran – which is pressing ahead with its nuclear programme – and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, with the valuable backing of Israel, the only country among the aforementioned that cannot under any circumstances be associated with phallocracies because of its democratic and gender tradition.
Uniquely, 2022 hosts two sporting events that will reinforce the interrelationship between politics and competition and the struggle between democracies and authoritarianism. These are the Winter Olympics in Beijing next February and the bizarre football World Cup in Qatar from 21 November to 18 December, unusual dates that already anticipate new controversies over the burgeoning authoritarian models, more uncomplicated than ever. This and everything else will depend on whether vaccination spreads across five continents and restrictions on movement and other essential freedoms disappear. A year of curves for democracies.