In this era of modern politics and ever growing influence of free communication, the debate over the common two form of government often calls for new dimensions. People’s knowledge, perception and participation are becoming the part of both the forms. While a debate over the supremacy between the two types existed throughout the world for ages, it is still doubtful which is actually better with both having pros and cons. Though the experts and philosophers researched over the two forms a lot, still there is a strong dilemma over the choice between democracy and autocracy.
Democracy may be a word familiar to most, but it is a concept still misunderstood and misused. Democracy, which derives from the Greek word ‘demos’ or people, is defined, basically, as government in which the supreme power is vested in the people. In some forms, democracy can be exercised directly by the people. But, in large societies, it is by the people through their elected representatives. In the great phrase of President Abraham Lincoln, democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people. Freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous.
Democracy is indeed a set of ideas and principles about freedom or institutionalization of freedom. In the end, people living in a democratic society must serve as the ultimate guardians of their own freedom and must forge their own path toward the ideals set forth in the preface to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
While autocratic rule over an entire country often results in troubles, there are some advantages to autocracy and circumstances where it is useful. The benefits of autocratic rule are that it allows for quick decisions, has a clear chain of command and is the most productive form of leadership. With only one person or a small group making decisions, conclusions and choices come fast in the nonexistence of debate from large governing parties.
Though the advantages sound alluring, applying autocratic leadership outside of critical situations has severe disadvantages. By concentrating power and authority, autocracy can damage group spirits and cause hatred when people are not involved in decisionmaking. They feel their contributions are not valued. Leaders may also be unwilling to accept input from experts or consider unique solutions from individuals outside the circle of power. On a national level, autocracy also eliminates any checks on a leader’s authority, relying on their instinctive sense of morality to prevent them from abusing their power and harming their people.
If democracy or autocracy is the better form of government – has been debated since the time of Aristotle and it has returned in recent years as China and its model of authoritarian, state-led capitalism challenges the US style of free-market democracy. Hence, many believe that autocracies are rising and democracy is waning.
The US has been the world’s leading geopolitical power since 1945. After the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama even declared the “end of history” as US-style, democracy and capitalism emerged as the only legitimate means of organizing domestic economies and politics. But the arrival of great power competition with Russia and China in recent years has disrupted that thought. Russia seeks to disrupt the US-led global system, while China seeks to displace it. China’s economy has grown at rapid rates and economists predict that Beijing could overtake Washington as the world’s leading economy within the decade.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increased its diplomatic influence in every region of the world through big strategic plans, such as its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is investing in weapons that could one day evict the US military from Asia and eventually make China a global military power in its own right. In sum, China seems to have cracked the code on how to build an autocratic system effective at gathering international power and influence. Some even warn that we must become accustomed to life when China leads the world.
For more than a decade, a decline in the number of democracies worldwide was recorded. It is a steady loss of ground and Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford University, termed the phase ‘democratic recession’. Democracy is on the defensive and the reasons are very deep. Growing inequality has fed a frame of mind globally that democratic institutions are not serving their citizens. The internet and social media have promoted political polarization and cultural divides. Around the globe, authoritarian regimes have seized the West’s weakness as an opportunity to expand their influence.
Autocrats are winning admirers in the West too. In an ever more complex world facing generational threats, from pandemics to climate change, the speed and totality with which autocracies can implement decisions has some wondering if untidy, deliberative, compromise-seeking democracy can still do the job. In a June 2021 poll, a slight majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 had a favourable view of socialism, suggesting that younger generations in Western democracies are increasingly open to alternative systems of governance despite the fact that, to run a country for the maximum benefit of the maximum number of people, democracy has proven to be more effective than any autocratic government system in this modern era.
Each year, The Economist publishes a Democracy Index providing a snapshot of the conditions in 165 independent countries and two territories. The Democracy Index is based on four categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation and civil liberties. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then classified as one of four types of regime: ‘full democracy, ‘flawed democracy’, ‘hybrid regime’ or ‘autocratic regime’.
Although democracy appears more flimsy than it has since the Cold War, exceptions to that trend include Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Finland and Denmark, in that order. Autocratic regimes include Laos, Turkmenistan, Chad, Syria, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo and not unexpectedly, North Korea clings to the bottom rung in that Index. In 2020, the United States was categorized, for the fourth consecutive year, as a “flawed democracy.”
Though democracy is often chosen for the higher focus on citizen’s participation and freedom as well as human rights, it was found that autocracy turns states into welfare nations easily. Countries like Libya or Iraq ensured the social benefits to its people to the highest extent. Many Western countries including the US could not ensure such benefits for its citizens. Human rights were violated in the form of choosing the leader but vicious crimes against the people were limited. Today, democracy is flying high all around the globe but many democracies are suffering, especially those with limited resources.
Moreover, for democracy to work perfectly, the people need to be learned or educated. If the people are not educated enough, they will not be able to choose their leaders wisely and hence, the nation will not progress. Hence, in many countries, democracy is failing to bring good.
There is no way that the freedom of people, human rights or the rule of law can be ignored as we have come far on the roads of modernization and civilization. But people’s welfare will always remain under question and should always be the main focus. Both the democracies and autocracies in today’s world should adopt the best of other in some forms. If they do, we hope the people will be the ultimate achiever and the world will be a much better place to live.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and
Chief Patron, Bangabandhu
Shishu Kishore Mela