Mondli Makhanya: It takes one demagogue to upend even tried and tested democracies

2019-09-30 00:00

It seems almost trite today to state that the world is headed in a very dangerous direction.

Democracy and the rule of law are becoming less fashionable, while authoritarianism and indecent behaviour become more acceptable.

In the past, those who rejected the rule of law and democratic governance were ugly dictators who were either uniformed men or those who pushed their will by using uniformed men.

Today, the picture has changed.

The club of indecent rulers has substantially expanded to those who run countries that are considered to be settled democracies.

They are at one with some of the worst oppressors in the world.

Although some of the leaders of those settled democracies were hypocritical in championing democracy in other parts of the world while propping up dictators in yet other parts, progressive concepts always had the upper hand.

Earlier this year, the World Justice Project noted in its annual Rule of Law Index that, for the second year in a row, there was “a negative slide towards a weaker rule of law around the world”.

In too many countries, laws and legal institutions are being manipulated to undermine rather than uphold the rule of law

According to the World Justice Project’s executive director, Elizabeth Andersen, “this slide in the rule of law in general and checks on government powers in particular are deeply concerning. There is a crucial difference between ‘rule by law’ and ‘rule of law’. In too many countries, laws and legal institutions are being manipulated to undermine rather than uphold the rule of law, even as governments wrap their actions in ‘rule of law’ rhetoric.”

This slide was evident last week as some world leaders flaunted their disdain for human rights and democratic norms.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the new poster boy of the right, reacted to the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous and scathing overturning of his undemocratic decision to suspend Parliament by baring his claws at the judiciary.

This former journalist who is disdainful of the media has been trying to undermine the democratic Parliament by characterising it as an enemy of the people.

He took aim at the Supreme Court, strangely stating that it is “absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary to say that I think the court was wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question”.

Since coming to office, Johnson has sought to sideline Parliament and usurp power for the executive branch so that he can push his agenda to get the UK out of the EU by October 31.

Like his right-wing counterpart in the US, Johnson’s instincts are at odds with the democratic norms of his country.

Johnson’s allies and aides have also made similar noises.

Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a key Johnson lieutenant, was reported to have told Cabinet colleagues that the judgment was a “constitutional coup” and “the most extraordinary overthrowing of the Constitution”.

The Daily Mail also quoted senior government leaders accusing the Supreme Court of making “a serious mistake in extending its reach to these political matters”.

“The effect of this is to pose the question: Who runs this country? Are the courts saying they want to run the country now?” one of them asked.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US’s Donald Trump have been working very hard to turn countries that valued democratic norms into raw nationalist societies.

South Africans will be familiar with this line.

It was one of the Jacob Zuma brigade’s favourite refrains when the judiciary, in executing its constitutional duties, was standing in the way of their bending the rules to allow the mass looting of public resources.

It has also been the attitude of dictatorial heads of state where judges who uphold the law are intimidated, jailed or driven into exile.

As much as this is an unlikely prospect in the UK, such utterances by the authorities in respected democracies encourage this rogue behaviour.

Across the ocean, two leaders of good democracies that have taken right-wing turns were backslapping each other.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US’s Donald Trump have been working very hard to turn countries that valued democratic norms into raw nationalist societies.

Trump’s derailment of America’s democracy is well documented, as is Modi’s project of making Hindu nationalism a national ideology.

This surge of Hindu nationalism has seen the rise of “cow protection groups” – vigilante squads that beat up and lynch those who trade in beef.

Trump and Modi scorn nongovernmental organisations and human rights groups, which they see as obstacles to their agendas.

Both resent the fact that their nations have vibrant and robust media that does not allow them to get away with wrongness.

They also share a common cause in unfettered Islamophobia, on the basis of which Trump introduces his draconian Muslim ban and Modi makes liberal use of sedition and counter-terrorism measures.

The two men got together at a rally of 50 000 Indian Americans in Texas last week, during which they reinforced each other’s agendas.

South Africa’s democracy has survived spirited attempts to subvert it and our Constitution has withstood vicious attacks from those in power.

But, as we have observed elsewhere, this does not mean we are safe.

It takes one determined and creative demagogue to manipulate conditions on the ground to upend even tried and tested democracies.

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May 31 2020