Laws are chipping away at democracy around the world

Democracy seemed ascendant after the rivalry between communist and democratic states subsided in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. As elected governments replaced many toppled totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, number of democracies rose.

Yet with rare exceptions, authoritarian leadership and other undemocratic governments have been the norm throughout human history. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that democracy seems to be losing ground after its post-1991 surge. The rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald Trump in the U.S. are among the most visible examples.

As a human rights attorney completing my Ph.D. in international relations, I’m researching why democracy appears to be declining around the globe. In addition to the growing number of far-right, authoritarian-leaning leaders who certainly bear responsibility, lawmakers in historically strong democracies are proposing and passing legislation that adds new layers of red tape, restricts access to foreign financial support, and makes it harder and riskier to engage in peaceful protests.

From India to Poland to Israel, legislators are limiting the freedom of independent nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. Many of these groups are responsible for holding governments to account, standing up for minority rights and providing services to the indigent, among other critical roles.

New restrictions

My research focuses on the spread of undemocratic civil society laws in historically democratic states. These laws include bills that impose new restrictions on forming, operating and funding civil society organizations. They are limiting the activities of charities, watchdog organizations, protest movements and nonprofit service providers, such as health care clinics depended on by people lacking access to affordable health care.

For nearly a decade I’ve tracked and documented the spread of these laws. By my count, at least 58 percent of the world’s strongest democracies have adopted at least one restrictive civil society law since 1990. Counting proposed laws, another 5 percent are in this growing category.

I’m not talking about similar legislation passed in non-democratic and weakly democratic states like Russia, Egypt and Turkey. These laws are also problematic and troublesome for global civil society, but are not the primary focus of my research.

Consider what happened after Russia enacted a law in 2012 that requires all nonprofits wishing to receive any amount of foreign donations and that are engaged in what the government defines as political activities to register as “foreign agents” – a toxic term in the Russian context.

Since then, elected politicians have passed measures with similar objectives in countries with democratic governments, including Israel, India, Austria, Hungary and Poland.

Russian lawmakers passed a Kremlin-backed law restricting NGOs in 2012. AP Photo/Misha Japaridze

In trouble

Democracy experts like the independent watchdog Freedom House generally agree that democracy is in trouble around the world. They no longer debate whether democracy is imperiled, but by how much and whether it’s reversible.