This year has taught us that democracy is not unshakeable

The worst system except for all the others has been under attack for years. Trump just made us notice.
Uganda’s Museveni (right), with China’s Xi Jinping in 2015, has been in power for 34 years (Feng Li/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) accompanies Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (R) to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on March 31, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

This has been a year of realizing that what we thought was solid ground beneath our collective feet was in fact a cliff that would crumble away with just a bit of natural erosion or one sharp blow. We reflected on 2020 to find truths, exploded. This is one of them. Read more about the year that changed everything »

It’s not easy to run for the presidency of your country when you find yourself facing charges of treason only days after declaring your candidacy, and then the attorney general accuses you of plotting to disrupt the electoral process, and then you get arrested and detained by police for two months for merely meeting with supporters.

But that’s what Uganda’s Henry Tumukunde has been up against since March, when the retired brigadier general formally declared that he intended to challenge Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in January’s elections. It hasn’t mattered that Tumukunde served in Museveni’s cabinet, or that he’d earlier made peace with Museveni after being arrested and spending nine years in military confinement for suggesting it was maybe time for Museveni to retire.

That was back in 2005, when Museveni’s party managed to abolish the constitution’s two-term limit on the presidency. In 2017, the age limit was also abolished and presidential terms were extended from five years to seven. Museveni has been in power for 34 years. He is 76.

Following the American-led triumph of free-market globalization after the dark and bloody years of the Cold War, Museveni emerged as a leading figure in the generation of African leaders that U.S. president Bill Clinton praised in 1998 as the leading edge of liberal democracy’s unstoppable march across the continent. As things have turned out, there was nothing unstoppable about it at all.

OUR EDITORIAL: Looking at truths, exploded

Tumukunde is one of several candidates vying for the Ugandan presidency, and he’s placed his hope in Museveni failing to win the first round in January and the opposition uniting around a single challenger, eventually coming out on top. “If we can work together, this will increase the opportunity of one of us winning,” Tumukunde told me.

It’s a faint hope. The international democracy-monitoring organization Freedom House says Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement party “retains power through the manipulation of state resources, intimidation by security forces and politicized prosecutions of opposition leaders.”

Around the world, by 2020, democracy was in its 15th year of retreat. Charismatic, Western-backed leaders who found their way to power through the ballot box were welcomed into the arms of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but they’ve turned out to be just as reluctant to surrender power as the hard men at the vanguard of Third World liberation movements were.

The abolition of term limits is becoming a reliable signpost in democracy’s descent into “illiberal democracy,” and then to despotism, civil war and chaos. Over the past five years, they’ve been weakened or entirely abolished in Algeria, Burundi, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Guinea, Rwanda and South Sudan.

This is not just an African phenomenon or a right-wing or left-wing phenomenon. The abolition of term limits and other methods of subversion from above have been successfully employed by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and, most effectively, by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

A former KGB officer, Putin was appointed prime minister in 1999 and elected president in 2000. He dodged term limits by shifting back into the prime minister’s office in 2009, and then won a dubious re-election as president in 2012 in a vote that fewer than half of Russian voters considered free and fair. In July, Putin secured a constitutional amendment allowing him to hang on as president until at least 2036.

It took years for American free-market triumphalists to concede that the capitalist-democratic Russian emancipation of the early 1990s was just as much a matter of Communist Party commissars mutating into absurdly corrupt corporate oligarchs. It’s taking even longer for Canada’s foreign-policy establishment to admit it was wrong to imagine the Chinese Communist Party would become more amenable to democratic values after the People’s Republic was welcomed into the “rules-based international order” following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the 1980s.

“Over the past decade, one in six democracies has failed,” the liberal-leaning American think tank Protect Democracy calculates. Even in the United States, faith in democracy itself has been on a steady decline from the days of George W. Bush, right through the Barack Obama years, tanking after the election of Donald Trump.

Heading into the 2020 elections, a Project Democracy poll showed two in five Republican voters said a win for the Democrat Joe Biden would only come about by poll-rigging and electoral fraud, while two in three Democrats said Trump could only win through foreign interference and voter suppression.

Democracy is nowhere near as resilient as the Cold War victors imagined. Just ask Uganda’s Henry Tumukunde. “It means a lot of painstaking efforts,” he told me. “But we stand a good chance, if there are free and fair elections.”

14 things 2020 proved wrong

‘Democracy is destiny’

The worst system except for all the others has been under attack for years. Trump just made us notice.

‘The future is virtual’

The pandemic has made it clear in more ways than we would have thought to count: you actually need to be there

‘Rich countries can overcome’

The awful response to the pandemic put the final nail in the myth of liberal democracy’s pre-eminence

‘In a crisis, leaders will lead’

The job description is right in their title, but too many simply failed to show up for work

‘Women are winning at work’

The economic crisis spurred by the pandemic has unveiled inequalities and obstacles once thought a thing of the past

‘The individual is supreme’

Our decades-long love affair with rugged independence has suddenly fallen away

‘The stock market has meaning’

Long treated as a key economic indicator by many, it is now completely detached from how the economy is actually doing

‘Climate change can’t be stopped’

After decades of planet-threatening growth, emissions fell off a cliff. Environmentalists sense a turning point.

‘We value our seniors’

Decades of promises to improve the quality of life of elderly Canadians have gone unfulfilled

‘Kids are resilient’

Children’s ability to bounce back has been pushed to a breaking point, and exposed some ugly inequalities

‘Running errands is boring’

Rushing out to get milk was once the height of tedium. Today, it’s an anxiety-inducing thrill ride.

‘We need the gym’

The pandemic shutdown forced a reality check: for many, all that time spent in the gym was more luxury than necessity

‘Bureaucracy is slow’

The pandemic forced a culture shift on government, proving that red tape really can be cut

‘You can ignore racism’

Denying systemic racism is no longer tenable. But will the outrage of the past summer translate to substantive change?