The Democratic Distemper

A few years ago, democracy looked as though it would dominate the world. In the most difficult circumstances possible, such as Nazism, India’s poverty and South Africa being disfigured by apartheid, decolonisation succeeded in creating a host of new democracies in Africa and Asia and autocratic regimes gave way to democracy. (Greece, Spain, Argentina, Brazil). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, worldwide, 120 democratic countries could be classified. Despite the huge progress seen in the late 20th century, it has come to a stall in the 21st.

Democracy, at its core, used to be about legitimacy-to-rule, accountability-to-citizens of the ruling party. Today the society is awash with evidence of colourful, boisterous, animated corrupted democracies, which cannot, do not, will not deliver its traditional means to their citizens. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife.

One of the democracy’s biggest problems and, at the same time, the shortest answer to why it does not work well anymore is populism. The government’s representatives came into the habit of making promises that they cannot fulfil. Above that, the power of campaign contributions has got completely out of hand, so that (conservatively) super-rich people such as the Koch Brothers have the equivalent of several million extra votes, even though they ought to have only one vote each. Democracies suffer from ineffective campaign finance limitations. Therefore, people lacking the time and resources to check the information for themselves, are misled.

Democracies are ruled by the majority and disregard the interests of the minority. But whenever there is enough popular sentiment, or else when some demagoguery politicians gain strong support, then the government is free to what the majority prefers. The minority has few means to fight these limitations.

At the same time, a YouGov opinion poll of British voters found that the majority agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time” due to fraudulent conduct. Democracy is vulnerable to charges of corruption for a few reasons: the freedom of speech, press, a political challenge that come with democracy, which allows opponents of a corrupt administration to make much of its corruption (tolerated only by this type of government) and expensive political activities. If they are not to be funded from tax revenues, they must be funded by private individuals. Apart from corruption, politicians’ behaviour is also influenced by lobbyists, who seek to control them during the decision-making process. The result can be toxic for society: dependency on an already influenced government on the one hand, and disdain for it on the other.

This competition is taking place as Western populations are ageing. Older people have always been better at getting their voices heard than younger ones, voting in greater numbers and organising pressure groups like America’s mighty AARP. Another danger, even harder to be spotted, particularly in the West, is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests.

Meanwhile, the substance of democracy in Russia is destroyed by the postmodern tsar and the autocratic leaders in Venezuela, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere have followed suit, perpetuating a perverted democracy rather than doing away with it altogether, and thus discrediting it further. On the other hand, China’s leaders have been able to tackle some of the big problems of state-building that can take decades to deal with in a democracy, having broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress and being less susceptible to gridlock.

Questions to keep in mind:

  • How can popular disillusionment with politicians be approached and how can the citizen-politician relationship eventually be strengthened?
  • Assuming corruption as a key issue, is it possible to eliminate dishonest or fraudulent conduct?
  • How does lobbying influence democracy and how does it affect democratic legitimacy?
  • Is a today’s weak democracy better than a dictatorship?

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A Future for the Belt and Road Initiative

Historically, the Silk Road was the most significant network of trade routes, which connected the West and the East, establishing a flourishing economical symbiosis. After its collapse, however, the Western world became determined to find other means of shipping goods from the East, initiating the Age of Discovery, all as a result of the crucial importance of a network of trade routes between two antipodal regions.

On the 14th of May, 2017, in Beijing, Chinese president Xi Jinping, in a speech held at the Opening Ceremony of The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, introduced perhaps the most ambitious global economic investment project of the century, arguably the biggest one as well, including 65% of the world’s population and 40% of the global GDP as of 2017. The project had been introduced back in 2013, in Kazakhstan and Indonesia, proposing the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and four years later deepened policy connectivity enhanced the coordination with prominent initiatives such as the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, the Bright Road initiative of Kazakhstan, the Middle Corridor initiative of Turkey, the Northern Powerhouse initiative of the UK or the Amber Road initiative of Poland. With the gained support, it aims to establish the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land route starting in western China that goes through Central Asia and on to the Middle East; and the Maritime Silk Road, a maritime route that goes around Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Horn of Africa and so to tackle the recurrent issue of “infrastructure gaps” many countries face in the process of economic development with the necessary funds. As a result of that, Chinese banks are willing to loan generous amounts of money, even if the sum surpasses the beneficiary state’s GDP.

The project has gained massive criticism due to its audacious prospects, having been catalogued as either a “debt trap” or as an impending failure, recalling China’s record of abandoned infrastructure plans. China argues that economic development represents the basis for global stability and peaceful circumstances leading to economic growth, which brings forward the question of whether this project will be seen through. Most significantly, countries such as Sri Lanka or Pakistan have been reported to have stepped into the PRC’s plan of forcibly renouncing their sovereignty. On top of that, the purchase of ports around the world by Chinese state-owned companies in the last decade has been linked to the Belt and Road Initiative ever since it was first presented. The general concern and disapproval of China’s actions in the South China Sea have increased since the launch of this project, opposers of the communist state drawing accusations of territorial expansion and aggressivity.

With over 80 states having joined the project, which will impact the whole world if it succeeds, while other countries, such as India, backed by the USA, choose to oppose it, it becomes crucial that a decision be made in what regards the future of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Questions to keep in mind:

  • What are the risks for the national security of a state included in such a big scale project which has the imminent outcome of globalization?
  • Who is bound to lose more should the project fail, under-developed countries or China?
  • What are the benefits entities such as the European Union, the United States or Russia can derive from taking part in the initiative? What could the benefits of boycotting it be?
  • Is there a need for a renewed Silk Road?
  • Could the Belt and Road Initiative be an opportunity to cross geopolitical divides?
  • Is there a justifiable basis for the criticism of having self-centred ulterior motives China has received?

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