Three experts on why democracies are facing growing threats globally

Friday at the Summit for Democracy, President Joe Biden announced initiatives designed to bolster democracy around the world — from election integrity, to independent media and fighting corruption. But the president and democracy advocates admit global democracy is eroding, and authoritarianism is rising. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, at a U.S.-led summit on democracy, President Biden announced initiatives designed to bolster democracy around the world, from election integrity, to independent media, to fighting corruption.

    But the president and democracy advocates admit freedoms are eroding, and authoritarianism is rising.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This week, President Biden hosted leaders from over 100 countries and territories for a virtual Summit For Democracy. The president called safeguarding rights and freedoms in the face of authoritarianism the defining challenge of our time.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Government of the people, by the people, for the people can at times be fragile, but it also is inherently resilient. Will we allow the backwards slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As the president said, the state of democracy around the world is not good.

    The nonprofit Freedom House has tracked 15 consecutive years of decline in political rights and civil liberties worldwide. and of 146 countries with more than two million residents, only 39 are fully free.

    To discuss the summit and the decline of democracy worldwide, I'm joined by three experts.

    Miriam Kornblith is senior director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment For Democracy, a foundation promoting democratic institutions. Helen Kezie-Nwoha is an activist in Uganda and executive director of the Women's International Peace Centre, an organization that promotes women's rights in conflict settings. And Heather Conley is about to become the next president of German Marshall Fund, which focuses on transatlantic relations and the future of democracy, and was a State Department official on European affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

    Welcome, all of you to the "NewsHour.

    Miriam Kornblith, let me start with you.

    President Biden said there's a global competition between democracy and autocracy. Which side is winning in Latin America?

  • Miriam Kornblith, National Endowment For Democracy:

    Unfortunately, I have to say that I think autocracy is winning.

    Unfortunately, this is a region of the world that, until recently, praised itself of having all the countries in the democratic field, except for Cuba, and that has been a 60-year, long-lasting dictatorship. However, nowadays, we have — in addition to Cuba, we have Nicaragua and Venezuela, and we have a significant slipping into authoritarian trends both on the right and on the left.

    And what's really worrisome is these authoritarian trends are being promoted from within, elected officials, players, parties inside democratic systems that are pushing their own countries against the will of the people, in many cases, towards authoritarian regimes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Helen Kezie-Nwoha, we have seen coups in Guinea, Mali, Chad, Sudan, the highest number of coups in afternoon in 40 years.

    Each, of course, have their own local causes. But what's behind what Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently called an epidemic of coups?

  • Helen Kezie-Nwoha, Women’s International Peace Centre:

    The democratic process in Africa has been mired with a lot of corruption in electoral processes.

    You will find politicians taking advantage of poverty, a large number of unemployed youths, buying votes during elections, making elections not credible. We have also seen increasingly marginalization of minority groups, ethnic groups.

    We see also increasingly social and economic inequalities that have also led to agitations by people calling for changes in government. Once people are calling for changes, the army takes over. And when they took over, they also used elections itself to manipulate themselves into power, making it even worse for people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Heather Conley, how are leaders in Hungary and Poland especially challenging democracy, weaponizing cultural values, and how are other leaders in Europe, frankly, taking their example?

  • Heather Conley, Former State Department Official:

    Hungary, under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has really been a leader in establishing an illiberal handbook, so restricting constitutional capabilities for an opposition to be able to express themselves, reduce media freedoms, so any media voice has to be supportive of the government, is controlling the judicial branch, making sure that there can't be any meaningful investigation into a government.

    Mr. Orban's handbook has now been adopted in Poland, increasingly in Slovenia. In part, it's to ensure the current government can maintain its political power and its base, and making sure that the opposition cannot do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let's talk a little bit in each region about how some local forces are fighting this.

    Miriam Kornblith, let's start with you.

    What do we see in terms of resistance in Latin America to these anti-democratic trends? How are people fighting back?

  • Miriam Kornblith:

    There is a lot of fighting back against the authoritarian trends.

    Even in the case of Cuba, for the first time in 60 years, people took to the streets. There's a very vibrant civil society in Latin America that is fighting back. They are looking for transparency, anti-corruption. They're looking for rule of law, for independent judiciary, for independent legislative branches. There are lots of courageous, innovative and very committed people fighting back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Helen Kezie-Nwoha, you talked a lot about elections. Why is it important for the world to try and support African election infrastructure?

  • Helen Kezie-Nwoha:

    Civil society organizations and others bodies are working very hard to ensure that electoral processes are more transparent, despite the militarized nature of states within Africa.

    Although there's been a lot of works in terms of sensitizing the citizens on the rule of law on elections, you find that the environment itself is not conducive for civil society.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Heather Conley, we have seen major protests across Poland. Can something like that make a difference?

  • Heather Conley:

    Absolutely.

    So, you really are seeing a pretty significant social mobilization. But is it enough? You have governments that have all the tools. They control the media, they control the funding sources, and they are able to use their majorities to pass through new laws.

    But I think we're seeing some real improvements. So we see this as well in the European Union withholding pandemic relief funds from both Poland and Hungary because of the democratic backsliding, may, in fact, have the greatest leverage, in addition to strong U.S. engagement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, let's look at the Summit For Democracy itself.

    And let me come back to you, Heather Conley. The Biden administration has been — criticizing for inviting some countries to the summit that they say are sliding back from democracy, Philippines and Egypt, for example.

    Do you think the Biden administration held this summit in the correct way?

  • Heather Conley:

    My recommendation would be, let's focus on the democratic activists, the freedom fighters that are working very hard within these countries to fight for a different future. Give them the tools, the mechanisms.

    When you get into the countries and the geopolitics, it starts not making sense exactly. And it wasn't clear from the White House what exactly the criteria was for those that were — that joined the summit that did not have strong democratic credentials. Others that did have strong criminal democratic credentials were not allowed in. So it was an unnecessary distraction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Helen Kezie-Nwoha, can a summit for democracy help fortify democracy?

  • Helen Kezie-Nwoha:

    I don't know to what extent this conference is going to be able to fortify democracy.

    We're talking about changing institutions of governance, changing institutions of elections. And we don't have those technical people in the room, although I believe it is a starting point to begin to discuss how democracy can be more transparent, more effective.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Miriam Kornblith, the administration says one of its goals is to promote democracy across Latin America.

    It's also openly discussed how, in the words of Vice President Harris, U.S. democracy is not immune from threats, mentioning January 6.

    What's the impact of American democratic flaws on its ability to spread democracy in the region?

  • Miriam Kornblith:

    To those who oppose the U.S., raises their views and arguments, saying, well, that is not the kind of democracy that serves as a model.

    But, on the other hand, I think it opens the opportunity for a more sincere and more direct conversation. Many people, governments in the region resented was this sense of superiority, like the feeling that a model was being imposed because the U.S. model was so perfect.

    I think recognizing that the U.S. system has difficulties opens this possibility of addressing in a — say, I would say a more — maybe more sincere fashion.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Miriam Kornblith, Helen Kezie-Nwoha, and Heather Conley, thank you very much.

  • Helen Kezie-Nwoha:

    Thank you, Nick.

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