Last year’s authoritarian surge has spilt over into 2019; from Xi Jinping’s power grab in March 2018 to secure the presidency for life, ending any debate over China’s liberalisation, to Daniel Ortega crushing the ‘Tropical Spring’ in Nicaragua just this week. Earlier this year Venezuela’s Maduro clung to power with Russian and Chinese support amidst immense popular protests, meanwhile, Mohammed Bin Salman weathered a storm of wrath and international condemnation for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Yet, with Saudi Aramco’s astronomical profits being revealed last week and grabbing all the headlines, it seems the murder has been successfully whitewashed out of the public eye.
This is because, as political scientist Robert Kagan argues, we are seeing a period of ‘realist’ global retrenchment from the US. After almost two decades of a messy war on terror, the US has found itself over-stretched and its international image tainted. Its reputation continues to plummet according to recent Pew polls, which may be curbing Washington’s enthusiasm for democracy promotion. Indeed, the Trump administration has been case-in-point. We have seen retrenchment and isolationism on all fronts. Complimented only by Trump’s warm embrace of Kim Jong Un, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as Europe’s very own resident autocrat, Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Indeed, the US is no longer the self-proclaimed guardian of the liberal world order it once was, its electorate is polarized and sympathetic to populist appeals. Kagan offers a grim prognosis of current events, comparing the widespread sentiments across the US to those that facilitated the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini last century.
Is all hope lost? Is democracy in the autumn of its political life? Not quite. There is a lot of optimism to be drawn from a country right on Vladimir Putin’s doorstep. Known for decades of rampant corruption and deeply entrenched oligarchic elites, Ukraine might appear an unlikely candidate to cut through the jungle as it grows back with conviction. Yet, this comedian-cum-presidential-candidate is exactly the story democracy needs right now. Running a grassroots-esque campaign promising to be a ‘servant of the people’, he launched himself into the political arena with his namesake TV Show, vlogged roundtable meetings with local experts and academics off handheld phones, crowdsourced election monitors from around the world, and has secured himself a place in the run-off election with the incumbent oligarch-cum-President Petro Poroshenko this Sunday. At the time of writing, polls have it at 75-25 in favour of Zelenskiy. He has recently stepped up his diplomatic game, contracting Washington-based PR firms to raise his public image in the west and securing meetings Europe’s leading Democrat, Emmanuel Macron. In a country that Yevhen Fedchenko has called a ‘laboratory’ for Russian propaganda and disinformation, turned into regional-strongman Putin’s personal playground with his incursions into Crimea and Donetsk, this sort of political development is unprecedented. Having recently walked the streets of Kyiv and spoken to locals, there is a sincere endogenous passion for democratic change in the country. Should Zelenskiy take the presidency this Easter, we will be able to take respite that if democracy can flourish in the depths of post-soviet kleptocracy, there is hope for the rest of the world.