Fires, riots, and protestors storming the seat of government. These were scenes out of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on Monday, October 5 as anti-government demonstrations erupted throughout the country. These protests arose because many believed that recent elections had been rigged by then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and his government. According to Radio Free Europe, opposition parties won about a third of the votes nationally but won barely any seats in Parliament. Public outcry led to Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission to annul the results of the election, leaving it unclear who is in charge, according to AP News.
What we are seeing happening in Kyrgyzstan is just a microcosm of a larger issue threatening the global political landscape: the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarian populism. In the last decade, an alarming wave of right-wing populism has swept the globe and endangered many democracies. We have seen the election of proto-fascists like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, nationalists like Narendra Modi in India and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and autocrats like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. There is also growing nationalist sentiment in Western liberal democracies, resulting in the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
The last time authoritarian populism swept the globe, the world witnessed unprecedented carnage and war. These new authoritarian leaders have eroded many of the democratic norms in their countries. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in The World report, “elections are being hollowed out as autocracies find ways to control their results while sustaining a veneer of competitive balloting.” These authoritarian leaders have demonstrated a pattern of appealing to nationalist sentiments, disparaging immigrants, demonizing critics in the media, and staging referendums to gain more power.
In the United States alone, our president has attacked our democratic institutions relentlessly. He has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and repeatedly attacked mail-in voting without evidence. He even went so far as to say that “the only way we’re gonna lose the election is if the election is rigged” at a rally in August. Like a textbook autocrat, Donald Trump is attacking the legitimacy of our elections so that if he loses, he will still try to retain power. Such an unprecedented assault on democracy by the “leader” of the “free world” should be a wake-up call to everyone who takes democracy for granted.
Attacks on global elections are nothing new, however. VOA writes that the U.S. and the Soviet Union undermined many democratic elections during the Cold War, and Russia continues to do so today. A recent report by The Council on Foreign Relations concluded that the best way to combat this kind of election interference is for the U.S. and its fellow democracies to agree to no longer support or engage in election meddling. Once a broad global coalition is formed, they can pressure other countries like Russia and China to join them. This should be one of the priorities of Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s foreign policy if he wins the election. He can once again make the U.S. a staunch supporter of protecting democracy around the world and restore people’s faith in the institution.
Now that we see a backsliding into authoritarianism, it may seem like there is no hope. On the contrary, we must stand up for our democratic institutions more than ever before. One example we can look to are the people of Belarus, who have been living under the dictator Alexander Lukashenko for 20 years. When Lukashenko tried to claim victory in another rigged election this August, more than one hundred thousand people took to the streets to demand that their voices be heard, reports the Associated Press. After two months, these protests are still going strong and the people have not given up hope.
We can also look at Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, in his fight against Putin’s government. According to Time, Navalny was poisoned by Putin this year because many see him as Putin’s greatest rival. Navalny has exposed corruption for many years and fights for democracy in Russia. Navalny has recovered and stated that he will return to Russia and continue his fight for the sake of the Russian people.
These stories should inspire us to stand up to authoritarian wannabes like Donald Trump and exercise our right to vote. The time for complacency has passed. The only way to respond to people who want to attack our elections is to vote them out. The antidote to authoritarianism is democracy – and make no mistake when it comes to your right to vote: if you don’t use it, you will lose it.