SA among countries with ‘declining democracy’

2012-09-18 11:08

Washington – Democratic governance declined throughout the world, including in South Africa, last year, showing that gains made in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring are very fragile, a US watchdog group has said.

“In South Africa, considered a beacon of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, the supremacy of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and the increasing politicisation of civil-service appointments are leading to a reduction in protections for political activism outside of the ANC,” the latest Countries at the Crossroads report published by Freedom House said, noting score declines.

Four criteria are used to assess the 72 countries surveyed in the Countries at the Crossroads – accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law, and anti-corruption and transparency.

Half of the countries are updated each year, while Egypt and Tunisia were surveyed for both the past two years.

Freedom House says a country score of 5 out of a total of 7 is the minimum standard for effective democratic governance, which it views as essential to an open, just and prosperous society.

On the four criteria averages South Africa scored 4.76, 5.09, 4.39 and 3.90 respectively.

Among the Middle East-North African countries that were surveyed only Tunisia has improved markedly its overall governance score. Bahrain slipped backward and Egypt edged up only slightly.

Worldwide, declines in the quality of governance far exceeded improvements, led by a worsening of government accountability and the rule of law in civil and criminal matters, the US research group said.

The deterioration raises an alarm for pro-democracy advocates who had hoped that the overthrow of brutal authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt marked a dramatic breakthrough, said Vanessa Tucker, project director.

“It is unclear whether the popular dismissal of the old models of authoritarianism will translate into enduring public support for novice representative government and contentious institutional reforms,” she said.

“There are limits to citizen’s patience with respect to political instability, economic disruption and physical insecurity, and the desire to return to a less chaotic environment may allow the leaders to slip back into the familiar habits of authoritarian rule.”

The Freedom House measure is used widely by development groups in helping them decide whether a government can use foreign assistance effectively.

The report covers the period from April 2009 to December last year.

In the latest report, Tunisia improved in all categories led by a sharp rise in accountability and public voice, pushing its overall country ranking to 4.11 from about 2.36 before the ouster of President Zine
el-Abidine Ben Ali in January last year.

One area of concern the report flagged was women’s rights, saying Islamist political parties have stoked fears of a rollback in existing rights.

While it uses monitors and experts on the ground and an advisory board, such rankings can be controversial accused of imposing subjective and Western viewpoints.

Accountability and public voice also rose in Egypt after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but other measures were flat leading to only a small rise to 2.25 from 1.98 the prior year, despite open elections.

Restrictions on the media, hostility to non-governmental organisations and efforts to restrain women’s political activity through “virginity checks” by the military were cited as areas of concern.

Bahrain, once seen as one of the more developed countries, saw its measures decline across the board pulling its country average down to 2.03, the level of pre-uprising Syria, from a recent peak of 3.27 in 2004.

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