Given the daily headlines from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, it’s not hard to conclude, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman did, that “democracy is in recession” around the world. That impression is largely borne out by data. This year’s Freedom in the World report from Freedom House, for instance, found that the number of countries becoming less free outnumbered those becoming more free for the ninth consecutive year.
But there’s an equally significant but less remarked-upon trend going on at the same time: The world’s largest countries have been getting more democratic.
On Tuesday, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat to Muhammadu Buhari. This is the first time a sitting Nigerian president has ever been defeated by an opposition candidate. Despite a six-week delay caused by the ongoing insurgency in the country’s North and scattered complaints of technical glitches and violence, international monitors say the vote was largely orderly and fair.
The advent of genuine competitive elections is a major development in Africa’s largest country, a place that will likely have more people than the United States in a few decades. And it’s not just Nigeria: 2014 was a huge year for voting in the world’s biggest countries. India held the largest elections ever, in which the party that had dominated its politics for most of its post-independence history was defeated. Indonesia now appears to be a consolidated democracy after its third presidential election since the overthrow of dictatorship in 2008. In October, Dilma Rousseff was elected in Brazil’s seventh democratic election since its return to democracy. And in 2013, Pakistan saw its first ever peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another.
With the addition of Nigeria and including the United States, that means that six of the world’s seven largest countries, with a combined population of 2.4 billion, now have democratically elected governments. (The world’s largest country, which if anything is getting even more autocratic under President Xi Jinping, is an obvious exception.)
Now, just because these governments are elected doesn’t mean they are particularly effective or even particularly accountable to voters. Nigeria’s new president, Buhari, is a former military dictator, and even assuming the best of motives on his part, he faces an unenviable slate of crises, including entrenched government corruption and a Boko Haram insurgency that has left an area the size of Belgium outside the government’s control—and in about the least democratic conditions imaginable. The same set of problems—terrorism, armed insurgency, corruption, widespread distrust of public figures—exists in Pakistan. The honeymoon is decidedly over for Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, beset at home by corruption scandals and abroad by controversy over Indonesia’s use of the death penalty for drug offenders. Thanks to corruption scandals and low economic growth, Rousseff’s approval rating is at a dismal 13 percent. And as Matthew Yglesias argues, even America’s democratic institutions aren’t looking that robust these days.
I’ve written before that the most worrying trend for democracy around the world isn’t government crackdowns, but voters—particularly the educated, middle-class voters who should, according to conventional wisdom, be the strongest supporters of democracy—losing faith in it. It’s good news that the citizens of these six countries, a third of the world’s population, can now pick their leaders. The next step is for those leaders to deliver the kind of progress, security, and accountability that will keep it that way.