When the 20th century dawned, liberty and democracy were as rare as horseless carriages. By the time it ended a year ago, they had become as common as cars. The question is whether government based on the consent of free people will continue to spread. Based on the experience of the year 2000, it looks as though the answer is: No faster than wildfire.
The world has never been as free as it is today. In its recently published annual report, the human rights group Freedom House calculates that 2.5 billion people now enjoy full political rights and civil liberties — an increase of 1.4 billion in the last seven years. Some 41 percent of the world’s inhabitants are free, compared to 35 percent who are not free and 24 percent who are somewhere in between.
This year, the United States found that it no longer has to contend with nasty “rogue states” abroad: The State Department announced that from now on, these countries will be known as “states of concern.” A spokesman explained, “We will respond … if we see states of concern that continue to be a concern because they are not willing to deal with some of the issues we are concerned about.”
One hundred million of the newcomers to democracy are Mexicans, whose only access to democracy used to lie in crossing the Rio Grande. Last summer, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo achieved his greatest triumph — conducting an election which his preferred successor could lose, and did. The fairest vote ever in Mexico gave the presidency to opposition candidate Vicente Fox and ended the reign of the longest-ruling political party in the world.
The spirit of democracy likewise erupted in Peru, where incumbent strongman Alberto Fujimori defied a constitutional rule limiting him to two terms but couldn’t defy his people, whose outrage over a corruption scandal forced him into exile in Japan.
Rule by the people, however, has yet to sink roots in Haiti, where former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide regained that office in a vote boycotted by opposition parties — and, apparently, most Haitians. Fidel Castro praised the “revolutionary” spirit of left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was elected to a six-year term only eight years after failing in his effort to carry out a military coup.
Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic made the mistake of letting his people vote for president. They chose his opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, and forced Milosevic to concede defeat after an attempt to rig the vote count.
When Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as president in May, Russians saw something never before seen in their eventful 1,100-year history: a transfer of power from one democratically chosen government to another. In neighboring Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka became the answer to a trivia question: Who is the last undemocratically chosen leader in Europe?
Among Arab countries, the question is who will be the first democratically chosen leader, and it has no answer yet. “There are no true democracies or free countries within the Arab world,” reports Freedom House.
Syria lost a longtime dictator with the death of Hafez Al-Assad. But after a constitutional amendment was passed lowering the minimum age for a president from 40 to 34, more than 97 percent of Syrians voted to replace him with his son Bashar — who happened to be 34 years old and the only candidate on the ballot.
A poll in Iran found that 53 percent of girls would prefer to be boys. An Iranian man who had a sex change operation asked to be changed back because he found life as a woman in Iran “painful and intolerable.”
Zimbabweans took an unprecedented interest in the Balkans. Why? Because President Robert Mugabe is known as “the Milosevic of Africa” and may face a similar fate. When Mugabe held a referendum on a new constitution allowing government expropriation of white land without payment, it went down to a stunning defeat — which didn’t stop him from urging his followers to “strike fear in the heart of the white man.” In Ivory Coast, which in 1999 lost its status as one of the few African countries never to have endured military rule, a mass uprising toppled Gen. Robert Guei.
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who once came close to being executed by the dictatorship that used to govern South Korea, went to North Korea and won a Nobel Peace Prize. Taiwan chose a new president in an election that represented the first democratic transfer of power in a Chinese state. The people of mainland China, who outnumber every other country on earth, found themselves in a minority: 59 percent of the countries in Asia are now democratic.
Governments like China’s continue to hope that they can resist the tides of history, but those tides only got stronger in 2000. Just ask Slobodan Milosevic.