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Pope Francis: ‘Retreat from Democracy’ in Global Leadership

Euan Cook reports on the rise of authoritarianism during the Covid-19 pandemic and how Pope Francis calls for a return to democratic ideals.

In December 2021 on the penultimate leg of his Mediterranean trip, Pope Francis arrived in Cyprus from Athens — often considered the “birthplace of democracy” — to raise awareness of the plight of migrants and refugees.

Francis warned that the common bonds of society were being severed by an “increasing scepticism of institutions, hyper-individualism and partisanship”, resulting in the birth of more non-democratic states.

“Today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy” - Pope Francis

Infectious Authoritarianism

The number of countries moving towards authoritarianism in 2020 was approximately three times as high as the number moving towards democracy. The Covid-19 pandemic has been reported to have prolonged this trend to a five-year stretch: the longest period since the third wave of democratisation in the 1970s.

So, what are the main contributors to democratic decline across the globe?

Pandemic responses, including travel restrictions, emergency powers side-lining governments and failing to mitigate the disproportionate impact of the virus on minorities, have contributed to democratic degradation.

This threat to democracy led countries including Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Serbia towards less democratic systems in the past year. Myanmar has recently been added to the list following the military coup in 2021, which detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and resulted in hundreds of deaths, including children. Equally, 30 per cent of formerly backsliding democracies have now turned into hybrid or authoritarian regimes, including Nicaragua, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela. Worryingly, as of August 2021, the only country likely to (re)transition to democracy is Zambia.

Pro-democracy movements have, furthermore, braved repression in countries such as Belarus, Cuba, Eswatini and Hong Kong. Some ethnonationalist strategies (like in India) have even used religion as a political weapon, while other governments have attacked LGBTQIA+ rights in Hungary, Poland and Turkey, to name a few.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the Pope, who lived through Argentina’s populist Peronist era as well as its military dictatorship, has continued to warn nations about the threat of populism and the danger it poses to democracy itself, praising the “necessary vaccination campaign” in the process.

An Advocate for Democracy

During the Dirty War (1976-83), the Pope’s public life became inextricably linked with politics. He aided in protests against Argentina’s military dictatorship which suppressed leftists and perceived subversives. Francis even hid several individuals from the authorities and aided them in fleeing the country, establishing him as a stringent advocate for democracy in his early life. Throughout the economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s, Francis acquired a public reputation for humility: living in a basic apartment, travelling by foot and becoming an outspoken advocate for the poor.

In 2015, the “siren songs of authoritarianism and individualism” rang, and Francis published the first encyclical of his papacy - Laudato si’ (“Praise be to you”). He proclaimed that environmental degradation was “a moral issue” powered by the greed and inequality of unchecked capitalism. Promoting the concept of “integral ecology”, Francis connected the heinous actions of industry against the environment with the economic exploitation of impoverished human beings, fuelling the fire for his speech in Greece this month.

The “Horrendous Modern Odyssey”

The Western world, Francis stated, is trapped in a flurry of an “insatiable greed of a depersonalising consumerism”. He called for a transition from partisanship to participation in prioritising the “weaker strata of society”. The current Pope is certainly critical of the capitalist system which exploits the poor and benefits the rich, inflating the ego of politicians with what he calls an “obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises”.

Moreover, the Pope has openly criticised several politicians, including former U.S. President Donald Trump and Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini, particularly on the topic of immigration. Memorably, Francis arranged asylum for three Syrian refugee families in Rome, and has arranged for fifty migrants from Cyprus to be relocated to Italy this month. The dissolution of multilateralism has sadly begun to be stifled by “excessive nationalistic demands”, resulting in the common voice not being heard on issues such as climate change, racial inequality and immigration.

Democracy demands “hard work and patience” if society wishes to tackle the peremptory nature of authoritarianism and the answers of populism. Indeed, Francis recalled that it was in Greece, according to Aristotle, that man became conscious of being a “political animal” and a “member of a community of fellow citizens”. These values need to be upheld if we want to strive towards democracy, not retreat from it.


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