The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The democracy progress you may have missed — everywhere

Pedestrians walks past an election board displaying the national flag in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Monday. (Vincent Thian/AP)

HONG KONG — There’s been so much bleak news about the global rollback of democracy in recent years that it makes sense to pause and take note of some positive — and perhaps overlooked — signs.

I’m not talking about the defeat of extremist candidates and election deniers in the U.S. midterms, or the loss of extremist president and climate-change denier Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, though those were both welcome developments. I’m talking about other promising green shoots of democracy that may have gone unnoticed in the cascade of daily news.

Let’s start in Kenya, where I was The Post’s bureau chief in the early 1990s. In September, William Ruto was sworn in as president after a hard-fought campaign and a razor-thin victory against longtime opposition stalwart Raila Odinga. Odinga cried foul and claimed the election was rigged, but Ruto’s win was unanimously upheld by Kenya’s Supreme Court.

What was most remarkable is that, despite some predictions of chaos, the election was largely peaceful. Most Kenyans accepted the result and the court’s affirmation, and the transfer of power was mostly drama-free.

Ethnic-based violence had been a hallmark of Kenyan elections since multiparty rule returned in 1990, culminating in the bloody post-election conflict of 2007-08, in which some 1,200 were killed and 300,000 displaced. That convulsion of bloodletting led Kenya to institute a series of reforms, such as bolstering the judiciary, greater use of technology (including a biometric voting registry) and setting up an independent election commission.

The election commission and Supreme Court showed their teeth when they nullified a presidential election in 2017, forcing a rerun. This year, the election commission was beset by internal squabbling. But the results were counted quickly and transparently, the institutions worked, and the guardrails held. Kenya took an important step toward becoming a more mature democracy — and a model Africa badly needs.

Elsewhere on the continent, in Senegal in July, voters denied the ruling coalition an absolute majority in parliament, forcing the government camp to put together a one-seat majority with the support of a single politician whose party won a sole seat. In Angola, the ruling MPLA and the opposition UNITA parties — longtime rivals from the country’s decades-long civil war — held their closest and most competitive election contest ever. President João Lourenço retained power, but with a reduced majority in parliament after a contest deemed largely free and fair.

During my time in Africa, the continent had about as many military coups as elections. But now, even autocrats try to legitimize their rule regularly through the ballot box.

Here in Asia, Malaysians went to the polls on Saturday for a snap election in which, for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957, no party or coalition won a majority.

Notable ahead of the vote was that former prime minister Najib Razak, once considered the “kingmaker” in Malaysian politics, is sitting in a prison cell. In July, Najib lost a final appeal of his 2020 convictions on a raft of charges — including money laundering and abuse of power — related to looting of the state-owned 1MBD investment fund.

Malaysians were surprised, and jubilant, that the courts both sentenced Najib to 12 years and denied his appeal, making him the most prominent Southeast Asian leader to be imprisoned for corruption. Many expected him to avoid prison, perhaps through a royal pardon. His conviction and jailing created a new era of uncertainty in Malaysian politics.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, popular President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo squashed speculation this year that he was angling to change the country’s constitution and try to remain in office for a third five-year term, as some of his supporters had suggested. Potential successors are angling already for elections scheduled for 2024.

Twenty-four years ago, I covered the growing popular protest movement in Indonesia that led to the fall of the longtime dictator Suharto and his “New Order” regime. Nearly a quarter-century later, Indonesia — the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority country — is Southeast Asia’s most entrenched democracy.

In the Philippines, where I lived in the 1980s, many were dismayed this summer by the prospect of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator, being elected president. He campaigned on vague promises and a social media strategy, mostly on Facebook and TikTok, that largely succeeded in whitewashing his family’s corrupt history.

But Marcos won in a landslide, and the losing candidate, Leni Robredo, the former vice president, was gracious in defeat, telling her supporters, “We need to accept the majority’s decision.” Her concession was a model that should be emulated elsewhere, including in the United States.

The rise of authoritarianism around the globe needs to be confronted. But let’s pause a moment to acknowledge some democratic successes. Institutions do work. Guardrails can hold. And predictions of democracy’s demise may be, at best, premature.

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