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Turning the page on 2022: 12 key moments for democracy this year

Every week, in our Beyond Ballots newsletter we have been tracking the most relevant  events for democracy. While the invasion of Ukraine has been the major event of the year, plenty more impacted democracy over the last 12 months. The year 2022 will definitely go down in history as a year that gave us more than we bargained for, and certainly not in a positive sense.

January: Protests in Kazakhstan

The new year began with an issue that would trigger worldwide protests throughout 2022: an increase in energy prices. Protests began when Kazakhstanis woke up in early January to learn that fuel prices had been doubled. Although the government quickly reversed the fuel-price hike, the protests ended up shifting to confronting the country’s regime. President Tokayev’s response was clear: the declaration of the state of emergency, a ‘shoot-to-kill’ order and a call for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). It was the first time the regional military alliance led by Russia deployed troops to intervene and contest domestic political protests.

February: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 

On 24th February, the Kremlin launched a large-scale military offensive against the former Soviet republic. NATO’s refusal to abandon its ‘open-door policy’, was conveniently used by Putin as a justification to mask its ulterior imperial motives. Never had we seen such an immediate and harmonised response from the European Union and the international community. After the invasion, reshaping democracy support policies and changing practices of defending democratic values in autocratic states became a priority. EPD, along with its members, released a statement calling on the EU institutions and European governments to respond to the crisis with a democracy-focused approach in both the short and the long term. On the day of publication of this article, it has been eleven months since the conflict began, and yet there is still no sign of an end.

March: Protests in Sri Lanka 

In March, mass protests were fueled in Sri Lanka by the government’s mismanagement of the economy. Severe inflation, daily blackouts and shortages of fuel and other essential goods led citizens to demand President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation with anger. In an attempt to suppress the protests, the government declared the state of emergency, gave the military permission to  arrest civilians, imposed curfews and restricted access to social media. Despite restrictions to freedom of expression, the protests continued  throughout the year, setting the Prime Minister’s house on fire and forcing the Sri Lankan President to flee the country in early July after thousands of protesters stormed his residence. Sri Lankan government officials have compared the events now unfolding on the island to the 2011 Arab Spring.

April: Is the EU facing an internal democratic backsliding? 

In early April, Victor Orban won  his fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s Prime Minister.  Orbán is notorious for his increasingly autocratic tendencies, as well as for a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. His victory raised concerns among democracy experts due to the uneven electoral playing field as members of the ruling party Fidesz and the government control most of the media landscape. At the same time, his re-election took away the kernel of hope left to end the ongoing battle between the EU and Hungary over rule-of-law concerns.

May: The Conference on the Future of Europe comes to an end

Following a year of discussions, deliberations and collaboration between citizens from across Europe, the Conference on the Future of Europe officially came to an end on 9 May in Strasbourg. The Co-Chairs of the Conference Executive Board delivered a final report containing the 49 proposals to the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. The proposals included general objectives and more than 300 concrete measures covering nine topics: climate change and the environment; health; a stronger economy, social justice and jobs; EU in the world; values and rights, rule of law, security; digital transformation; European democracy; migration; education, culture, youth and sport. Despite setting an example in terms of participatory democracy, a follow-up on the outcomes of the Conference is  necessary to ensure its actual  success.

June: The right to abortion is challenged 

As opposed to the global trend towards increasing access to safe and legal abortions for women, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling on June 24, giving a blank check to individual states to either allow  permit, limit or ban access to abortion and bringing to an end its constitutional recognition since 1973. So far, 13 US states have fully banned abortion and about half are expected to enact bans, while only 13 states continue to protect abortion without limitations. The decision creates  dangerous precedents for women’s privacy rights. Besides undermining  women’s human rights, the denial of abortion is also a voting rights issue: the criminalisation of abortion constitutes a repression of the entire voting block, since many US states disallow the right to vote for those convicted of felonies, even after their sentences have  been served.

July: Myanmar executes four democracy activists 

The death penalty again became a matter of discussion in July when Myanmar’s military junta executed four democracy activists in the country’s first execution since 1976. The trial was carried out behind closed doors and without respecting the right to legal counsel or to appeal.  The executions were defined  as ‘beyond the pale’ by the international community, which has  been pressuring Myanmar’s ‘Tatmadaw’ leader to publicly commit to honoring the fundamental right to freedom of expression for those continuing to protest against the coup of February 2021. Now, talks ofholding national elections in 2023 are increasing, despite a widespread certainty that the current conditions would make a democratic result out of reach. Min Aung Hlaing is laying the basis to keep himself in power and cement the military rule.

August: Elections in Kenya 

This year’s elections in Kenya served as a key test for whether the Kenyan political system could live up to the standards of enabling a free, fair, and credible presidential contest that it had set itself following the tensions around the 2017 elections. The Supreme Court confirmed Ruto’s victory, after the opposition leader Raila Odinga filed a petition to challenge the election results. The decision underscored  the country’s judiciary independence and built on the legacy of its 2017 decision, when it annulled the presidential elections and introduced reforms to ensure transparency in this year’s elections. Kenya’s geopolitical significance in East Africa and the Horn of Africa makes a democratic transition in the country not only beneficial for its own political stability and economic growth, but for the entire region.

September: Iran’s morality police take Masha Amini’s life

In September, Masha Amini, a 22-year old Iranian woman, died after being beaten by the Islamic Republic’s morality police for allegedly violating strict hijab rules. Following her death, Iranians have expressed their rage against the regime in the form of protests across the whole country. By pulling off their headscarves and cutting off their hair, women in Iran have not only shown sympathy for Masha Amini, but expressed their rebellion against the dictatorship. After causing global shockwaves, the movement promptly spread causing many international celebrities, politicians and campaigners to publicly cut their own hair, considered to be a symbol of beauty and thereby a practice forbidden by some Islamic authorities. The protests are highly significant because of the central role women have played as well as the geographic and ethnic diversity of the movement. On 5 December, Iran executed the first protester, Mohsen Shekari, on grounds being found guilty by a Revolutionary Court of “moharebeh” (enmity against God).

October –  Xi Jinping secures historic third term as leader of China

October was the month that China’s President Xi Jinping was expectedly re-elected as the general secretary of the Communist Party, extending his rule as the country’s leader for a historic third term. Since becoming the country’s leader a decade ago, Xi has achieved a concentration of power like no modern Chinese ruler since Mao after abolishing the presidential two-term limit in 2018. Reference was made by Xi to China’s irreversible path towards modernization. However, according to his speech, the nation’s ‘rejuvenation’ will be merely approached in terms of meeting the West’s living standards and importing its advanced technologies, not in terms of living up to their democratic processes or human rights.

November – Qatar World Cup 

Campaigning efforts to censor the 2022 Qatar World Cup have been unsuccessful, since many people have buried their heads in the sand over human rights violations in Qatar, prioritizing the country’s lucrative investments in football. Despite the controversy surrounding the death of migrant workers during the planning of the event, the country has evidently not missed out on the opportunity of being in the spotlight to create a favorable reputation and international perception. Sports diplomacy or ‘sportswashing’ has long  been Qatar’s strategy, not only to secure its position on the global stage, but show a global audience a very selective perspective of what their country is like.. Lastly, it is noteworthy that the same European democracies which have given Qatar the cold shoulder due to its failure to address wide-ranging human rights concerns, are the same ones that have turned to the kingdom to meet their energy demands following the deterioration of relations with Russia amid the war in Ukraine.

December – Long time no see corruption scandal in the EU

‘‘The European Parliament is under attack’’. With those words, Roberta Metsola described the corruption scandal that erupted on December 9th. Eva Kaili, MEP for the social democratic Greek Pasok party, and one of the parliament’s 14 vice-presidents, was arrested on grounds of participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption for accepting bribes from Qatar to influence EU-policy, together with another 4 individuals.  Foreign interference has become a major issue for European democracies and is now subject to greater legislative and political attention.

There have been ups and downs for democracy worldwide in 2022 with more on the negative side of the ledger. We can only work towards 2023 being more positive. If, as EPD, you believe that knowledge is power, don’t forget to subscribe to our Beyond Ballots newsletter to be kept in the loop about the upcoming year’s most relevant events for democracy.