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Column: Rumors of democracy's death have been greatly exaggerated

By John Lloyd

(Reuters) - "The End of History and the Last Man" is 21 years old this year. The book of that name, by Francis Fukuyama, has, in the view of many, matured badly. Published in 1992, it was much lauded for its view that, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, liberal democracy and free markets were the only long-term politics and economics for the globe.

After 9/11, the disparagements came quickly. The terrorist attacks were held to show that history may have paused, but it had reignited with a vengeance. Clearly, there were other powerful forces in the world than the "inevitable" liberal democracy. Sharply different ideologies were alive, well and seeking power by any means.

Fukuyama was seen as a man of the right, though he is quite heterodox. He endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, and has recently said that the German social democratic model is better for workers than the U.S. free enterprise one. He has not given up thinking freely, and though he has modified his views, he has not abandoned them.

Shouldn't he, though? A tour of the contemporary world reveals much that would give Fukuyama's followers pause. Democracy of any kind is often a corrupt façade when it's not missing altogether.

The Syrian conflict appears to be swaying to the advantage of President Assad, as the city of Qusair in Western Syria was retaken by government forces. Determined oppression, for which the Fukuyama thesis left little room, remains a regime's possible response. Syria still has powerful friends and every chance of victory.

China is not in the Syrian brutality league, but the world's largest state will remain a one-party, authoritarian bastion. (No matter that Barack Obama described talks at the end of last week between him and the Chinese President Xi Jinping as "terrific.") China's Communist Party is likely to remain authoritarian, its leaders fearful of class and ethnic divisions. But without the checks and balances that a functioning, recognized and legal opposition offers, there is nothing but the consciences of its leaders to stop a descent into bloodshed, should a strong challenge to monopoly rule arise.

Nor do many of the new democracies offer compelling models. The Egyptian government of President Mohamed Morsi has disillusioned both the country's liberals who saw in the fall of President Hosni Mubarak a springtime of the nation. It is not yet at least a tyranny, but its general drift is towards the religious intolerance which is the legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter providing one part of Egypt's ruling class with the military, as before, providing the other.

Turkey, meanwhile, has a Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, doggedly determined to ignore demonstrations. Those protests started as a push against the destruction of a park in Istanbul's center, but have since flowered into a general critique of what many protestors say is a threat to democracy. Turkey threatens to show that a government elected by a majority without a strongly liberal orientation tends to neglect the rights of minorities and drifts to authoritarianism. This, at least, is what Turkey's most famed author, Orhan Pamuk, fears.

In Russia, high-profile liberals, such as the economist Sergei Guriev and the opposition leader and chess champion Garry Kasparov, leave their country for self-imposed exile, warning of Kremlin crackdowns.

In Venezuela, the late Hugo Chavez' successor, Nicolas Maduro Moros, lacks his mentor's charisma but not his determination to brand the opposition as traitors. Even India cannot bask too smugly in its democracy. There, poverty is more stubbornly entrenched than in China, corruption is ingrained and mass murders between religious groups and by Maoist terrorists erupt frequently. In most authoritarian states, democrats and liberals are minorities, sometimes quite small ones.

But the democratic proposal, and Fukuyama's vision, are robust enough to survive. It does not, in the end, depend on the perceived success of the democratic states. Most of the European ones certainly aren't succeeding, for now. It doesn't depend on loving America. It doesn't depend, even, on the perception that wealth and democracy have tended to go together, which the leaping success of China may be about to damage.

It depends on the wish of people to live, think, read, watch, talk and publish freely. The assumption that most people do wish that, when relieved of fear of its consequences, isn't naïve or ill-founded. It has tended to be proven by time and events, not just in the convulsions of 1989 that shaped Fukuyama's thinking, but after, and now, too.

Democratic politics may be, as Fukuyama claimed, the only form of government that can offer every citizen a promise of both economic development and a framework for how to live amongst one another and beneath a government.

The growth of the global middle class, nearly two-thirds of which will live in Asia by 2030, is something of a bedrock for participatory politics. A middle class with some property, private wealth and higher education is not necessarily either liberally or democratically inclined, but its members are more likely to be so than those for whom existence is an exhausting, all-consuming struggle.

"Liberal democracy," said Fukuyama in a 2008 interview, "is still really is the only game in town worldwide, in spite of all of its shortcomings." He's right to stick to his opinion. And so should the world's democrats.

(John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.)

(John Lloyd)

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