By almost any measure, 2018 has been a disastrous year for democracy. Authoritarian leaders have made decisive moves to tighten their grip on power by eroding practices indispensable to a functioning democracy, such as the rule of law and a free press, and blithely ignoring or violently suppressing mass protests in places such as Hungary, Nicaragua, the Philippines and elsewhere.
And yet, there are parts of the world where, quite unexpectedly, the struggle for democratic reform made giant strides — a reminder that the right mix of activism, leadership and circumstances can suddenly change the course of history. The good news came from starkly different countries, where undemocratic practices had been playing out in unique ways. Remarkably, whether toppling autocrats or reversing corrosive practices, the bold leaders and committed activists that shocked the system managed to achieve their goals without violence.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year came in Ethiopia, a country of 100 million people and a solidly authoritarian past. Its jails teemed with political prisoners and journalists, and regime critics knew that the safest place was in exile. Since overthrowing a military regime in 1991, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) monopolized power, profited from corruption, crushed its critics and blatantly favored the privileged ethnic Tigray minority.
But then, in March, tensions within the EPRDF produced something of an internal coup, and the party chose Abiy Ahmed as its new chairman, making him prime minister and the first member of the oppressed Oromo minority to hold the post. His appointment ushered in changes that Ethiopians at home and abroad could hardly believe.
Abiy freed thousands of political prisoners. He released jailed journalists — not a single one remains in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists — and ended a decades-old war with neighboring Eritrea. The euphoria that gripped Ethiopia, as opposition leaders started returning home, spread to the diaspora. Abiy met with a hero’s welcome during his travels to exiled Ethiopian communities. In a meeting with Ethiopian dissidents in the United States he explained his vision: The next step, he declared, is a “democratic election.”
Abiy and Ethiopia face enormous challenges. Economic turmoil and ethnic conflict could yet lie ahead. But the prime minister also enjoys an extraordinary amount of support. His push for fair elections, his tolerance of dissent, and his selection of women as cabinet officers, the head of the Supreme Court, and ceremonial president all signal a more democratic future.
Armenia has experienced a similarly dramatic turnaround. When President Serzh Sargsyan, already in office for a decade, staged a power grab by changing the constitution and becoming prime minister, the journalist-turned-activist Nikol Pashinyan leveraged the people’s anger to drastically change the country’s direction. Pashinyan led a massive march followed by crippling demonstrations, paralyzing the country until the parliament — which had named Sargsyan prime minister — finally relented. The nonviolent people power of Armenians forced Sargsyan to resign and persuaded legislators to name Pashinyan prime minister. But the biggest shift was still to come.
A week ago, Armenians elected a new parliament, handing Pashinyan’s bloc an astonishing 70 percent of the vote. The previous ruling party, Sargsyan’s Republicans, didn’t even manage the 5 percent minimum required to enter parliament. Bolstered by the vote of confidence, Pashinyan has now launched a comprehensive anti-corruption campaign aimed at cleaning up the system of government.
Two continents and an ocean away, the people of Peru also showed their appetite for change. Peruvians have long suffered from endemic corruption at the highest levels. But then the giant Odebrecht bribery scandal, which has played out across Latin America, revealed a series of new scandals. Every former Peruvian president going back several decades is now either in prison or under investigation.
Last March, when President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign over bribery allegations, Peru’s ambassador to Canada, Martin Vizcarra, got word he should hurry home: As the largely powerless first vice president, he was next in the line of succession. When Vizcarra arrived on a commercial flight and took the oath of office, most Peruvians had barely heard of him. But his accidental presidency was about to take a dramatic turn.
Journalists discovered recordings of judges negotiating sentences and court appointments in exchange for favors, infuriating the public. The president found his cause, staking his presidency on uprooting corrupt practices. Peruvians stood solidly behind him. On Dec. 9, voters endorsed his plan in a nationwide referendum, overwhelmingly approving plans to change the ways judges and prosecutors are appointed, tighten campaign finance laws and ban congressional reelection.
Vizcarra is now very popular, but his path ahead is also filled with potential traps, not least the risk of disappointing a population that had grown jaded after repeated scandals.
These countries and their leaders still face dangerous obstacles ahead along the path to a durable liberal democracy. Their experiments could still fail. But the very fact that they have managed to make meaningful democratic strides against such steep odds should give encouragement to those battling the forces of damaging corruption and creeping authoritarianism in other places.
Frida Ghitis is a former CNN producer and correspondent who writes about world affairs for the Washington Post, CNN.com and World Politics Review