Elections in Thailand, Timor-Leste, Nigeria show longing for freedom is strong

Max Jeganathan argues that recent elections around the world are reminders of how liberal democracy fits with who we are as human beings.

Freedom is the new black. Or has it always been that way? Every now and again – like a double-shot espresso in the morning – the project of liberalism gets a badly needed boost.

In their recent national election, the people of Thailand spoke out against authoritarian and militarised forms of government. Two pro-freedom democratic parties – Move Forward and Pheu Thai – comprehensively defeated Thailand’s prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s pro-military government. In a country of 50 million people in which military coups are as common as iPhone releases, this is a big deal.

In Timor-Leste, the fact of a free and fair election in May was more important than its result. The election campaign was engulfed by national celebrations of 21 years of freedom and independence as a nation.

In Nigeria – a country plagued with economic and social challenges – a presidential election last month passed with no major unrest or opposition to the importance of the democratic process. Critics of newly elected President Bola Tinubu cite voter obstruction as their primary concern. Importantly, their concern is not with democracy itself, but with ensuring that democracy is properly practised.

This is not to say that these pro-democracy moments always hold. After all, history is replete with examples of societies nudging towards freedom only to be pushed back. The Arab Spring, the umbrella protests in Hong Kong and the storming of the president’s palace in Sri Lanka are other reminders of pro-freedom flashes in the pan that didn’t follow through. A sunray that momentarily pierces a cloud, only to be enveloped by the ever-present storm.

Our longing for freedom is not just political or ideological, it’s anthropological.

But maybe that’s the point. When freedom is denied – even repeatedly – people don’t stop wanting it. Freedom doesn’t always reign, but our desire for it does. Winston Churchill declared democracy to be the worst form of government except for all the others. Perhaps liberal democracy – for all of its failures – provides a better fit for human nature than all the others. Our longing for freedom is not just political or ideological, it’s anthropological.

In the award-winning political drama The West Wing, a cameo appearance sees legal and constitutional expert Lawrence Lessig – portrayed by actor Christopher Lloyd – asked about the importance of laws in securing liberal democracies. His reply is that laws are “just the beginning”. Liberal democracies succeed “only if the constitution reflects democratic values already alive in the citizenry”.

Could it be that the longing for freedom is already alive in all citizenries?

Where there are authoritarian leaders, there are always pro-freedom dissidents. Alexei Navalny in Russia, Ai Weiwei in China, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar to name just a few. By contrast, in open democracies, we don’t see pro-dictator dissidents. Yes, there are right-wingers and left-wingers, but no one’s out there calling for less representation, less of a voice, less freedom. No one’s openly campaigning on a pro-dictatorship political strategy.

Even dictators – before they are dictators – don’t sell themselves as such. To openly campaign on an anti-freedom platform would be like trying to sell vegan burgers to the Cattle Council. It just won’t work. Maybe that’s why this project of liberalism – bruised and battered though it may be – keeps marching on. Because it fits with who we are.

Across cultures and across history, the proof of the pudding seems to be in the people. In the middle of the Cold War, one of the USSR’s biggest challenges was trying to get its young people to stop wearing American jeans. And the world’s two fastest growing Christian populations are in China and Iran – both totalitarian regimes that do not support religious freedom. Getting people not to seek freedom is like getting a five-year old not to seek ice-cream. Not gonna happen.

The apostle Paul wrote in an ancient letter to the Ephesian church “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.” Paul’s words accord with history, political science and human psychology.

We are told that politics is downstream from culture. But culture is downstream from human nature. And Paul’s declaration about freedom as intrinsically human precedes – by more than 1500 years – the conceivers of modern liberalism.

Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Once freedom has exploded in the soul of a man, the gods have no more power over him.” Equally, you could read the evidence the other way round: our longing for freedom not as a rage against God, but a pointer to him.

Max Jeganathan is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and is undertaking a PhD on the ethical foundations of liberalism.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.