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King’s Votes: Students as Teachers

Comment editor Fintan Hogan examines global governance in the past year and discusses the importance of KCL, Roar News and ‘King’s Votes’ creating advocates for democracy.

Our latest graduates (congratulations) depart King’s College London (KCL) into a world less free, less equal and accordingly less safe than the one they knew before they joined us here in London. The Freedom House thinktank now classes only 20% of the global population as living in ‘free’ countries, down from 40% as recently as 2019. In only a decade, the creeping hand of authoritarianism has touched countries as far ranging as Venezuela, Tunisia, Hungary and Myanmar.

This includes many of the world’s most populous countries. China is clamping down on religious and personal freedom under President Xi. India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Modi face continued accusations of anti-democratic censorship. Even the United States suffered the populist maelstrom of the Trump era, symbolised by a mob storming the Capitol on January 6 2021. These reasons, among others, are why Freedom House’s 2022 report is entitled ‘The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule’.

There have been cases of mismanagement, especially in response to Covid-19. The UK has seen one rule-breaking Prime Minister depart due to misconduct, while Sri Lanka has seen the deposition of its leader in recent months only due to popular protest, violence and mass strikes. While drawn-out and painful, Johnson’s democratic deposition emphasises the value of accountability. Much strife and destruction could have been avoided in Colombo if free, fair and representative elections had been held.

Democracy has also been threatened at the ballot box by populist candidates who vilify their opposition and promise the impossible – if only citizens grant them just a little more power. I have interviewed PhD candidates from Hungary and Serbia who are worried about the erosion of civil liberties and the autocratic tilt of their governments. Even France has been threatened, once again, by the candidacy of right-wing Le Pen in this year’s presidential race.

There has been backsliding in Nicaragua and Russia, to name just two cases, as opposition leaders and the free press are threatened and imprisoned. And democracy has most notably been imperilled by overt violence. Afghanistan has experienced the return of the Taliban since US withdrawal. Haiti had a president assassinated. Hong Kong suffered the imposition of a draconian national security law. And most notably, the democratically elected government of Ukraine has been invaded by the autocratic Putin.

These are not distinctly ‘new’ phenomena, but their frequency and significance has multiplied in recent years, as the Freedom House report makes apparent.

KCL is a global university, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. Our 11,000 international students come from over 150 different countries. While we’re cloistered away in London during term-time, staff, students and alumni all have to live with the realities of these falling standards of human rights, individual freedom and democratic choice.

This is why you – we – are so important. King’s students and alumni are part of an intensely privileged few percent, with the skills and opportunity to genuinely change the world. Graduates regularly constitute top private and public sector circles. Alumni include former heads of state in the Bahamas, Cyprus, Grenada, Jordan and Uganda as well as over 30 current British MPs and Lords. Wikipedia lists a further 10 Archbishops and 7 newspaper editors educated at King’s. Look around the hall at graduation; see our future CEOs, philanthropists, judges and heads of central banks. Point being, KCL can be a powerful engine for change.

In the context of democratic backsliding outlined above, I recognise a huge opportunity in my peers. Your education has the power to change attitudes for good. Democratic practices and institutions are important but vulnerable. They allow for citizens to decide the apportionment of costs and benefits, especially in unexpected scenarios like pandemics. They constrain political leaders from acting exclusively in their own interest. They protect creative and business freedom through the rule of law, a fair judiciary and the free press.

“But I’m a STEM student, what can I do?” Almost everyone at KCL is over the age of 18. British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens can register to vote in the UK with a visa for residence. These students, and those who can register to vote in their home countries, would be wise to listen to their peers – particularly those from questionably democratic or purely undemocratic countries – about signs of authoritarianism. Without listening to those who live in regressing democracies, it is very difficult to see any parallels with our own.

Upcoming elections in Brazil, Tunisia and the US are powerful examples of the value of looking for signs of democratic backsliding. Three strongman presidents have recently tried to damage the judiciary, reduce democratic choice and increase their own power. Registered voters in all three elections are here at KCL and would be wise to learn from their Hungarian, Turkish and Egyptian colleagues (among others). Without listening to the cautionary tales of peers, it is far more difficult to identify concerning trends in your own political system.

By sharing and by listening, we create the success stories of the future. Whatever course you study, your right to vote is a powerful way to protect the press, judiciary and rule of law – institutions proven more important and more vulnerable than ever by the backsliding of the early 2020s.

So educate your friends! Our international colleagues in particular have the opportunity to teach us about the conditions in their home countries. Some of the most enlightening conversations that I’ve had took place on buses and balconies, learning about the upcoming Brazilian election or the history of communism in Romania.

Our student newspaper is an excellent way for these important messages to reach further, with an online circulation reaching over 30,000 people. Comment writers Elektra Favre and Chloe Ferreux have recently written insightful pieces about electoral issues in their home countries. Former editor Hannah Pham contributed a passionate personal essay on what the Marcos family means to her lola in the Philippines. A series of student interviews in the days after the Russian invasion exposed the decades-long anxiety that some Ukrainian students have lived with, unbeknownst to even close friends. Our ‘King’s Votes’ series aims to amplify these voices, particularly around election time.

Student journalism among such a diverse student body has huge, but so far largely untapped, potential. This can be a student-led, London-based newspaper which covers the big issues from almost every country on Earth. At Roar we will continue to ask – what does this mean for our young people? Listen up.

Applications to join Roar are always open. Check out our website to learn more about the opportunities we offer and how to get in contact.

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