Democracy unrealized

Ernst John Kaars Sijpesteijn

Worldwide the level of democracy today is back to where it was in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when we saw the beginning of a spike in new electoral democracies, mostly in Eastern Europe but also worldwide. Despite the setbacks after the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts ten years ago, democracy promotion is still on the agenda. While authoritarian rule turns viral, public belief in democracy is low, and polarisation a worldwide menace according to Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy Institute. The decline of liberal democracy and its values needs to be turned around.

Except for Tunisia, all the countries involved are back to where they were before the Arab Spring of 2011, or worse as is the case in Syria and Yemen. In the Sub Sahara region, however, homegrown democracies are more prominently positive. Ethnic interests in parts of Africa play out to forward democratic freedoms. Civic activism power has increased the last 30 years. Democracy is not the dominant regime type, but citizens are more aware, and activism in the online space is dramatically improving, leading to mobilization, but unfortunately also violence in attacking peaceful protests.

Democracy has been dismissed by some observers as an exportable concept by the demise of the Arab Spring. It is important however not to give up on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Democracy is closely connected to the rule of law. Both are the flipsides of the same coin; one cannot go without the other. We shouldn’t give up on democracy because certain cultures fail to implement the institutions and the social dynamics of the rule of law and democracy.

Some European countries unfortunately are undercutting the rule of law and checks and balances. Efforts to control the judicial system or the media are a direct threat to freedom and democracy. Courts can only function if people trust the system; they won’t work if people think they are unreliable. Democracy promotion therefore is used in a broad sense to cover work in the promotion of liberal democratic practice, including strengthening of independent judicial systems, human rights promotion, economic development, anticorruption and transparency, reconciliation, transitional justice, and conflict resolution.

The new US leadership is committed to strengthening international democracy, cherishing the value of the rule of law against illiberal democracies and autocrats. President Joseph R. Biden has campaigned to hold a global ‘Summit for Democracy’ during his first year in office. In the aftermath of the storming of the US Capitol on the 6th of January 2021, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas joined this proposal and called for a wide-reaching pro-democracy initiative, a ‘Marshall Plan for democracy’. In his inaugural speech President Biden recalled the values of unity, honesty, truth, and justice for all, to restore trust in US democracy itself.

According to Valery Perry of the Democratization Policy Council (DPC, Policy Note #17) local government and engagement matter, and will be critical, especially in an environment of distrust in which so many people live in their own information bubbles. Donors tend to find individuals to support, based on their personality and capacity, and don’t work so much to really strengthen institutions.

There is a need to challenge autocrats, and to be more assertive based on the values we say we hold. The EU, US and others should promote principles such as media freedom, an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, and a smooth transition of power. Even if there is some regression at home, as in the US or in Europe, these principles are still relevant. We all have the need of ensuring the right to vote, and for strong civil society and institutions.

Democratic government and participation should make citizen involvement more of an ongoing process, not just having elections every few years, so people feel a sense of ownership and responsibility. More use can be made of the tools of deliberative democracy, through different electronic participation options, or through working with sample groups. Values-based exchanges can help to making these experiences more of a two-way street.

The EU, the US and other donors have the capacity, the people, the networks and the money to invest in democracy promotion. They will need to work harder, and be better. Democracy is an ongoing work in progress, both at home and elsewhere. Our long-term goal should be a world where democracy is the predominant form of governance, for it is the model with the best chance of delivering peace and prosperity for citizens.

Ernst John Kaars Sijpesteijn
Editor in chief