Democracy support: where now?

Vidar Helgesen
17 November 2008

Even international civil servants not given to the expression of overtly political sentiments can find themselves moved by a display of public and democratic affirmation. Such was the case around midnight on 4 November 2008, when I found myself in a gathering crowd outside the White House - a crowd that was wildly celebrating the imminent election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.

Vidar Helgesen is Secretary-General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

This is the opening contribution of an international debate on democracy support co-hosted by International IDEA and openDemocracy

There was something both familiar and extraordinary about the experience. For here in Washington, DC - where I had taken part in a US election programme organised by the non-aligned International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) - I was observing scenes that I would expect to see after first-time elections in new democracies, not in one of the oldest of them.

At the same time, I could not help reflecting that these celebrations were in support of a president-elect with strong bonds to two countries - Kenya and Indonesia - whose recent democratisation experiences also included exuberant popular mobilisation on the streets. The distance between Jakarta, Nairobi and Washington seemed to fall away in a moment. The first African-American was being elected as United States president - and the first truly global citizen. 

Indeed, the connections between the remarkable election in the US and events in the rest of the world go further. For the US electoral process as it has unfolded over the last two years holds promise of renewal in a long-standing democracy - and of a kind that addresses the same challenges that face democracies across the globe. Among them are:

* how to manage diversity

* how to ensure inclusion of all groups in society and in the political process

* how to encourage and mobilise participationby citizens

* how to promote political choices and outcomes that are both responsible in themselves and responsive to citizens' key needs and demands.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) is an intergovernmental organisation that supports sustainable democracy worldwide. Its objective is to strengthen democractic objectives and processes. International IDEA - based in Stockholm, with offices in Latin America, Africa and Asia - acts as a catalyst for democracy building by sharing comparative knowledge, developing policy, and responding to national requests for assistance in democratic reform.  democracy issues. It works together with policy-makers, donor governments, UN organisations and agencies, regional organisations and others engaged in the field of democracy building.                      
International IDEA's notable areas of expertise are: electoral processes, political parties, democracy and gender, and democracy assessment.

Read more about InternationalIDEA

There was in addition a particular factor in the US election, one uppermost in the minds of many voters: the need to repair their country's image abroad following years of excesses committed in the name of democracy promotion.

A United States election with a global resonance and impact, which raises issues shared by democratic countrie severywhere, and which took place in the context of unprecedented questioning ofhow democracy has been and should be supported - I can think of no more acutely relevant backdrop to the debate that the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy are launching.

A global challenge

International support for democracy has had its ups and downs in recent history. After the end of the cold war it was consecrated as a lofty and legitimate goal of the international community, and for a decade and more it surfed on the high tide of what appeared to be an emerging global pro-democracy consensus. Today, however, the picture is a good deal more complex. In a number of important respects the nascent pro-democracy consensus is overshadowed by doubts - doubts that themselves mirror the challenges faced by current democratisation processes.

This makes the current moment a propitious one for all those involved in democracy support - international organisations,development cooperation agencies, donor governments, NGOs, scholars, pro-democracy activists, and engaged citizens - to assess its condition. It is even more timely in view of the fact that 2009 will be a year of anniversaries: thirty years since the beginning of the "third wave" of democratisations in Latin America, twenty years since the fall of the Berlin wall, fifteen since the end of apartheid in South Africa, ten since the start of the Reformasi (democratic reform) in Indonesia. 

The commemoration of these great events, in a context where there are many causes for concern in the contemporary democracy landscape, is a unique moment for a broad dialogue that can take stock of the successes and failures of democracy support, and gauge the many challenges ahead. 

From the perspective of International IDEA, the dialogue's main objective should be to identify options that can be both shared and applied in responding to the needs of all those who continue to pursue democracy out of a conviction that it constitutes an essential goal for their societies and countries. In doing this, however, the aim is not to seek universally applicable recipes - since there is already ample evidence that such recipes simply do not exist.  

Indeed, the current global developments with regard to democracy's advance - or retreat - seem uncertain, and to elude the clear identification of trends. Yet it can be said that democracy continues to be equated with freedom and equality, and as such to be sought by people around the world. It remains a strong driving force of political change on all continents. 

In Latin America today all countries (with one exception) are ruled by a democratically-elected government. A number of elections were held in 2007-08, most of them (Mexico apart) without significant hitches,and another series of important polls will take place in 2009-11. In Asia, democracy has made a critical breakthrough in Nepal and the Maldives, and has taken root in Indonesia. In Africa, it has been making headway in several countries such as Sierra Leone, Burundi and Liberia; and on the  continent as a whole - following the adoption of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in January 2007 - democracy is also on the way to becoming a key component of the regional-cooperation framework. 

At the same time, in these and other parts of the world, democracy is experiencing a series of significant, yet highly diverse, challenges. In some countries such as Myanmar (Burma) and Zimbabwe democratic aspirations are engaged in a grim struggle with authoritarian rulers who appear bent on resisting determined, and hitherto peaceful, popular demands for change. In some countries democracy is faltering under the pressure of populism, and in others it appears to be yielding to the siren calls of nationalist sentiment and nostalgia.

There is too a proliferation of troubled democracies (or as some scholars name them, "hybrid regimes" or"democracies with adjectives" - "managed", "non-inclusive", "sovereign","oligarchic" and the like). China's rising star is of global significance here too, suggesting as it does the possibility of achieving prosperity without the messy entanglements of democracy. It should not be forgotten in this regard that 2009 marks another potent anniversary: twenty years since the Tiananmen "incident" in Beijing. 

A broader impact

These varying experiences, considered in the context of a longer timespan, suggest the unavoidable lesson that democracy is imperfect, vulnerable and ultimately reversible everywhere. In some countries of the global north where democracy is considered to be well-established,  it has not to date been able significantly to reduce gender inequality, or to eradicate racism, xenophobia and similar undemocratic social behaviours. And in both the north and the global south, a major discrepancy persists between the high value attributed to the idea of democracy and palpable popular distrust in democratic institutions such as political parties and parliaments; all too often these institutions areseen as alienated from the people, lacking inclusiveness and representativeness (most conspicuously with regard to gender), and as ineffective and unresponsive. 

Where democratic transitions are underway, there are constant reminders of how complex and often turbulent and potentially violent are these eminently political processes. This is especially the case when they occur in deeply divided societies and when they are intertwined with nation-building or state-building projects. In the global south, democratisation alone has not - and obviously could not - bring about the elimination of poverty, exclusion and disease. 

International democracy assistance is also facing its own particular challenges. The post-9/11 fallout is still present, often implying difficult trade-offs between security and democracy concerns. Democracy-assistance initiatives continue to be regarded by many as being compromised by double standards - a view reinforced not least by international responses to the Palestinian Authority elections in January 2006.

The tensions surrounding these intiatives are reflected in polarisation in many international forums, notably the United Nations, where development and democracy-building continue to be viewed as competing, if not opposed, agendas. Nevertheless, there are also important consensus-building achievements to note. Among these stands a reconfirmed commitment to implementation of the Paris agenda on aid-effectiveness, which among other things proposes an enhanced role for parliaments in the oversight of development aid. 

Democratisation processes, which by definition involve ever broader segments of society, and are in fact the outcome of political competition and struggle, are affected by every major social issue or threat. The impact of major global phenomena such as HIV/Aids, mass-migration movements and climate change on democracy is still to be assessed. The same can be said about the impact of the evolving multipolar geopolitical landscape and the reviving discourse of "zones of influence" that attends this process. China's emerging role in the global landscape is a vital trend here, and certainly merits a separate discussion. 

A space to learn

More recently, the global financial crisis and impending economic recession call for fresh assessments of the roles and responsibilities of the state, and a reopening of the debate on the appropriate balance between "public" and "private". What is clear is that current seismic shifts in the world economy will need to be factored in by national and international democracy-building actors when assessing their future strategies. 

In an environment characterised by high levels of uncertainty and volatility, distrust, polarisation and the meltdown of global frameworks of economic governance, democracy-building efforts cannot and should not remain static and conditioned by old assumptions. Rather, they are increasingly in need of fresh questioning and testing.

We have learned many lessons so far. We know a lot, for example, about the importance of domestically-driven and nationally-owned democratisation processes. We know that assistance to democratic reform needs to be holistic, long-term and carefully contextualised. But we still have a lot to learn about how to make democracy support more effective in responding to the needs of everyday citizens - those, in other words, who are the driving force and ultimate beneficiaries of change in each and every region and country. 

I am confident that the debate around these and other issues of democracy-building will find a fertile ground in the International IDEA-openDemocracy debate, and that its results will be to the benefit of all those who pursue democracy as a vital necessity for their societies and their countries.

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