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The future of democracy (-support)

Vidar Helgesen
17 September 2009

The online discussion about the future of democracy-support, jointly initiated and undertaken by International IDEA and openDemocracy in 2008-09, has been impelled by a particular, even unique, moment in the evolution of this phenomenon and the ideas that underlie it. The time has seemed propitious for harvesting views and perspectives about the future of an ambitious project that both carries the scars of a tormented recent history and continues to raise controversies among its protagonists and intended beneficiaries alike. The second International Day of Democracy - 15 September 2009 - seems an appropriate moment to take stock and look ahead.

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

Also by Vidar Helgesen in openDemocracy, the opening article in this series:

"Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

It has indeed been a tumultuous two decades. Democracy-support's highpoint in the mid-1990s was succeeded by a sobering turn of the millennium. What followed soon after, however, was to overshadow almost the entire decade that has followed: the tragedy of 11 September 2001, which had the potential of creating new unity of purpose in the international community but instead resulted in a deeply divisive backlash.

It also became clear in these years that the waves of democratisation that had washed over central-east Europe and Latin America in the late 1980s and after  would not simply spill over to the rest of the world; and that the 21st century would not be a straightforward runway from which democracy would serenely launch itself out into the "end of history" and beyond. On the contrary, it became increasingly apparent that deep global fractures - between the north and south, the west and the Muslim/Arab worlds, and (not least) at the multilateral level, between the development and the democracy-building agendas - required urgent attention.

Amid these unfolding processes, two political earthquakes centred on the United States shook the world, each of which continues to have a major impact on the subject-matter of this debate: the implosion of the Wall Street financial system and the election as president of Barack Obama. It is evident that a new political and financial landscape is being shaped that will necessarily influence the debate on the future of democracy-support.

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy(CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (16 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009)

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)

Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009)

Achin Vanaik, "Capitalism and democracy" (29 April 2009)

Anna Lekvall, "Democracy and aid: the missing links" (13 May 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid" (15 May 2009)

Keith Brown, "Democracy on the ground: apathy, community and civil society" (25 May 2009)

Mariano Aguirre, "Democracy-promotion: doctrine vs dialogue" (14 July 2009)

Nicholas Benequista & John Gaventa, "Democracy-support: from recession to innovation" (5 August 2009)

Moreover - and as many of the excellent articles published in our debate have clearly shown - this emerging landscape provides a compelling incentive to broaden the debate beyond the standardised mental frameworks, templates and agendas of democracy-assistance; and in particular, the unhealthy division between "donors" and "beneficiaries".

There can be no meaningful debate about democracy-support without two things:

* A continuous questioning of the concept of democracy itself

* A keen awareness of changes in citizens' perception of democracy.

These are essential if ideas and arguments are to keep pace with democracy‘s evolution and the expression of fresh and critical perspectives on the phenomenon. Some of their elements have been induced - and others merely highlighted -  by the financial meltdown and the shifting balance of interdependence and power in global politics.

The next sections of this article look at the possible impacts on democracy of financial turmoil and geopolitical reorientation, before drawing some conclusions about the overall future of democracy-support.

The financial crisis and democracy

The financial crisis first became unmistakeably apparent on "debtonation day", 9 August 2008, but was most spectacularly heralded by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 14 September. Indeed, the very coincidence of the onset of the crisis and the first International Democracy Day is a potent indicator of the need to consider these phenomena within a single frame (see "Democracy beyond the crisis", International IDEA, 14 September 2009). A year on, some attempt can be made to discern the mixture of threats and opportunities this new period of economic turmoil may carry - both for the democracy-building agenda and for democracy itself in different countries and regions.

The field of observation is vast, not least as the current financial crisis appears to be both global and systemic: even emerging economies that at first seemed immune from the turmoil will be affected, though with many variations between countries and regions.

The absence of specific studies on the implications of the recession for democratic politics is striking. The economic and social implications of the crisis are being extensively analysed, but its impact on democracy - and the capacity of democratic governments to cope with its fallout - have been much less thoroughly investigated.

It is clear that the social costs of the downturn will affect democratic and authoritarian regimes alike. The former may find it more difficult to maintain high democratic standards while coping with social tensions induced by the crisis; the latter may find their capacity to provide prosperity as a substitute for democracy starting to wither.

The potential for rising levels of unemployment to feed political polarisation, extremism and violent xenophobia has already been demonstrated even in some "established" European democracies. In addition, the governments involved have not always found the political courage to condemn unequivocally these potent reminders of the darker corners of Europe's past.

Democratic governments in poorer countries face much harsher challenges. A combination of circumstances - falling revenues from exports of commodities, shrinking remittances, meagre or non-existent social safety-nets to shelter the new unemployed and migrant workers returning from the north - increases the likelihood that these countries will face greater levels of discontent. The same conditions make it very difficult for these governments to manage internal conflict peacefully, and within a democratic framework.

A number of projections highlight significant regional differences in the capacity of countries to cope with the global recession. Many Africans, for example, face abrupt and unsettling difficulties as a result of the crisis; the almost inevitable result is increased protest and political pressure on governments from citizens and voters. By contrast, there is little expectation of threats to democracy in Latin America, even if the financial crisis offers regimes with populist inclinations (such as those in Venezuela and Ecuador) an opportunity further to entrench their  rhetoric. Meanwhile the unconstitutional takeover of power in Honduras is worrying on its own account, though it is difficult reasonably to link this to the financial turmoil.

China, with its fifth of the world's population, presents more questions than easy answers. The Communist Party has built considerable political capital on the back of its vigorous promotion of competitive yet authoritarian capitalism; economic growth-rates have somewhat contracted, yet the Chinese economy shows signs of an earlier bounce-back than those of major western countries. Will China's expanding role in the global economy and financial system render its political model more attractive to the rest of the world? Will it undermine western-supported democracy-building programmes in, for example, Africa?

These questions assume that the Chinese model is static: an assumption that may seem justified if the authorities' stubborn refusal to acknowledge what happened on Tiananmen Square in June 1989 is a guide. But if the country's millions of new unemployed, bubbling social discontent and estimated 50,000 local demonstrations a year are taken into account, a more sobering vision of the future takes shape in which such phenomena could at some stage acquire real political significance.

In any event, forecasting developments in the field of democracy is always a risky endeavour; for several less quantifiable factors - among them democratic culture, traditions, and levels of acceptance of diversity - also play important roles.

In this respect, the financial turmoil may do serious harm to the already sluggish progress being made towards greater gender equity and women's participation - a key dimension of democracy. Women already constitute the majority of the poor, and in an economic downturn they tend to lose their jobs before men. The crisis may make women's active engagement in politics an even less affordable luxury. Thus, the gender dimension of economic dislocation should be part of any dialogue about policy measures; and this is true both at national level (stimulus-packages, social-infrastructure spending, gender-responsive budgeting) and at the international level (for example, in the reform of the international financial institutions).

Beyond this, there are many uncertainties. All crises occur in a particular political and institutional vacuum; every one is in certain ways unique, part of its own historical and geopolitical context. To try to read the future from the effects of past financial crises may be useful, but nonetheless has its limits.

The financial crisis of the early 1990s, for example, unfolded against the backdrop of the recent fall of the Berlin wall. An almost unlimited faith in democracy was matched by an equally unlimited belief in the free market, privatisation and entrepreneurship. It could appear that these were partners destined for an enduring and  happy marriage. At the time, good government began to be viewed as synonymous with small and non-intrusive government; and regulation as negative, or at best a necessary evil. These trends no longer apply. The recession of 2008-09 is widely perceived as connected to - perhaps even stemming from - the unrestrained and speculative behaviour of financial dealers in ultra-liberalised capital markets.

Indeed, the pendulum appears to be swinging back. The state is increasingly being again called upon to assume broader responsibilities; taxpayers/citizens want to hold the state accountable for what happens to their jobs, their savings and their pension-funds. Yet the political forces demanding increased accountability from the state are not necessarily the same today as two decades ago. It is notable that centre-right governments (or contenders for government) are among those arguing in favour of a strengthened role for the state - and in many European countries, centre-right parties are in the wake of the crisis doing well in elections. These shifts of emphasis may in turn be ushering in a different understanding of the basic relationship between citizens, the state and the private sector. The nature of this relationship is certainly becoming a core issue in current democratic debate.

The geopolitical shift and democracy

The impact of the second earthquake, the political one that brought the first African-American to the presidency of the global superpower, is a vital complement to the first. Barack Obama definitely speaks a different language from his predecessor. He is not persuaded of any "clash-of-civilisations' theory;  and having candidly admitted his country's own share of responsibility for the current global predicament, he is moving to address some deep-rooted sources of conflict.

Obama's words are starting to influence seemingly intractable realities in the middle east and beyond. It is a matter of speculation as to how far his policy pronouncements have boosted the pro-democracy movement in Iran or influenced the elections in Lebanon, but this is certain: the new administration wants to change the US's image in the world, and is doing its best to make its approach here appear credible.

Europe, for its part, is not faced with the challenge of making an equivalently big leap. It already enjoys a better image; it is rather freer of the heavy legacy of the Iraq war; and it is less widely suspected of harbouring other, less admissible agendas behind the rhetoric of democracy-support. These findings are clearly reflected in the results of recent IDEA-led consultations, carried out with regional actors from all continents; they are among the resources for a review of European Union democracy-support policies during Sweden's presidency of the EU (July-December 2009).

Yet the international consultations also show that European support for democracy is not altogether convincing. Europe's regional partners from the global south are almost unanimous in stating that Europe has important and extensive experience of democracy-building to share; but it also lacks consistency in its policies, and its voice is weak. The main demands addressed to Europe in this arena are: consistency, long-term engagement, real partnership and "walking the talk".

The future for democracy-building

What do these global changes in the financial and the political landscape entail for democracy-support in the longer term; and, more generally, for understanding of the fundamentals of democracy?

A key analytical assumption underlying International IDEA's work in recent years has been that democracy is alive and strong as an ideal, but endangered by the low performance and declining credibility of some of the key institutional actors supposed to translate the values of democracy into reality: political parties, legislators, elected office-holders.

This assumption has only been reinforced by the demonstrable impact of the financial crisis. The recession has sounded an alarm by shedding light on  democratic deficits, both institutional and functional; these have allowed financial markets to bypass transparent procedures, and powerful lobbies to extract disproportionate privileges from the system. The bill for kick-starting the system's recovery, however, will be paid by citizens at large.

The developed democracies are finding ways to alleviate the impact of the crisis on their citizens through exceptional social-protection measures and appropriate corrections of these systemic deficits; but developing and less consolidated democracies lack either the financial reserves or trusted and effective institutional mechanisms to do the same.

The leading developed democracies have an obligation to help developing democracies sail safely through this storm, as the winds are indeed blowing from the north. At the same time, there is a need for changes in the ways in which democracy-support and consolidation policies are negotiated, agreed, designed and implemented.

These processes need to free themselves from the mental straitjacket of donor-recipient relationships. They themselves need to become more effective and democratic, in a triple sense:

* They need to evolve towards real partnerships in which each side has something to share and to learn

* They must move beyond the narrow field of democracy-assistance as such and begin to account for the developmental and democracy-building impact of other policies in the fields of (for example) security, trade, energy, natural resources, and agriculture.

* They must engage with (rather than bypass) the democratic institutions - such as parliaments and political parties - of partner countries, and avoid remaining a subject discussed behind closed doors between officers of the executive branch.

A recent World Bank study says that there is no difference in the probability that countries either with or without competitive elections will experience financial crises. "However...politicians exposed to elections are more likely to address them in a way that serves public interest in their crisis response" (see Lessons from World Bank Research on Financial Crises [Development Research Group, November 2008]). These findings are equally encouraging for those engaged in pro-democracy advocacy in their countries and for international actors wanting to support them. They also point to the need to pay utmost attention to the defence and preservation of democratic achievements and institutions in periods of crisis, when they are at their most vulnerable.

The global economic difficulties are indeed feeding a broader debate on democracy. Making democracy more sustainable and more resilient in the face of such crises also means bringing it closer to citizens, and reducing the gap between institutions and delivery, between formal mechanisms and practice. In that sense the crisis can indeed be an immense opportunity for democracy-building practitioners and institutions - an opportunity for action to revitalise democratic institutions and bring the values and the reality of democracy closer to each other.

There will always be a gap between ideals and reality. This gap is what fuels political engagement and maintains the vitality of people's commitment to democracy. But when the gap becomes a precipice, when concept and reality lose any connection with each other, the disenchantment is no longer with the government in place but with the institutions it occupies and the very architecture of the system. Eventually, the values of the system are no longer judged against what the system claims to be, but against what it is perceived to deliver.

An analogy may be useful here, with all the usual caveats. In the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to bridge the division between the stated objectives of the system and the reality in which people lived. It became increasingly apparent that glasnost and perestroïka were a case of "too little, too late". A centralised command economy and a fossilised top-down political system were unable to deliver equality or choice - even less, prosperity. The gap had grown into a precipice and there was no longer any faith in the system. It simply imploded.

Democracy, as a system of governance, is far from that fate - not least because it exists in a myriad of models; because it functions with highly varying degrees of effectiveness and delivery; and above all, because it does not claim to be perfect. We will always need more of it.

In June 2009, the women and men marching en masse in Tehran provided a vivid reminder of democracy's mobilising force. But for democracy-support, the major challenge is perhaps not how to support people marching against a non-democratic regime. They will topple it themselves, sooner or later. The major challenge starts when new or reformed institutions need to prove that they can deliver and be accountable. Political parties need to be credible as interpreters of citizens' interests; parliaments need to prove themselves capable of (and empowered to) overseeing budget expenditure and denouncing corruption; and election-management bodies need to be seen to function genuinely independently, above the realm of party politics.

International IDEA will continue to contribute its share to the strengthening of democratic institutions through its work on effective electoral and political-party assistance; through participatory and inclusive constitution-building efforts; through the pursuit of gender equity in all its programmes; and through the empowerment of national stakeholders to assess their own democracy - its deficits and its opportunities alike.

"Will freedom be able to sing the way the oppressed used to sing about it?" runs a verse in a poem by the late Belgrade poet Branko Miljković Indeed, the democracy-support community should always seek to help democracy not only to function - but to sing.

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