Democracy beyond the crisis

Posted: 2009-09-15

By Vidar Helgesen, Secretary-General, International IDEA

Vidar Helgesen
Vidar Helgesen, Secretary-General, International IDEA
The financial and economic crisis: some implications for democracy building Discussion Paper by Massimo Tommasoli, Permanent Observer for International IDEA to the United Nations

Those engaged in supporting democracy in their countries and in the world cannot fail to notice a thought provoking calendar coincidence: this year’s worldwide celebrations of 15 September — the International Day of Democracy — overlapped with a somewhat less celebratory remembrance of the first anniversary of the global financial crisis (triggered on the same day by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in New York).

The coincidence prompts us to reflect again on the relationship between the financial crisis and democracy: how has the former impacted on the latter; and how (if at all) can democracy help overcoming the crisis and preventing its resurgence?

While the social and economic consequences of the crisis have been extensively analysed, its impact on democracy has been much less investigated. The question is not whether the crisis will affect democracy or not; it will, in many ways. It has made people more vulnerable, hence more sensitive to the way they are governed, and this cannot go unnoticed by either democratic or authoritarian regimes. The former may find it more difficult to balance democracy and social order, the latter, to delay democracy by offering some security and prosperity instead. Though the storm came from the North, the global South is generally more exposed. Analysts have projected that Latin American democracies will fare relatively safely through the storm, but judge that many young African democracies may suffer serious blows.

The crisis underscores the distinction between faith in democracy as an aspiration, and trust in democracy as a conviction based on the experience of democracy and its effective delivery.

We witnessed a deep faith in democracy as tens of thousands of young people filled the streets of Tehran a couple of months ago. Yet, trust in democracy – particularly if measured by the popular rating of institutions such as political parties and parliaments, including in long-standing democracies of the North – is shorter in supply. Whatever the reason, trust has probably been further eroded by the financial crisis as millions lost their jobs and their homes. Indeed, only a major failure in the chain of representation, oversight and accountability could have caused a disaster of such a magnitude.

Today, the crisis curve seems to have reached the bottom. World leaders seek to coordinate international responses and to build some safeguards in the international financial architecture – within the EU, the G-20, the IMF and the like.

While we can only hope that these efforts will be effective in making the world economy more sustainable and predictable, the very fact that such critical decisions are being taken in instances and at levels so distant from the ordinary citizen may be an additional challenge to the credibility of representative democracy. The accountability chain is becoming not only longer but also less palpable, entangled as it is in the intricate wheels, belts and pipes of ever more complex international machineries.

This is a big challenge for democracy in the years to come. Democracy needs constant citizen oversight to be kept on course. A broken chain of participation, representation and accountability is a dangerous state of affairs. The ensuing vacuum is fertile ground for politics based on distrust, suspicion and fear. When fear becomes the driving force it feeds easily into populist and authoritarian discourse, sometimes disguised in a “patriotic coating”. Like The sleep of reason on the famous etching by Goya, “the sleep of citizens” too can produce monsters.

We are indeed facing a paradox: on the one hand, getting together to start a dialogue, raise collective concerns, aggregate opinions, protest or demand change, has become easier. The internet and emerging national and trans-national cyber-networks functioning in real-time seem to hold incredible potentials for making political representation smoother, more transparent and more effective – or even, for broadening the space for direct democracy. They may well end up altering some of the paradigms of political life as we know them today.

On the other hand, the “classical” and still dominant system of representation is seriously challenged and there is an urgent need to re-establish the linkages between citizens and those who govern on their behalf. Governments, parliaments and political parties still have a key role to play and need to be accountable for what they deliver.

International IDEA seeks to contribute to rebuilding trust in these institutions and more importantly, in democracy’s capacity to cope with the current and with future crises.

Revitalising the system of democratic representation and accountability is first and foremost the responsibility of national politicians. International assistance can provide important but limited help. Such help needs to extend the time-span of engagement beyond the electoral event, to the entire electoral and political cycle. It means helping political parties respond to the specific problems they encounter on their own political terrain, rather than offering them theoretical knowledge and advice derived from very different political and historical contexts. It means helping politically polarised actors develop frameworks for dialogue and come together around constitutional arrangements that can sustain democratic politics in their own country. It means putting new emphasis on the need for democracy to deliver in terms of social and economic development.

There is emerging consensus around these issues which should also help maintain and, hopefully, enhance the international commitment in support of democracy. In that respect too, there is an urgent need to draw lessons from past mistakes and to make policies and practice more consistent and indeed – more democratic!

International IDEA’s recent in-depth and frank consultations carried out with key regional actors from around the world in assessing the role of the European Union in democracy building, converge in pointing to some critical aspects of these required changes:

  • First, the democracy assistance framework should evolve towards real partnerships in which each side has something to share and to learn.
  • Second, it cannot remain confined to the narrow field of democracy assistance as such and fail to account for the developmental and democracy-building impact of other policies in the fields of security, trade, energy, natural resources, agriculture and so on.
  • Last but not least, the design and implementation of assistance programmes cannot, as it often did in the past, bypass democratic institutions of partner developing countries such as parliaments and political parties.

This is the spirit in which International IDEA hopes to contribute turning the current crisis into a new opportunity for democracy, a democracy that will redeem itself by showing that it can be instrumental in redressing and controlling the vagaries of the financial markets, and deliver a better life for the vast majority of women and men across the globe. This is the message we wish to convey on the occasion of this year’s International Day of Democracy.

Vidar Helgesen

Vidar's signature

Secretary-General, International IDEA