Thank you very much, Honorable Speaker, for your kind welcome and to Ambassador Ben David for her kind introduction. Thank you for inviting International IDEA to be part of this event.
It is an honour to be here today alongside this eminent panel and to be given the chance to speak about what lies at the core of our work at International IDEA – defending and advancing democracy worldwide.
Our Institute, an intergovernmental organization, was founded 25 years ago here in Stockholm for a reason: Sweden cares about democracy and multilateral action. We are truly grateful for the unwavering support that Sweden has shown to us as an institute, but more broadly to the global cause of democracy. I come from a region of the world, Latin America, with a troubled political history, where democratic forces have always relied on the support and the example of countries that have proven that it is possible to build a humane society based on a resolute commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. That’s what Sweden represents to someone like me and to the world. Let me commend you for building on the power of your example by turning democracy into a pillar of your foreign policy and seeking the alliances to protect the values embodied by your unique history.
And of course, it is not just in the government where we find strong allies in our mission to defend democracy. We have been impressed to see the dedication, visibility and attention that the Swedish Parliament, as part of its centennial celebration of universal voting rights in Sweden, has given to democracy, both here and abroad.
You have asked me to say a few words about the state of democracy in the world and what can be done to reverse negative trends. Let me start with the state of democracy, and then share some thoughts about why I think the case for democracy as well as for multilateralism remains robust and indeed essential for our future.
As we know, democracy was facing severe headwinds even before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. From our Global State of Democracy Report, which we published last November, we can see that although the number of democracies kept increasing, the quality of democracy was decreasing across the board. In many democracies –developed and under-developed, young ones as much as established ones—checks and balances were becoming weaker, civic spaces were shrinking, and freedom of expression was under sustained assault. These challenges have been accentuated by the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, authoritarian rulers, under the guise of pandemic related measures, have tightened their grip on power, silenced critics, and trampled further on fundamental rights. However, it is also democratically elected governments that have recurred to emergency powers. And this is legitimate, up to a point.
All over the world, we have seen cases where emergency powers have been invoked to do things that have nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with the intention of shutting down critical voices, limiting civic spaces, and harassing minorities.
We have seen examples of emergency powers deployed to curtail the free flow of information and enhance state surveillance with little regard for privacy.
We have seen emergency powers being introduced indefinitely and without parliamentary consent.
We have seen emergency powers being used to get the military involved in internal affairs in countries that have a disturbing history of coups and military tutelage.
The problematic examples are as rife as they are widespread around the world. They range from El Salvador to The Philippines to Bangladesh to Zimbabwe to Hungary to Serbia.
These decisions are as concerning as they are predictable – they take place in countries where the rule of law and democratic checks and balances were already under strain before the pandemic.
In all of this, I’m particularly concerned about trends related to press freedom, about the alarming number of countries where governments have limited citizen’s access to information, under the pretext of fighting disinformation. Over 50 countries in the world, including 20-odd democracies, have introduced measures that visibly compromise the ability of independent media outlets to do their job.
Abuse of emergency powers is not the only political risk posed by this crisis. The pandemic has been and will continue to be a true stress test for democratic elections. Roughly 70 countries and subnational jurisdictions have decided to postpone elections scheduled for 2020. On the other hand, roughly the same number of countries and subnational jurisdictions decided to go ahead and hold elections amidst the pandemic.
That decision is a difficult one. At this point, we have enough evidence from around the world of what works, and we at IDEA have made a point of sharing that evidence as widely as possible. We have seen examples, ranging from South Korea to Uruguay to the German state of Bavaria, of resilient and resourceful election management bodies and citizens who have adapted to new conditions in short timeframes. We have seen how efforts to build consensus around decisions about the electoral process, to strengthen special voting arrangements, and to effectively communicate the safety measures adopted, have resulted in high voter turn-out and renewed trust in the electoral system.
Yet, we have also seen cases where governments have ignored the due-process and attempted to use this pandemic to play fast and loose with electoral rules, to extend their time in office, thereby leading to political polarization and compromised electoral processes.
But this crisis is not bringing only challenges. Less remarked is the fact that the sheer magnitude of the upheaval also offers unique opportunities for democratic renewal.
Indeed, this emergency is revealing in stark tones the social, economic and political fault-lines that were pulling many societies apart well before the virus struck. In country after county, it has become evident that the plague preys on the most vulnerable groups, afflicted by lack of access to adequate healthcare, over-crowding, and myriad underlying conditions that expose them to the ravages of the disease. The virus is not man-made, but the patterns of its dissemination and consequences most certainly are.
If they are to stave off the dangers of populism and authoritarianism, many democracies will have to return to the drawing board and renegotiate the social contract, the distribution of burdens between social groups, and the relationship between societies, states and markets. For starters, everywhere there is greater recognition of the dire price that societies pay for underproviding public goods, particularly healthcare.
I can only hope that this crisis will result in many new constitutional settlements, new fiscal pacts, and new social covenants of the kind that frequently emerges in post-conflict and post-authoritarian contexts. If that happens, this crisis could pave the way for more inclusive societies, more fair economic structures, and more democratic political systems. It is not an unfounded hope. History has proven that progress often follows breaking points. This is what happened in Western Europe, where a new democratic consensus, robust welfare states and a consolidating union emerged from the ashes of the Second World War.
If we want to protect democracy, we must do everything in our power to nudge countries towards broad-based wide-ranging processes of social and political dialogue. But we must do more. To protect democracy, we must recognize, above all, that we are in the middle of a long-term battle of narratives against authoritarian models, and that we must be unapologetic in the defense of democratic values.
We need to go back to first principles and remember the reasons why democracy matters. Articulating a persuasive case for democracy is critical if we are to keep at bay the authoritarian temptations that are proliferating around the world. The good news is that the case for democracy remains strong.
We must defend democracy because to a greater degree than any other political system, it treats us as something more than underage creatures that need to be told what to do. In so doing, it respects our agency and inherent dignity. To those out there that are keen to follow the mirage of order provided by some authoritarian regimes, and that are willing to discount democratic institutions as dispensable luxuries in the quest for material wellbeing, I’ve got one answer for you – Hong Kong. For some time now, the people that are bravely demonstrating in the streets of Hong Kong (and now in Belarus) are showing that, as the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry memorably put it, humankind is not merely a herd that expects to be fed.
We must defend democracy because to a much greater degree than any other political system it allows for the correction of policies, a crucial trait in the current pandemic. This is the result of the free circulation of information, of the possibilities for collective action built into the system, and of the transient nature of democratic political power. In a democracy worth its salt, we all know that we’ll have the chance to throw the rascals out and change course every 4 or 5 years. Rooting for authoritarian systems is like going to a high stakes casino – you may strike gold and end up with Lee Kwan Yew, but you may not be so lucky and end up locked into the room with Idi Amin or Pol Pot, with no possibility for correction.
We must defend democracy because, as our Global State for Democracy Report shows, it makes a difference for key tenets of development. It matters, in particular, for gender equality. When we classify the 162 countries covered by our report into democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian systems, and examine the performance of each group when it comes to gender equality, the disparity that we find is remarkable. Whereas only 3% of democracies do really, really poorly when it comes to gender, 10% of hybrid regimes and fully 50% of authoritarian systems do. This is important in its own right, but also, and crucially, for its instrumental value. We know full well by now that sustainable development runs through gender equality. Therefore, if we stand any chance whatsoever of achieving the 2030 Agenda, it is incumbent upon us to protect democracy. Sustainable development requires sustainable democracy.
If we care about the future of humanity, this is a case that needs to be repeated day in and day out. And it needs to be repeated in tandem with the case for multilateralism, which is just as essential for the future of our planet and which is also imperiled.
Paradoxically, faced with the most serious global crisis since the end of the Second World War, the importance of multilateralism is still being questioned. Doubts continue to be expressed as to whether international institutions are needed to inspire, shape and support recovery strategies.
This couldn’t be more wrong. This pandemic is reminding us in a stark way why in an interconnected world that is faced with recurring transnational challenges, national responses will never be enough. In light of what’s happening, there has never been a better time to join forces and strengthen multilateral actions to build a more sustainable world over the next few decades, a world in which no one will be left behind; in which every human being will have to opportunity to live in peaceful, just and inclusive societies; in which every person will fully enjoy the fundamental freedoms and rights that are the core of our common human heritage. The kind of world, that is, embodied by the Sustainable Development Goals.
The way out of this crisis is not bouncing back to the pre-COVID-19 status quo. The challenge for the UN and for all of us will be to exit the crisis by bouncing forward, by strengthening a more effective and more democratic multilateral space.
This, my friends, is the twilight struggle we have in our hands. We need to do exactly what Sweden is doing – to muster the courage and build the global coalitions to prevail, knowing full well that while the values we defend are eternal, our victories are always transitory.
Now, more than ever, we must dare to make the case for democracy and multilateralism, with conviction and a sense of urgency. It is a case that has not lost one ounce of its power to inspire and give hope and light in this season of darkness.