25th Mar 2023


Democracy — is it in crisis or renaissance?

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Nowadays you could be confused.

On the one hand, the chorus of people declaring that democracy is in crisis is loud and growing, pointing to the dwindling number of democracies around the world.

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  • 'Moving away from democracy seems to be easier than moving towards democracy'

On the other hand, there is increasing talk about a rebirth of the liberal world order, pointing to a newfound sense of purpose among democracies to defeat Russia's brutal attempt to subjugate Ukraine.

Who is right?

The problem with some members of the crisis chorus is that they have been crying wolf for too long. Political scientists have been talking about a crisis of democracy for decades. But now they have a point. According to the research institute VDEM, 70 percent of the world's population lives in autocracies. In 2011 the figure was 49 percent.

The problem has two levels. One, that countries that were once democratising are now moving in the other direction — think of Turkey, Myanmar, Hungary or Tunisia.

The other, that in autocracies mass mobilisation rarely succeeds in changing political institutions. Think of Belarus, Iran or Algeria.

Moving away from democracy seems to be easier than moving towards democracy. Many authoritarian governments appear to be deeply entrenched, while many democracies have proved vulnerable to authoritarian threats.

And yet, there is something to the theory of democratic revival as well.

For a start, people in many democracies have woken up to the fact that their system is vulnerable. Talk to Americans since the storming of Congress on 6 January 2021 and you will find a sense of urgency and mission that was not there before.

It is also possible that some extremist parties have made themselves unelectable by being — too extreme. While it is deeply worrying that 30 percent of Americans still support Donald Trump, he is unlikely to win another presidential election with that level of support.

In many European democracies, extremist parties represent 20-30 percent of the vote, and while they may not be shrinking, they are no longer natural growth projects. Last weekend showed the mixed picture that has become democracy's reality.

Austria vs Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic, the democratically-minded Petr Pavel won the presidential election with an impressive margin. But in neighbouring Austria the extremist FPÖ recovered from its Ibiza scandal with 24 percent of the vote in an important regional election.

This is the outlook for the short to medium term: an ongoing struggle for democratic rules to be respected, along with setbacks and advances.

Of course, major events can change such an outlook. If Russia failed in its war against Ukraine, global autocracy would lose a major backer, at least for a while.

Encouragingly, long-term trends may favour democracy. The attitude of many people around the world is becoming more open and liberal on issues such as gender equality, free speech and reproductive freedoms.

So what needs to be done to make the trend in attitudes work for democracy?

First, it matters how we talk about democracy. If we only bemoan a "crisis of democracy" as is fashionable on the conference circuit, we are part of the problem, creating a sense of inevitable decline. Democracies are being attacked from within and without by people. And we can act to defend and support democracy. The current trend of democratic regression is not inevitable. It can be reversed.

Second, as I have argued in previous articles, we need to be clearer about the breadth of democracy. It is a system that accommodates many political opinions. We cannot avoid debate and disagreement by denouncing every other opinion as extremist.

But we must do so when politicians threaten the rules of democracy, as Trump, Orbán or Erdoğan do. Especially the political right is in danger of forgetting the ground rules of democracy — legitimate conservatism all too often flirts with the extreme right.

Third, much more should be done to win the battle of public opinion. Many attacks on democracy take place in the construction of ideologies, mental frames and narratives. Defenders of democracy are often unprepared. They rely on laws, technical procedures and expertise, forgetting Abraham Lincoln´s adage: "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."

Fourth, support to democracy must be more adaptive to the two scenarios of supporting moves to democracy or defending it against attacks. It is not so clear yet how the defending is best done.

What is clear is that support for democracy must be agile. It must be able to respond to sudden threats as well as to sudden openings (as Ken Godfrey from the European Partnership for Democracy laid out in detail here).

Fifth, in Europe we must get involved in the global discussion on democracy. The rest of the world is not just the "beneficiary" of European democracy support. There are many democracies with agency, voice and interests of their own, such as India, Indonesia, Brazil or South Africa to name some of the larger ones. We need to talk to them.

The current situation of democracy is serious, but not desperate.

In the 1940s a lonely group of democracies overcame a seemingly invincible constellation of dictatorships. For most of us in the EU the situation today is more comfortable. But we must be focused and determined in supporting democracy, lest the situation get worse.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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