Suitable democratic governance

Published : 16 Mar 2023 09:06 PM

The Biden administration on November 29 last year announ­ced that the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of Zambia, and the United States will co-host the second ‘Summit for Democracy’ on March 29-30, 2023. Building on the first Summit, the upcoming gathering is expected to demonstrate “how democracies deliver for their citizens– and are best equipped to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”  

A statement from the US State Department has underlined that “We are living through an era defined by challenges to accountable and transparent governance. From wars of aggression to changes in climate, societal mistrust and technological transformation, it could not be clearer that all around the world, democracy needs champions at all levels. We look forward to taking up this call, and demonstrating how transparent, accountable governance remains the best way to deliver lasting prosperity, peace, and justice”.

This decision appears to have had a co relationship with the emergence of another report released slightly later, last December, by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) that remarked that nearly half of the democratic governments around the world were in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections.

Analysts including Thalif Deen interestingly have also noted in this context that the number of countries affected with different formats of erosion of democracy and democratic governance included surprisingly also the established democracy of the United States, which is still facing problems of political polarization, institutional dysfunction, and threats to civil liberties. In this context it has also been observed that “globally, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double the number moving toward democracy. This decline comes as elected leaders face unprecedented challenges from Russia’s war in Ukraine, cost of living crisis, a looming global recession and climate change”.

These are some of the key findings in the report titled “The Global State of Democracy Report 2022 – Forging Social Contracts in a Time of Discontent” – published by International IDEA.

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy without Borders, has also remarked that the new assessment is alarming as it confirms that democracy continues to stagnate or decline in most countries. In addition, non-democratic regimes are becoming more repressive, he added. “It is clear that stronger efforts are needed to counter these trends. People all over the world actually want democracy”.

International IDEA has referred to surveys that indicate a growing surprising sentiment in favor of authoritarian leaders. But there are other surveys, too, that show consistently high popular support for democracy as a principle of government. Bummel has also observed that “lack of confidence mainly relates to the actual performance of democratic governments. Most importantly, they must do more to ensure that their policies benefit the majority of people in a tangible way. 

They need to fight corruption and lobbyism in their own ranks and beyond. Innovations are needed so people have more opportunities to be heard.They need to help strengthen democratic representation and participation of citizens at the UN”.  In this regard, Bummel has also underlined the need into the possibility of “establishing the mandate of a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy”.

Regionally, the interesting findings, according to the IDEA report, are as follows:

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC- Democracy is receding in Asia and the Pacific, while authoritarianism is solidifying. Only 54 per cent of people in the region live in a democracy and almost 85 per cent of those live in one that is weak or backsliding. Even high- and mid-performing democracies such as Australia, Japan and Taiwan are suffering democratic erosion.

AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST- Despite numerous challenges, Africa is remaining resilient in the face of instability. Countries including The Gambia, Niger and Zambia are improving in democratic quality. Overcoming a restricted civic space, civic action in several countries has however created opportunities to renegotiate the social contract; outcomes have varied by country. In Western Asia, more than a decade after the Arab Spring, protest movements continue to be motivated by government failures in service delivery and economic opportunities—key aspects of social contracts.

THE AMERICAS- Three out of seven backsliding democracies- in the Americas- point to weakening institutions even in longstanding democracies. Democracies are struggling to effectively bring balance to environments marked by instability and anxiety, and populists continue to gain ground as democratic innovation and growth stagnate or decline. In the US, threats to democracy are apparently persisting after the Trump presidency- and currently, their Congress is allegedly facing not only political difficulties but also counter-majoritarianism and the rolling back of some long-established rights.

EUROPE- Although democracy remains the dominant form of government in Europe, the quality of democracy has also eroded in some countries over the last five years.

It has also been suggested by ‘Democracy Without Borders’ that convening a transnational citizens’ assembly should be considered that can identify common root causes of democratic decline and how they can be addressed. Democracies need to collaborate better and step up within the international matrix.

One way forward that has been recommended in revitalizing democracy and democratic governance needs to be carefully studied. Analysts feel that some suggestions and observations made by Ricardo Borges de Castro nearly two years ago regarding improvement of the democracy paradigm will be useful and assist the world in harnessing the power of people and also strategic foresight. It is felt that this in all probability would improve democratic governance.

Such a proposed forward movement might be built upon three key areas: principled partnerships, smarter governance and resilient societies. The rest of the troubled world can benefit from these factors.

In our increasingly competitive world, it has become more tempting to be transactional and let interests override values. This needs to be controlled through principled partnerships. Such an effort might not always be contradictory but could possibly reinforce the desired equation. One has to understand in this context that democratic principles as not only an asset in a country’s foreign policy arsenal but also acts as a differentiating element vis-à-vis competing governance models. In fact building alliances with like-minded democratic partners is possibly a constructive engagement that will also uphold the rules-based international system developed after the Second World War.

The next factor that has been given particular importance is the scope of “smart governance”. This has been suggested as a format of reform for the governance system so that countries can adapt to more complex and challenging internal and external environments. Emphasis has been given on this aspect so that democracies can find solutions to keep up with the fast pace of change. Consistent with this observation, Bangladesh has already initiated necessary steps required in this regard. 

It has however been emphasized that in the face of global competition it will require parallel but concurrent efforts from decision-makers and foresight experts and practitioners alike. Such a scenario could also be taken forward at a faster pace through flexible policy instruments and funding mechanisms in the required areas of bothe public and private sector institutions, through modernization and digitalization of public administration. It is believed that innovation and strengthening of existing ability could subsequently be strengthened, diversified and made more sustainable in the longer term. Such a measure is going to assist not only in socio-economic development but also ensure transparency and accountability. 

In this regard the proposed matrix will help generate acceptable dimensions. Consequently, it will assist democratic politicians in not being short-sighted and looking no further than the next vote. Democracy and democratic governance through such a format could also be facilitated with the help of required experts who could integrate into their work structural features of democracy that need to be preserved through- elections, divergent political preferences, and fluctuation of power.

There also appears to be consensus about how to build more resilient societies. Analysts are in broad general agreement that to improve governance within the democratic platform institutions and governments ought to invest more in the marketplace of ideas and foster a healthy and diverse ecosystem of free media, think tanks, academic institutions, and informed citizens. Such partnership and smarter governance could not only promote debate but also contribute towards evidence-based solutions to existing challenges created because of efforts being undertaken pertaining to post-pandemic recovery and climate change. 

Such a measure is likely to address many of the awkward issues that are endangering the ‘infrastructure’ of modern democracies, new horizons and opportunities through the use of disinformation or threats to the integrity of electoral processes. 

One has to remember that democracy is not a static political system. It is an evolving mechanism that needs monitoring and whenever so required- necessary reform to meet the new challenges. Consequently, democracies that are better prepared to scrutinize the horizon for emerging problems and are basically prepared in anticipating potential patterns of change, will also be better equipped to act and avert crises that can ultimately undermine democracy itself. 

Anticipatory pro-active engagement in this regard will then be required for countries all over the world to remain strong and open in a more competitive and fast-paced digitized “smart” world.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance