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In honour of the International Day of Democracy, on September 15 the IPU held a virtual discussion on the theme ‘Is democracy really in crisis?’
It is a timely question, given a rising number of authoritarian and repressive regimes, attacks on parliaments and a backlash against traditional political parties and processes around the world. In 2020, nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced democratic backsliding. According to Freedom House, an organization that tracks global democratic progress, last year marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.
The virtual discussion, moderated by Ravi Agrawal, Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy magazine, included Jan-Werner Mueller, the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University, Hélène Landemore, professor of Political Science at Yale University, and Martin Chungong, the IPU Secretary General. Additionally, U Aung Kyi Nyunt – Head of the Committee Representing the Hluttaw (Myanmar Parliament elected in November 2020) – made a taped appearance.
The three types of democratic crisis
Mueller started off by defining three different types of democratic crisis, and cautioning against equal comparison. “The first,” he said, “is when there are tanks in the streets.” The second is the gradual hollowing out of rights due to autocratic legislation, and the third type, evidenced in even the most established democracies, is represented by attacks on the media and journalism, and expanding inequality. “However,” he added, “We must never blame the people. There is no evidence people prefer autocrats over democracy.”
In her remarks, Landemore called for a rethinking of democracy itself, arguing that “democracy we’ve built from the 1800s is no longer meeting the expectations of the people.” She then cited the US Congress as an example, a legislative body which has never surpassed a 30 per cent approval rating from the general public since the measurement began in 1971. “And,” she said, “sometimes it can dip below 10 percent. As a result, we need to rethink what is the center of gravity of democracy. One idea is for parliamentarians, with humility, to delegate some authority to citizens.”
Chungong then addressed the need to differentiate between democratic institutions and their underlying democratic ideals. “In my view,” he said, “democracy is not in crisis from the perspective of democratic principles. What is in crisis is democratic institutions and the people called on to express these democratic principles. Democracy is not a finite thing, it’s constantly evolving, but the foundational principles remain firm.”
Populism and elitism
This prompted the moderator to pose a question as to the rise in extreme political polarization in some established democracies. “Democracy is conflict, contained conflict,” said Mueller. “But it gets dangerous when one side claims the other is illegitimate. There is a fine line between normal democratic conflict and conflict that threatens democracy, and politicians must be able to articulate the difference.”
“The polarization corresponds with a rise in populism,” said Landemore. “And populism is a reaction to elitism. If populism exists, so does excessive elitism. There is a need for a new source of wisdom by involving ordinary citizens. And to give credibility to those citizens.”
Chungong answered the question by calling for more diversity in democratic leadership. “Parliaments must reflect the diversity of the populace,” he said. “Reforms must be put in place to better represent diversity, to make it more inclusive, for example with women and youth.” He then described how half the world’s population is under the age of 30, yet that age group represents only 2.6 per cent of global parliamentarians. “Parliaments should consider ways to ensure youth voices are heard and they are at the table. Such efforts are showing progress with women representation so why not with youth?”
A plea from Myanmar
It was fitting for the discussion to end with Mr. U Aung Kyi Nyunt – Head of the Committee Representing the Hluttaw, Myanmar’s recently elected parliament. His appearance was taped, for at the time he was having to change locations for his personal safety.
Making an appeal for help from the IPU and its member parliaments, he asked the world to “Work with us, stand with us in solidarity, to stay with us in our journey towards a democratic government.” His plea included this powerful statement: “Nowhere is democracy more desired than where it is denied.”
His words offer hope in this challenging time for global democracies, giving proof to what Chungong defined as the resilience of democratic ideals.