Democracy At A Crossroads: Can We Rise To The Challenge?

Democracy was, for a long time, the champion of the modern nation-state. Every community had aspired to become democratic once it was able to organise itself or gain its independence from another entity. Especially from the 1990s onwards, as political scientist Samuel Huntington showed in his work, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent democratisation of new entities emerging from it, scholars and analysts around the world believed that democracy would prevail over all other forms of regime, becoming the foremost state model and creating a universal democratic environment. Looking at the world today, can we say that democracy has achieved this goal? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

On the contrary, this system has been struggling to keep up with the ever-rising challenges brought about by our globalised reality and is losing in the race to become the champion of contemporary statehood, leaving space for other types of regimes, namely authoritarian ones, to gain more ground.

Just in the past couple of weeks, democracy has come under threat in several countries, such as Georgia, where the so-called Foreign Agents Bill was approved by Parliament on May 14, posing a direct danger to democracy and freedom as we know it. Non-governmental organisations and civil society are being forced to label themselves as foreign agents on a register if they receive more than 20% of their annual funding from international donors. Everywhere we look, we find conflicts, anti-system parties, and undemocratic laws, which pose serious obstacles to the survival of this regime type.

It has become evident that democracy is under threat. Analysts, scholars, and even politicians have expressed their concern over the rise of authoritarian regimes in the world. These regimes are seen as a direct challenge not only to democracy but also to the ideals it embodies. According to the United Nations, the essential elements of democracy are the “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, freedom of association, expression, and opinion, access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people, a pluralistic system of political parties and organisations, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, transparency, and accountability in public administration, and free, independent, and pluralistic media.”

Now, think about the democratic states we have today. Can we really say that all these characteristics are present or respected? Maybe in a few countries; but most certainly not in all. Many have tried to put an end to the democratic backsliding we are witnessing. When elections risked being unfair, external monitoring missions ensured the just and valid results of the ballots. Civil society organisations and other NGOs have increased their role as governments’ watchdogs to safeguard the respect of basic human rights and freedoms every individual is entitled to. Anticorruption mechanisms have gradually been adopted in several countries. Unfortunately, these efforts don’t seem to be enough. Threats to democracy keep rising, and over time this regime appears to be more and more unable, and sometimes unwilling, to fight for its survival.

As a European, I don’t need to look very far to see democracy backsliding on the continent. The above-mentioned Georgia is just the latest case where authoritarianism seems to be getting the upper hand. Belarus is another example, with the legitimate government led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in exile, and the current President Alexander Lukashenko trying to centralise power for himself. Many civil society organisations and international bodies, such as the International Accountability Platform for Belarus, accuse Lukashenko’s regime of committing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

The attempted assassination of Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, is a further example of democratic backsliding. Individuals are turning to undemocratic or illegal means to express their discontent towards elected leaders. If we start looking outside Europe, the picture doesn’t get brighter. It turns even darker, with numerous ongoing conflicts, flatlining democracies, rising autocracies, and various human rights violations taking place throughout the globe. The United States, supposedly the world’s leading democracy, is also struggling with authoritarian tendencies. The likely re-election of Donald Trump poses the most serious threat to democratic values.

In light of all this, what can anyone say? Can we still be hopeful for a better tomorrow, or should we give up on the idea of democracy’s triumph over authoritarianism? Not all hope is lost. It is true that at this moment democracy is struggling to survive and seems to be withering away. However, this doesn’t mean there is no way to get it back on track. Policymakers have an important role to play. They need to get to the core of democracy, to those elements that the United Nations have promoted, and ensure that each of them is fully respected. And they need all the help they can get to guarantee it. This means relying on NGOs, civil society, and even ordinary citizens to carry out their work.

Putting democracy back on its feet is no easy task. It requires commitment and determination. Fortunately for politicians, and every single one of us, democracy still represents the best possible regime there. People want to live in a democratic state, where their rights and freedoms are respected, elections are held, the rule of law is guaranteed, and the media are independent. The large protests in Georgia over the past couple of weeks are just the latest example. Existing democracies must find a way to get stronger, namely through the reinforcement of institutions, fighting corruption, and safeguarding the rule of law. New democracies need to be built on foundations that respect human rights and hold free and fair elections. Most importantly, democracy has to be tailored to the reality of the country in which it operates. We have seen in the past how imposing democracy from the outside leads nowhere, bringing only chaos instead – Iraq being the most glaring example.

I believe the future of democracy is bright. Until the people continue to show their utmost support for it, there will always be space for democracy to thrive. We must ensure that the conditions for this to happen are protected so that the spread of authoritarianism is stopped and a better tomorrow rises.


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