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Democracy under Strain: Solutions for a Changing World

September 15th, 2018

The theme for International Day of Democracy this year – Democracy under Strain: Solutions for a changing world – has been relevant for at least ten years and won’t disappear any time soon. We see it on a regular basis as growing inequality fuels a feeling of unfairness and elected autocrats generate a feeling of hopelessness.

At WFD, we are always working to promote inclusive politics and make the case for continuing support to democratic institutions and leadership. Here are five ways we are working to address these important issues. 

1. Defending democracy

WFD’s 2017-2022 strategic framework  outlines our values clearly – we exist because we believe in democracy as the only reliable way to prevent the abuse of power. When people cannot exercise their sovereignty then autocracy follows. China recently asserted that “the old dichotomy between democracy and autocracy” had been replaced by “good governance vs bad governance” – efficiency therefore trumped freedom. That is not what I believe but the real question is, in that model, who gets to choose what is “good”, and how are the rights of individuals protected against those that select themselves to remain in power? Individual freedom is vital for effective democracy and we must do more to defend it.

2. Be inclusive (and meaningful about it)

2018 marks 100 years since suffrage started to be extended to women in the UK, but there is still so much to do to achieve gender equality globally. WFD supports the increased participation of women in the political process. We celebrate real progress in this generation, but we are too aware of the many places where progress is too slow or even stalled. The UK political parties are doing some great international work in this area.

I don’t like doing “inclusion menus”, but I will flag up some of WFD’s priorities. For persons with disabilities I sense an increase in the pace of change. The Disability Summit in London in July was, I hope, a turning point. It was inspiring  to hear from a brilliant, diverse group and my feeling is that we are moving in a positive direction. WFD was there because we have had some important moments of our own, particularly our programme in Sierra Leone on the political inclusion of persons with disabilities. And this week I was privileged to see our fabulous partner, Apolmida Haruna, founder of the Haly Hope Foundation in Nigeria, speak powerfully in the European Parliament about the need to include persons with disabilities in the political process.

Progress on equality and fairness for LGBTI people is crucial. I would love to see some leadership on meeting international commitments in this area from within parliaments and parties around the world. WFD’s Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy programme hopes to engage some Commonwealth members on this important topic.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, over 60% of the population are under the age of 30. In Uganda, WFD works with the Uganda Parliamentary Forum on Youth Affairs to ensure the interests of young people are represented effectively in politics. There are some big political challenges in Uganda, but it was important  we  worked with the Forum to help save 4000 jobs in the sugar industry in January 2018. Those involved now see that political activism can improve lives.  

3. Engage people in politics and policy-development

Effective democratic institutions engage a range of people, organisations and expertise to ensure democracy delivers for everyone. Politics can no longer be something that is done to people. We will all have different views about referendums but in his book, Government by Referendum, Matt Qvortrup argues that they can be good if used frequently since they engage people more regularly in politics.

But normal parliamentary processes – like the consideration of policy issues and scrutiny of government legislation by committees – can also engage people better. In Indonesia, over the past two years, WFD connected local human rights campaign groups with the Special Committee on Counter Terrorism to provide expertise on international human rights principles to inform the Counter Terrorism Bill. This included the removal of clauses that permitted torture and extra judicial killings. Engaging people from outside parliament in the legislative process was a new practice in Indonesia that we hope improves the quality of legislation.

WFD’s new regional programme in the Western Balkans, launched in early September, will involve local organisations, business, the media and trade unions in the policy making process.

4. Listen hard

There is no doubt that populists have filled an apparent vacuum in traditional politics that was created when many people felt that they were not being listened to and were being treated unfairly. Alienation and disempowerment within democracies are not new phenomena – politics rarely feels fair to those that are powerless. What is new is how many  people feel powerless, not least because their expectations of economic improvement have been set back over the past 10 years. Making sense of changing economic circumstances and the impact of technology is a critical job in every country. Listening to those that are or feel powerless is the only way for democrats to do a better job than populists. I would like WFD to spend more time thinking about the experience of people without power in our democratic systems – no matter what they look like in theory, it is how they feel that really counts for individuals.

5. Transparency of institutions

Open and accountable institutions must be mandatory if we are to achieve the ambition in Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals – a global action plan to eradicate poverty – that was adopted in 2015. While democracy was not explicitly mentioned, Goal 16 calls for “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.” Transparency is vital to WFD’s existing work and an area of expansion too. In July 2018, the Open Parliament e-Network (OPeN), of which WFD is a founding member, was launched. OPeN brings together the National Democrat Institute, Parlamericas, Directorio Legislativo, OSCE/ODIHR and WFD to support governments, legislatures and civil society to develop and realise Open Government Partnership commitments. This initiative can contribute to progress across all 17 global goals.

I will end by mentioning my visit to Nepal where our friends from the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy supported Nepal’s first Democracy Fair, with a little bit of help from WFD and Stephen Gethins MP.  The parties attending met, debated, ate and drank together in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.  International partnership was no substitute for local leadership, but it helped create a framework for progress that made their collaboration easier.  It was great to share that moment with them.

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