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Democracy Under Pressure – or is it?

June 28th, 2019

WFD’s Chief Executive, Anthony Smith, responds to Democracy Under Pressure: A Global Survey – a joint product from the International Republican Institute (IRI) and french think-tank, the Fondation pour l’Innovation.


Understanding the political context in which international democracy support takes place is vital to ensure the right issues, including participation, oversight and transparency are prioritised. Polling and surveys, done well, can illuminate what is often surprisingly obscure – what people outside of the international democracy support community think about their political systems.

That’s why the strong tradition of our US colleagues, National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute, of political attitudes surveys is so valuable. IRI’s latest survey is a blockbuster, covering 42 countries in 3 continents. Thibault Muzergues’ presentation of the survey at WFD on Thursday 27 June showed us its breadth and gave us a glimpse into the richness of its findings.

There were some important points – people everywhere value democratic freedoms and have a reasonable respect for parliaments; but believe there is, and are concerned by, increasing concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthy.

There are also findings that seem to correlate with regional geopolitics, especially when looking at Europe – Eastern and Southern Europeans appear to be significantly more open to strongman leaders than Western and Northern Europeans. Perhaps more worryingly, young people and women appear to be more open to them too.

At a micro level, there is enough material to keep our country teams reading for a while. There is also enough variation between countries to prevent us from jumping to easy conclusions. For example, Hungary performs better in the survey than other EU members when it comes to support for democracy, and many Hungarians feel that they are not free to express themselves. They also trust EU institutions significantly more than their own government. Does that mean that they are about to vote Orban out? Apparently not.

That leads to the question of whether the design of this survey, done in collaboration with the French Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique is strong enough to rely on. There are some leading questions and some which are drawn from a particular economic opinion, but on the whole the survey felt to me to be strong enough to draw some useful points from that could be tested further in specific places.

It also felt as though the material, even when the questions could have been improved, would be useful if repeated periodically so that we could see trends and links to local political developments. But in the meantime, there is a lot to digest and enough to use in discussions about the shape and focus of all of our programming.

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