Reflecting on Democratic Progress on International Day of Democracy
In 2007, the United Nations declared September 15 International Day of Democracy, with the aim of promoting and protecting democratic principles. At the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), we have supported these principles for three decades, working to ensure that every voice has a vote. Since 1987, IFES has worked in over 145 countries – from developing to mature democracies – to advance good governance and democratic rights.
While global democratic progress has been uneven in recent years, there are many positive developments to report as well. With active programs in Africa, the Americas, the Asia-Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, and the Middle East and North Africa, IFES is at the forefront of global democracy promotion. As we celebrate International Day of Democracy, our regional directors provide an overview of the important democratic trends and challenges, as well as the opportunities, from their respective regions.
A number of important democratic developments are unfolding throughout the African continent. Perhaps most notably, the ruling by the Supreme Court in Kenya to annul the results of the August 8 presidential election is unprecedented throughout the continent. In the context of democratic development, this landmark judgment is an indicator of stronger institutions and an independent judiciary, but simultaneously provokes questions about electoral integrity. We have also witnessed progress in bellwether states like Nigeria, where in 2015 an opposition party gained power through the ballot box for the first time in history. Nigeria also joined Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire as countries with the biggest improvements in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, according to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World”report.
The vast majority of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa hold regular elections, and yet few could be characterized as full democracies; in some cases, elections are merely a façade and a tool to perpetuate the status quo and provide a veneer of legitimacy. Many African countries remain governed by autocrats who have held power for decades, despite holding regular elections. This is perhaps the most dangerous trend unfolding in many countries. Not a lack of democratic political systems, but African democracies marked by elections that are neither free nor fair. Moreover, violence remains a persistent threat in many elections, as incumbents feel threatened by the potential loss of power and opposition parties allege fraud and coercion when defeated.
While IFES continues its leadership in building the capacity of election management bodies in African democracies, we respond to these developments by continuing to strengthen our technical expertise in areas such as electoral integrity, electoral dispute resolution, and our growing portfolio of programming tools that foster real accountability in government through ensuring more inclusive electoral processes.
Over the past three decades in the Americas, there have been major challenges to democracy, but also significant advances toward strengthening government institutions and promoting more constructive citizen engagement.
Among the regional challenges that impact democratic governance, there is slow economic growth, a surge of migration, ineffective leadership, socio-economic inequality, social conflicts caused by wealth inequality, corruption scandals linked to organized crime, and authoritarian regimes – such as in Nicaragua, where government institutions helped eliminate the opposition, and Venezuela, where the Constitutional Assembly illegally attempts to rewrite the constitution, authorities cancelled free and fair elections, and persecute those who object.
However, not all is bleak. A cursory overview of events in the region contains successes that deserve recognition, for example, progress in the implementation of Open Government Partnership plans in Mexico, Uruguay, Guatemala; increased number of women engaged in politics regionally (with sharp exceptions in Haiti and Chile); increased participation of youth in democratic processes, in part by increased use of open data and low-cost technology; a peace deal in Colombia, a country that has long been paralyzed by violence; and civil society is placing a magnifying lens on resources used in political campaigns throughout the region.
Much work remains ahead to consolidate internationally recognized and agreed upon democratic principles into tangible benefits for citizens and deliver more inclusive, equitable, and stronger governance.
Despite close to six decades of post-colonial economic development and political progress in the Asia-Pacific, the region still faces significant challenges to the consolidation of democracy, good governance and human rights. These include poverty; ethnic, national and religious intolerance; forced migrations due to conflict and climate change; authoritarianism; military intervention in politics; corruption, patronage politics and elite capture of government; narrowing operational space for civil society and independent media; and youth apathy and disenchantment with politics. Often substantial social-cultural barriers in addition to financial, legal, administrative and other structural barriers to women’s political empowerment result in low levels of women’s participation in politics and election administration (currently women’s representation in parliaments stands at 18.8% for upper and lower houses in Asia and 16% in the Pacific). Similarly, culturally accepted discrimination against ethnic, religious, and gender minorities as well as persons with disabilities and indigenous people also restrict the broadest reach of democracy.
China’s assertive geopolitical and economic power plays a significant role in the region reducing the international community’s influence. While these challenges result in uneven progress and often non-linear trajectories toward democratic consolidation in the region, democratic progress is taking place, evidenced by successive positive elections in Indonesia and Timor-Leste and transitions in Fiji, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Nascent but developing regional human rights frameworks include democratic norms and values and promote an inclusive regional vision that activists and reformers are increasingly able to draw upon. Finally, several strong election management bodies and civil society organizations in the region now serve as a valuable peer-learning resource to their counterparts.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the future of Eastern Europe and Central Asia was ambiguous. However, after years of conflict, there is now cause for measured optimism: growing democratic movements are gaining some momentum, despite significant challenges both domestically and externally.
Eastern Europe's democratic prospects continue to improve in the face of significant roadblocks. Although the Balkans region has seen the development of independent electoral commissions and the rise of new democracies, institutions have been increasingly fragmented, causing an ongoing political crisis in Macedonia and a period of gridlock in Kosovo, which are only exacerbated by ethnic and religious tension. Although Georgia and Ukraine weathered recent liberalizing revolutions, followed by democratic and economic reforms resulting in signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, both countries witnessed Russian aggression: Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine since 2014.
In Central Asia, although democratic movements have flourished in Kyrgyzstan, and small movements are present in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, authoritarian regimes in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan persist. In addition, Central Asian nations stand in between China, Iran and Russia, which continue to eye these countries for their strategic location and extractive resources. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain heavily influenced by Moscow.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia's new democracies continue to struggle with the role free media will play in their states; the level of influence and transparency that social media will wield in an open society; low levels of confidence in government institutions due to entrenched corruption; and foreign influence from countries, especially Russia, that seek to reestablish their influence in the region stand to gain from creating allies outside their borders. In response to these challenges, IFES continues its work in supporting electoral processes, strengthening democratic institutions and civil society throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
In the coming years, the simmering political and societal conflicts that have plagued parts of the Middle East and North Africa for decades, and the slow pace of political, economic and social reforms, will continue to pose serious challenges for democratization, stability and security of the region.
Six years after the popular uprisings that swept most of the region, the crisis of legitimacy that led to widespread unrest is still outstanding and citizens remain dissatisfied with their governments’ response to the difficulties they face. The trends that played a major role in the uprisings across the Arab world – such as struggling economies, unemployment, the youth bulge, inadequate access to justice, and ineffective governance – are still insufficiently addressed; the breakdown in security and rising volatility caused by ongoing civil wars, increased sectarianism, terrorism, extremism, authoritarianism, corruption and foreign interventions are daunting factors that do not promise stabilization or democratic development and will continue to lead to further insecurity in the near future.
The human security challenges facing the region today require the promotion of a broader notion of democratic governance that includes tolerance, consensus- and peace-building, accountability, human rights protection, capacity building for social and economic development, promotion of public involvement and consultation, and improvement of political and electoral processes. The transition to democratic governance is neither fast nor easy, and indeed, external intervention on these issues may have little immediate influence.
However, disengagement or limiting diplomacy and democratic governance aid will only exacerbate the current situation; the international community must be prepared to implement a long-term strategy to capitalize on even the smallest gains in the democratic space and it must continue to support the citizens of the Middle East and North Africa region as they strive to attain democratic ideals such as civil liberties, justice and prosperity. The international community will also need to pressure governing elites to be responsive and accountable to their citizens’ demands and genuinely seek to invoke democratic freedoms, access to justice and the rule of law, regardless of the governing system they choose to implement.