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International Day of Democracy
September 16, 2017, 4:17 pm
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Last Friday, the world marked the International Day of Democracy, which commemorates the Universal Declaration on Democracy adopted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in 1997. On this 20th anniversary of that groundbreaking IPU declaration, we look at why democracy, as envisioned by the IPU, has failed to materialize in many parts of the world where it is often seen as suboptimal socio-political choice.

The theme for this year’s International Day of Democracy was ‘Democracy and Conflict Prevention’ was especially relevant as it drew focus on the critical need to strengthen democratic institutions to promote peace and stability. But, for many people embroiled in the throes of wars and conflicts, and besieged by inequalities and injustices, democracy is the least of their worries.

To people in places wracked by conflicts, democracy is often a distant concept irrelevant to overcoming the diverse challenges they face daily to their lives and livelihoods. Failed attempts to impose democracy in places that were previously under autocratic rule, have also raised questions on the suitability of democracy to bring about peace, stability and equality in post conflict situations.

In his message on this year’s International Day of Democracy, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres admitted as much, when he said, “Toppling a dictator, or holding elections in a post-conflict situation, does not mean democracy will flourish by itself.”

Much of the current negative assessments of democracy could be attributed to the frenzied bid by some Western nations to democratize the ‘undemocratic’ world by imposing their ‘one-true’ version of democracy. Tragic results of these botched Western democratizing attempts are evident everywhere, in South America, in the Middle-East, in Africa and in Asia.

What the West does not seem to realize is that their ‘one’ version of democracy runs counter to the very notion of democracy and to its inherent flexibility as enshrined by the Universal Declaration on Democracy.

Preamble to the IPU declaration states: “Democracy is both an ideal to be pursued and a mode of government to be applied according to modalities which reflect the diversity of experiences and cultural particularities… It is thus a constantly perfected and always perfectible state or condition whose progress will depend upon a variety of political, social, economic, and cultural factors.”
What the preamble clearly underscores is that while democracies around the world share many common features, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ version of democracy.

The preamble further stresses that democracy is not the patrimony of any one nation, nor does it belong to any one country or region. Democracy is a universal value based on the freely-expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems. Democracy is a concept that people everywhere can adopt and adapt in a way appropriate to their aspect of life; it is a ‘work in progress’ that can be tweaked in accordance with the dictates of time.

Another foundation of democracy that has been shaken in recent years is the concept of elections. The IPU Declaration on Democracy emphasizes that “a key element in the exercise of democracy is the holding of free and fair elections at regular intervals enabling the people's will to be expressed.” Allowing people to express their will directly through elections and referendums is the bedrock of democracies. But, in recent years, elections have become flawed on so many fronts that their very legitimacy in reflecting the will of the people has been debunked.

The argument that elections result in democracies that reflect the desires of a majority, tend to disregard the fact that in many countries this majority enables governments to disregard the muted voices of marginalized groups. The will of the democratic majority s reflected by elections may not always be in the best interest of all citizens, is a valid criticism for which an effective answer is yet to be found.

Other arguments against democracy include that voters may not be educated enough to exercise their democratic right, or could be easily swayed by unrealistic promises or financial lures by unscrupulous politicians. But, education alone cannot sustain democracy. For example, there is no guarantee that those who campaign about the government's economic policies are themselves professional economists or academically competent in this particular discipline, regardless of whether they were well-educated.  Politicians and special interests groups in democracies are also known to manipulate and shape public opinion through mass media, which raises further questions on the objectivity and functioning of democratically elected governments.

Whether democracy is the most efficient form of government in a developing country where economic growth and reduction of poverty are top priorities is also questionable.

Conditions that allow democracy, stability and peace to prevail, include strengthening civil society, empowering women, upholding the rule of law and creating a society fully conversant with its rights and its responsibilities.

The Machiavellian cyclical theory of governments — of monarchies decaying into aristocracies that then decay into democracies and subsequently lead to anarchy, tyranny and a return to monarchy — may not have much traction in the modern politics, but trappings of this regime pattern are beginning to emerge in many places.

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