Jan Eliasson, the former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General and current Chair of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told a November 29th IPI policy forum on “The Global State of Democracy” that belief in the value of democratic governance had lapsed, creating a “trust deficit” permitting political forces to arise that are polarizing democratic societies.
“Therefore,” he said, “we have to bring out the elements of democracy that produce results.”
Mr. Eliasson, making his first visit back to the UN since leaving office in January, listed three destabilizing “vibrations” that were undermining democracy.
The first, he said, is the shrinking space for civil society to operate independently. “It’s sort of a creeping phenomenon that poisons the democratic quality of a society.”
The second is an uptick in attacks on the media globally. “Journalists are being killed, wounded, brought to prison, and tortured in far too many places,” he said.
Lastly, he identified a “streak of authoritarian tendencies” permeating democracies around the world in both established democracies in Europe and the United States and in developing countries.
As a result of all this, he said there is now a “trust deficit” between citizens and their government that fuels anger toward those in positions in power and the institutions they oversee.
“People don’t trust their leaders— whether it’s in government, parliament, even the business world— because they see promises that are not kept,” said Mr. Eliasson. “They see corruption. They see tax evasion in the private sector and feel a rage within themselves that will have to go somewhere, and it goes in the direction of simple solutions: in the way of populism that divides us into ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Henk-Jan Brinkman, Chief of Policy, Planning and Application, UN Peacebuilding Support Office, decried the corrosive effect that identity politics has on political dialogue, undermining democracies. “It has the tendency to focus on one issue,” he said. “But political parties and politics are about a number of issues. We need to make sure that citizens think in broader terms about society as a whole— their fellow citizens and not just their interest in one issue.”
He made the point that elections alone do not make a healthy democracy, stressing the need for institutions that “underpin vibrant democracy; independent media, independent judiciary. But also political parties in parliament and how they function in a democratic system.”
Thomas E. Garrett, Secretary-General of the Community of Democracies, called out the unexpected role that social media plays in intensifying tensions within societies and, consequently, emboldening authoritarian leaders.
“Two decades ago, social media was seen as a death knell for dictators,” he said. “It was seen as a wonderful avenue to find isolated reformers and connect them to the outside world. What was totally missed was the idea that bad guys would be able to subvert social media.”
Victoria Perotti, Associate Programme Officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), outlined the findings of IDEA’s report on the global state of democracy. The report analyzes trends and challenges impacting on democracy worldwide, such as migration, money, and political representation.
Based on the report’s findings, which draw on data stretching back to 1975, Perotti argued that overall, democracy is resilient, but conceded that it is now “at a crossroads” and is “being tested by increased corruption.”
“Impartial administration is the only attribute of democracy that has not shown improvement over the last 40 years,” she said.
Sarah Taylor, IPI research Fellow, emphasized that the most important aspect of sustaining democracy is inclusivity.
“The overriding single most important variable is the presence of robust civil society—specifically women’s society,” she said.
In his closing remarks, Massimo Tommasoli, IDEA’s Permanent Observer to the UN, pointed to the Global State of Democracy report as a source of optimism, noting that short term politics may show momentary gains for authoritarianism, but in the long run, democracy will endure as the preferred mode of government.
“They are not going to be able to win long-term.”
The event was cosponsored by IDEA.
IPI Senior Advisor John Hirsch moderated the discussion.