His commitment that the U.S. would continue to promote democracy and his reminder that democracy “is hard work” were echoed at a fringe meeting of the assembly, which also heard a call for the world’s democracies to act in concert against new authoritarian threats.
“No country can meet this challenge on its own,” said Roberta S. Jacobson, the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
“All of us know from hard experiences that this work of building democracy is not easy and there is no guarantee of success,” she told the Community of Democracies Governing Council.
“But we are convinced that our task will be easier and the odds will move in our favor if we work through the Community of Democracies to channel our individual efforts into cohesive action to support countries in transition and strengthen civil society,” she said.
At the Social Good Summit organized parallel to the UN Assembly, CD delegates discussed the innovative new LEND Network which provides leaders in emerging democracies with technology, information, and “real-time access” to leading authorities on democratic transitions. Drawing on expertise from the Club of Madrid‘s network of democratically elected former presidents and prime ministers, and state-of-the-art technologies from Google and OpenText, the network aims to “augment face-to-face meetings with ongoing peer-to-peer exchanges via a secure virtual platform.”
The Community of Democracies has changed from a mere “gathering of democracies to a platform for getting things done,” Samantha Power, a special assistant to President Obama, has said. The LEND initiative, pioneered by Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies, is the latest indicator of the CD’s revitalization and transformation from a talking shop to a one-stop shop for governments and civil society groups engaged in advancing democracy.
The CD’s shift “from the aspirational to the operational” is also evident in its Democracy Partnership Challenge for assisting transitions; the Open Government Partnership, a lesson-learning, coalition-building initiative to combat corruption and promote transparency; and the Defending Civil Society project, a “case study” for delivering results through government-NGO partnership.
The appointment of Maria Leissner, formerly Sweden’s Ambassador-at-Large for Democracy, as the group’s first Secretary-General-Designate, also signaled what Clinton called the CD’s “transformation from a forum for democracies to convene into an operational hub for democracy assistance and promotion.”
The CD’s revival could not have been more timely as coordination amongst the world’s democracies has rarely been so vital.
Not since the Cold War has liberal democracy been so seriously challenged.
Yet this time, rather than confronting the singular threat of global communism that purports to provide a systemic alternative, it faces a range of adversaries that claim a democratic mantle – ‘sovereign democracy’, ‘Bolivarian democracy’, ‘Islamic democracy’, ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics’ – but serve to undermine and adulterate democratic values and institutions – and, of course, actively and aggressively seek to impede democracy assistance efforts.
Other wounds have been self-inflicted: the global economic crisis has also undermined the global appeal and legitimacy of Western liberal market democracies, observers suggest.
South Africa: Opposition Fears
South Africa’s liberation struggle signified hope in the process and institutions of democracy to millions inside and outside the country. Yet it is disturbing that 18 years into our democracy, elements in the ruling party regard opposition parties as enemies rather than rivals.
Statements by leaders regarding the judiciary and their calls for a review of the Constitution are matters of grave concern. If allowed to go unchecked, they will undermine the independence of vital pillars of democracy.
While democracy has given people the right to vote, the vast majority remain stricken by poverty. Growing inequality results in a loss of faith in the institutions of democracy.
Ahmed Kathrada is a former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist. In South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections, he became a member of parliament.
Pakistan: Lessons From India
When Pakistan gained independence in 1947, it failed to implement three major changes that Prime Minister Nehru embedded in the Indian constitution—an independent judiciary, assurances that the army can’t play a political role, and abolition of the feudal system. Some 80 percent of the country’s budget is siphoned into army coffers, and no civilian government in Pakistan has ever run its full tenure.
The import of extremist Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia has resulted in a toxic mix of religion and politics as well as an unholy alliance between the mullahs and the military. There is hope for democracy only if feudalism, corruption, and interference by the army and intelligence agencies stop.
Raheel Raza, born in Pakistan, is a Canada-based journalist, and the author most recently of How Can You Possibly be an Anti-Terrorist Muslim? (2011).
Saudi Arabia: The Unknown
In an absolute monarchy, political awareness, never mind democracy, is hard to come by. Democracy as a form of government is a completely foreign concept. This lack of awareness and experience among the people has been used by academics, political analysts, and even the people themselves to postpone the inevitable.
In the best case scenario, the transition from a second generation monarchy to a third generation goes smoothly, and this third generation turns out to be progressive and allows the incorporation of democracy.
In the worst case scenario, the transition does not go smoothly. Then the international community will get involved to protect the oil fields and stop the outbreak of an all-out civil war. By the end of such a nightmare, will there be a Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether or not it’s democratically run?
Eman al-Nafjan blogs about Saudi social and cultural issues at Saudiwoman’s Weblog.
Tibet: A Gift from Above
The biggest disappointment of my life is never having seen my own country. As a Tibetan refugee in India, I have a responsibility to bear witness and experience democracy in neighboring countries. Indian democracy can be raucous and absurd while China has no democracy, rule of law, or government transparency. In India, communal conflicts, religious riots, corruption cases, and socio-economic disparities are everyday phenomena.
The 14th Dalai Lama, who fled to India following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, relinquished all political powers more than a year ago.
I see the biggest threats to democracy as lack of education, morality, and common sense; poverty, which quells enthusiasm among the masses; the lack of a political will to apply democratic practices; and the lack of commitment to democracy and national development among the political leadership.
Lobsang Wangyal is a photojournalist based in Mcleod Ganj, India.
Hungary: Pesky Populists
Hungary became a democracy in 1989-90 mostly due to geopolitical changes. The country has a long tradition of a strong government and a weak, if vocal, opposition. Perhaps that’s why the simple fact of getting a freely elected parliament didn’t bring long-term contentment to Hungarians.
In a country of 10 million inhabitants, 1.5 million jobs disappeared. Most Roma were excluded from the labor market, and social inequities grew. Those born and raised after World War II faced homelessness, poverty, and open racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalist demagoguery—to a degree never before experienced.
The biggest weakness of democracy is its portrayal as an elitist game to cover up increasing poverty, social inequality, and injustice. The public consensus on democracy, anti-fascism, and tolerance is melting rapidly. The only solution is to extend, not eliminate, democracy.
Gyula Hegyi is a member of European Commissioner László Andor’s cabinet, and a former member of the European Parliament.
Estonia: “Right of Blood”
Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Estonia briefly experimented with democracy before suffering through authoritarian one-party rule until the breakup of the Soviet Union and its liberation in 1991. Now, as a member state of the European Union, Estonia has all the requisites of a modern democratic state. Unfortunately, this means that in addition to the problems faced by other EU members (nepotism, “short-termism,” influence of big money), Estonia faces a host of other issues—due partly to its inexperience in democratic politics and partly its division into two communities, a minority of Russian-speakers and a majority of Estonian-speakers.
The Estonian majority has introduced legislation effectively banning a large part of the Russian community from participating in political life.
In Estonia, unlike in neighboring states, Russians are not considered compatriots, leading to serious conflicts with Russia. To solve our ethnic problems, a real dialogue is needed. Unfortunately, steps toward such a dialogue are hindered by the perception of Estonia as a homeland only for ethnic Estonians.
Jaan Kaplinski is an Estonian poet, philosopher, and writer.
Bahrain: Threat of Democracy
In Arab societies where civilian gains such as freedom, co-existence, and pluralism are relatively new, what concerns me is that our few gains are at risk of vanishing – our achievements could be lost amid manipulation of electoral blocs in villages by the most radical religious scholars.
We risk hardliners, enemies of civic rights and freedoms, taking control of the legislative decisions in the name of “democracy.” I fear they will implement their theocratic doctrine.
Female education began in Bahrain some 100 years ago, making us the first Gulf country to offer education to girls and move toward eradicating illiteracy. I fear that I will wake up to find myself and other supporters of liberal trends dragged into an unbalanced confrontation, making us appear to be against evolution and democracy and wrongly accused of defending a specific political system.
Finland: Global Threats
Without a widely held belief in democratic values, the importance of rule of law, and an overarching respect for human rights, it is not possible to achieve sustainable development economically, socially, culturally, or ecologically.
Despite the democratic successes Finland has enjoyed since its independence in 1917, growing inequality could pose a threat to our democratic state. Additionally, global threats are also our threats.
Finland is committed to enhancing the spread of democracy and rule of law around the world, and we welcome any steps toward the goal of a democratic world based on rule of law and universal respect for human rights.
Ritva Koukku-Ronde is the ambassador of Finland to the United States.
The above extracts are from a longer article in the current issue of the World Policy Journal.