The annual Athens Democracy Forum has developed into a fixed point from which we can evaluate the health of democracy globally. Among other things, this year’s meeting highlighted the need for democracy to be seen to be delivering goods to the public, and for its institutions to inspire trust and participation. When the first of these meetings was held in 2012, with The New York Times cooperating with the City of Athens and Kathimerini, Greece was overwhelmed by a wave of anger and doubt which sank the political center and lifted the extremes on the Left and Right. At the time, however, the model of “liberal democracy,” as it developed in “Western” societies, appeared dominant and unshakable, the measure by which we judged the well-being of nations.
Today, even as democracy has spread to places where it did not exist, developments are so swift that even in mature democracies, society is shaken by growing inequality, by climate change, by the dominance of financial markets, by the lack of cybersecurity, by the spread of lies and bigotry on social media. “This Forum, held in cooperation with the United Nations Democracy Fund, takes place at a time when trust is low and anxiety is high,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote in a message. “People are frustrated by growing inequalities and unsettled by sweeping changes from globalization and technology.”
All of these issues are the focus of talks, debates and workshops at the Forum, which began on Wednesday and concludes on Friday in Athens and will be followed with a weekend of experiential events and discussions at Costa Navarino. Many speakers noted the need for young people (half the planet’s population is aged below 30) to participate in politics. But it’s not just supporters of liberal democracy who are invited. Stephen Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who has been working to undermine the EU with a wave of populist movements, was due to speak on a panel on Thursday afternoon but did not turn up.
A few hours later, European Parliament member Magdalena Adamowicz accepted the 2019 City of Athens Democracy Award on behalf of her late husband. Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz was murdered in January in a climate of great political polarization. Speaking on Wednesday, his widow stressed the need for citizens to be aware of the dangers to society. “We have to start from ourselves,” she said. “We must look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, ‘What did I do for democracy today?’”