The Stoa of Attalos in Athens’s Ancient Agora, which on Monday hosted the latest in the International Herald Tribune’s series of Global Conversations titled “Democracy Under Pressure,” has experienced decades of excavation and reconstruction. Democracy, which was born in the 2nd-century building’s environs, is in desperate need of some tender care itself.
From keynote speaker Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to the panelists in the lively discussion about the state of democratic principles around the world, nobody was in any doubt that democracy has been bent out of shape.
Samaras highlighted the threat that “populists” and “extremists” were posing to democracy in Greece, once of the Golden Age of Pericles, now living through the crisis years of the troika. “If you want to learn about democracy under pressure, you know where to look,” Samaras told the audience at the discussion, being held in Athens to mark the 15-year partnership between Kathimerini and the IHT in the form of Kathimerini English Edition.
Samaras warned that until the recovery from the crisis is under way, there will be a “blind spot” that extremists can exploit, playing on people’s frustration and disenchantment. Neofascist Golden Dawn is the prime example of this and the fragility of Greece’s democracy was tested within about 30 hours of Samaras’s speech, when a supporter of the far-right party stabbed to death leftist hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas in southern Athens.
While Samaras was undoubtedly right about the sources of pressure on Greek democracy, there was no reference to how these stress points developed. This task was left to Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, who described how the country’s political system, in cooperation with a pliable society, had built sand palaces that collapsed into dust when the first truly strong gust blew across the Aegean. And so, economic crisis and political crisis became interlocked.
“Many will agree that this crisis of representation started much earlier, when our democracy fell into a pattern of making pointless promises of perpetual prosperity without doing anything in practice to defend its essence and the big issues that were at stake,” explained Kaminis.
The two speeches encapsulated Greece’s recent and current path to democratic stalemate. The threat that it will evolve into something worse is as prevalent as the hope that events will take a turn for the better.
The question for Greece – and many other parts of the world as Monday’s discussion highlighted – is where to go from here. On this issue, Kaminis was honest enough to admit that circumstances are overwhelming Greek politicians. “We live in a country where certainties have elapsed and the questions that are being asked exceed the answers available,” said the Athens mayor.
His hope is that democracy will make a “comeback” thanks to the technological revolution and the greater links this provides people around the world – people who are more aware of their rights and ways to protect and strengthen them than ever before. Kaminis also outlined steps the City of Athens has taken to augment democratic principles in the municipality, such as introducing greater financial transparency.
This cannot be enough, though. There is a burning question about the balance of power in our democracies: Who rules and on whose behalf? It is clear that Greece is not alone in getting this balance wrong. The growing disparity in wealth, the entanglement of interests, the protection of certain groups and the frustration of the disenfranchised are now common sights in many, troubled, democracies around the world.
Perhaps the evening’s most useful intervention on this subject came from former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who reminded the audience that democracy was not created to give power to the individual but to act in the interests of the group, or demos. “It was to find what was good for the group,” he said. “Now, democracy looks a little bit like monocracy,” lamented the veteran French politician.
Perhaps therein lies the crux of the matter. For democracy to be restored, improved or strengthened it must return to its founding principles and work in the interest of the people who create it and whose interests it serves, rather than just those who have the power to control it. Walking away from the Stoa of Attalos into the Athenian night on Monday, nobody could be in any doubt that some 2,500 years after its creation, democracy is still a work in progress.
[Kathimerini English Edition]
Rule by the people: Achievements and concerns
By Yiannis Palaiologos
The panel sessions that followed Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s keynote speech, titled “Democracy Under Pressure” and moderated by Alexis Papachelas, Kathimerini’s executive editor, was received with great interest.
The first speaker was Carl Bildt, Sweden’s minister of foreign affairs since 2006, a former prime minister and an eternal optimist when it comes to global developments, who said he has seen “deep and especially positive changes” over the past 20 years. As examples of these “positive changes,” Bildt said that 1 billion people have managed to escape poverty, huge steps have been taken in fighting diseases and an increasing number of children are getting an education, among others. He argued that these achievements are the result of “open societies, open governments and open economies.” He also cited recent data from the US-based nongovernmental civil rights group Freedom House, which suggest that 66 percent of the world’s population lives in free or partly free countries.
In regard to social unrest caused by disillusionment on an economic or other level, Bildt is of the opinion that that “democracies are much better at handling them than authoritarian governments,” which he believes are on their way out.
The next speaker was Masha Gessen, a Moscow correspondent for the IHT and others, who focuses on Russia and especially the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the country’s modern-day democracy.
Gessen talked about the language of democracy, and she cited the example of the Soviet Union, where, she said, words from the democratic vocabulary were used to mean their opposite. Putin, she argued, has hijacked the language of Soviet exceptionalism in the same way. The regimes of Putin and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will one day collapse, Gessen said, but the problem of hijacked language will remain.
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a commentator on Arabic affairs and social media activist from the United Arab Emirates, commented that he belongs to the 34 percent of the world population that still lives under a totalitarian regime and noted the importance of a successful democratic experiment in the Arab world.
“It would be a beacon of hope for everyone else,” he said.
Responding to a question from his fellow panelist Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, Al-Qassemi said that country should be Egypt.
He also spoke about the enormous pressure created in the Arab world by youth unemployment, while also highlighting the problematic nature of “sectarian democracies” such as that of Lebanon, where specific high-ranking official posts are reserved for people from specific ethnic or religious groups rather than open to the entire population.
The show, however, was stolen by Dr Shashi Tharoor, the Indian minister of state for human resource development, who addressed the conference with greetings “from the most populous country in the world to the oldest democracy in the world.”
For Tharoor, the democratic process is “the best way to manage the incredible diversity of Indian society.” He also rejected the school of thought that believes economics affect the growth of democracy in any given country.
In response to concerns expressed by Cohen and Bildt regarding America’s growing isolationism, Tharoor simply said, “Democracy is like love; you can’t force it on others.”