The wilting Arab Spring, conflict in Ukraine, slaughter in Iraq and Syria, citizens not trusting their governments and Europeans losing their enthusiasm for the Union – most places you look you will see democracy’s durability being tested. Understanding why this is happening and how it could be addressed has become the most pressing question of our time.
This was the predominant issue debated at the Democracy under Pressure forum hosted by Kathimerini and the International New York Times in Athens for the second year running on Monday to mark International Democracy Day. The Acropolis Museum provided the setting for panel discussions that delved into how our assuredness that liberal democracy would ultimately become universal turned into complacency, which then became seemingly helpless alarm about the way the world is turning.
“Democracy should be a verb, not a noun. We can’t take democracy for granted, it’s something we’re losing sight of in the West,” said Chrystia Freeland, an MP with Canada’s Liberal Party and one of the panelists in the “Setbacks and Advances” morning discussion.
The idea that democracy is something that needs to be tended to, like a growing but vulnerable sapling, became a recurring theme on the morning panels as the cases of incomplete revolutions in the Arab world were cited alongside the examples of the growing fractures in the European Union, where an average of some 80 percent of citizens said they do not trust their national governments, according to a Eurobarometer survey published in May.
“Complacency is the greatest threat to democracy,” said Kathimerini English Edition editor Nikos Konstandaras, drawing parallels between the ways in which South Africa ran into problems after apartheid and Greece foundered on the rocks in the years following the collapse of the military dictatorship.
“Russians’ first experiences of democracy were weakness, the absence of the state and international humiliation,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to the way in which political and economic reformers lost control of the country in the 1990s due to their blinkered approach.
We became too timid, too compromised in the way we tended to democracy, argued former Prime Minister Costas Simitis on the second panel of the day: “Money and Votes.”
“In a predominantly middle-class society where class differences are no longer acute, the major political parties are inclusive,” he said.
“They represent diverse social groups with different and opposing views. Consequently, party discourse is generic, abstract and as nonspecific as possible. Parties plan only for the short term. Therefore when parties assume power they address the problems of the day and postpone any substantive solutions. Such behavior has a negative impact on democracy. It is the cause of the economic and social crises.”
On a European level, Greece has been at the forefront of this process. It suffered the effects of its own parties short-termism but also the tendency of its eurozone partners to address the economic crisis by just kicking the can down the road.
As Europe struggles with the rise of euroskepticism, Russia’s resurgence has caught the attention of some Europeans. In July, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suggested that he would like to create “an illiberal new state built on national foundations” and cited China, Russia and Turkey as examples that could be followed.
“All is not lost in Hungary but there is cause for concern,” said Eleni Kounalakis Tsakopoulos, a former US ambassador to Hungary, noting that Orban’s Fidesz party had changed the constitution and passed more than 700 new laws in its first four years in power.
Trenin argued that, despite its faults, the method of governance that has emerged in Russia under President Vladimir Putin has proved popular with many locals. According to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), his approval rating has been at around 85 percent in recent months.
“Putin has cracked the code of political stability,” he said. “What we have in Russia today is a tsar but under modern conditions. The model of governance that is emerging is particularly Russian, which means having a strong state.”
It was suggested during Monday’s debates that perhaps one of the mistakes we make when analyzing the state of democracy around the world is to look at it through the Western, liberal prism. Some of the panelists argued that we should not expect there to be a one-size-fits-all solution for every country.
“If you ask ‘What is democracy?’ you will get different answers in different countries,” said Vuk Jeremic, the former president of the United Nations General Assembly.
“We live in a very complicated world and we have to proceed very carefully when engaging with certain parts of the world so it is not perceived as interference.”
Trenin also argued that the same standards could not be applied around the globe and that a failure to realize this would lead to many people feeling let down by liberal democracy and ultimately turning against it. The recent bloodletting in Iraq, Libya and Syria has raised questions about how and whether social democracy can be implemented across the globe.
“We need to recognize that the world is diverse and that there will be diverse models of governance,” he said. “This is what happened with the idea of socialism, as it was presented in the Soviet Union, and the idea it could be imposed around the world. When people started to see this wasn’t happening, they started to lose faith.”
According to Trenin, one of the key reasons that many Russians back Putin and his policies is because of the prosperity he has been able to provide. Aided by its natural resources, Russia was one of the world’s fastest-growing economies in the world in the previous decade.
“The West lacks luster in Russian eyes today,” he said. “When Russians embraced democracy, they were also trying to embrace the Western standard of living.”
The idea that economic well-being, or the lack of it, forms the basis on which democracy can thrive or suffer was another of the key themes at the forum.
“If our democracies do not think about how to deliver to the majority, we will fail,” said Freeland. “When the economic problem is not solved, it becomes a political problem. Our economic model is delivering to the top more than ever. What Western politicians and business elites need to take on board is that we will be in trouble if we don’t tackle this quickly.”
The last few years have been particularly testing for the eurozone, where the combination of economic crisis and austerity policies have caused friction between northern and southern member states, as well as general dissatisfaction. According to a Pew Research poll in May, only 34 percent of Greeks saw the EU favorably, compared with 66 percent of Germans. Also, 71 percent of EU citizens said they felt their voice did not count.
“At the European level, there is a democratic deficit because in member states citizens decide on policies but in the European Union they don’t do this directly but through governments,” said Simitis.
“Austerity policies are not a problem for some countries, they are a problem in developing a vision for the Union. You cannot just have stability, you need to have growth.”
It appears that European elites are gradually awakening to the fact that fiscal consolidation and the lack of jobs are taking a toll on people’s faith in the European project and that a change in policy is required.
“The euro area has entered a new phase,” said Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem after Friday’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers. “Our focus has shifted from ensuring financial stability to supporting growth.”
Greece’s former Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who was also on one of the panels, said she was hopeful that Europe was going to do more to tend to its citizens’ economic needs.
“I believe there is a change taking place within the European Union,” she said. “I believe this change will be reflected in the new European Commission. We will not forget stability completely but growth will be our main focus.”
Freeland and Simitis suggested that one of the areas that Europe and others had to look at was forming a common tax policy as differences create a race to the bottom in a bid to attract investors. It is one of the ideas that was recently proposed by French economist Thomas Piketty, whose recent book “Capital in the 21st Century” has been seen as an urgent call to governments to ensure greater equality.
“We’re living in a time when capital is global but politics is national,” said Freeland. “One of the problems we’ve seen is an erosion of the national tax base, which creates more pressure on the local middle class.”
At this time, when the future is uncertain and democracy seems afflicted by weaknesses in so many parts of the world, perhaps the most optimistic way of looking at events is that these problems will force democracies – and the people living in them – to come up with solutions, to replenish and renew this imperfect but widely accepted form of governance.
“Democracy thrives under pressure because it forces you to wake up and deal with your problems,” said Konstandaras, adding that this has been the case since democracy was born just a marble fragment’s throw from where the Acropolis Museum stands today.
“Democracy was a real necessity in ancient Greece,” he said. “Democracy came about because society came under great pressure from inside and outside and the best way to deal with this was to enfranchise people and entrench the concept of equality.”
The morning panels were followed by an afternoon session at the Stoa of Attalos, where Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis gave speeches and the executive head of the UN Democracy Fund, Annika Savill, the ex-president of Slovenia, Danilo Turk, as well as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt discussed the challenges democracy is facing.