Democracy under Strain: Solutions for a Changing World

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A paper delivered on the 15th of September, 2018 by Dayo Ogunbowale in observance of the United Nations International Day of Democracy under the theme, “Democracy under Strain: Solutions for a Changing World.” As organized by Centre for Leadership and Good Governance International in conjunction with NGM group, Held at the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) press Centre, Iyaganku, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria.


Democracy has grown impressively from the 1970s to the 2000s. Yet, despite democracy’s long-term resilience, it appears to be fragile in many countries. From new populist movements that threaten the rights of minorities to the stark challenges of corruption and state capture, democratic institutions are vulnerable to setbacks, the erosion of rights and the manipulation of electoral processes. Concerns about democracy’s health have raised an important question: What makes democracy more resilient? This paper attempts to explore the global state of democracy by exploring the obvious strains and conditions for its resilience. How can citizens resist illiberal or autocratic regimes? When do checks and balances among institutions prevent state capture and backsliding? How can structural risks to democracy in underlying social and political relationships be reduced? Can democracy be designed to be more resilient? What roles do outsiders play in protecting democracy from peril when it is under threat?

This paper concludes with a set of recommendations for building more resilient democracies in spite of the current strain to face these challenges and to weather the crises that lie ahead.

International Day of Democracy

Established through a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, International Day of Democracy provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world and encourages governments to strengthen and consolidate democracy.

According to the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, “This year’s International Day of Democracy is an opportunity to look for ways to invigorate democracy and seek answers to the systemic challenges it faces. This includes tackling economic and political inequalities, making democracies more inclusive by bringing the young and marginalized into the political system, and making democracies more innovative and responsive to emerging challenges such as migration and climate change”.

The 2018 Theme: Democracy under Strain: Solutions for a Changing World

This year’s International Day of Democracy is an opportunity to look for ways to invigorate democracy and seek answers to the systemic challenges it faces. This includes tackling economic and political inequalities, making democracies more inclusive by bringing the young and marginalized into the political system, and making democracies more innovative and responsive to emerging challenges such as migration and climate change.

With this year’s 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Day of Democracy is also an opportunity to highlight the values of freedom and respect for human rights as essential elements of democracy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” (article 21.3), has inspired constitution-making around the world and contributed to the global acceptance of democratic values and principles. Democracy, in turn, provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development addresses democracy in Sustainable Development Goal 16 recognizing the indivisible links between peaceful societies and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.


Is democracy really in trouble, or do recent events simply signal a temporary downward fluctuation?

Are skeptics overreacting to sensational daily headlines, and losing sight of democracy’s numerous advances over the last few decades? Under what conditions is democracy resilient when challenged?

What Is Democracy Today?

International IDEA defines democracy as a political system that advances popular control and political equality. Democracy is a proven universal value for citizens all over the world and should be accepted as a globally owned concept for which there is no universally applicable model. Democracy comes in multiple forms, which are in constant evolution, with no endpoint.

With emerging democracies backsliding into authoritarianism and others falling prey to populism, there has never been a more urgent need to assess the evolving state of democracy and its impact now, amid rapid global change.

Why Democracy?

Concern has grown from scholars and policymakers over the possible global decline of democracy worldwide (Annan 2016). Amid global unease over the rise of populism and ‘strong-leader’ autocrats, or the endemic challenges of state capture and corruption in many countries, enthusiasm for democracy seems to have decreased: doubts have arisen about its ability to address the contemporary problems of providing peace and security and broad-based human development. Although democracy is currently under threat, it remains an ideal and a best-possible governance system. Democratic values among citizens, and within institutions and processes at the national and international levels, have proven to be remarkably resilient in many ways. Mass demonstrations against corruption took place in 2017 in Brazil, Romania, South Africa, the United States, and Venezuela; citizens have taken to the streets to reclaim democracy.

Democracy’s values are historically longstanding and enduring, even though the ideals have been subject to criticism from many philosophical and practical perspectives over time (Dahl 1989; Denyer 2016). Democracy reflects a core value enshrined in article 21 of the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights that the ‘will of the people’ is the basis for the legitimacy and authority of sovereign states; it reflects a common and universal desire for peace, security, and justice.


In Africa, democratization is evolving rapidly as a generation of leaders associated with independence is likely to be replaced soon by a new generation. For example, in Angola,

South Africa and Zimbabwe the strength of multiparty democracy will be tested for possible alternations in ruling regimes for the first time since independence. Uganda has tightly controlled elections, and opposition parties have been restricted or impeded. A conflict erupted in Burundi from 2015 through 2017 over a constitutional crisis, giving rise to an intractable political crisis; in 2016 and 2017 crises erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gabon and Zimbabwe over executive manipulations to retain power beyond constitutional term limits. In Ethiopia, protests have erupted along ethnic lines, causing an ongoing state of emergency with continued concerns about the country’s vulnerability to a more widespread crisis (Jeffrey 2016). Power plays by presidents often lead to violent protests and cycles of repression, as in Burundi where an intractable ‘third-term’ claim by President Pierre Nkrunziza precipitated near state failure.

While there have been some improvements in personal security and integrity since the 1970s and 1980s, high levels of violations have persisted in the last 25 years despite the broader expansion of democracy in some countries. In such insecure environments, civil society, independent media, judges and prosecutors, and local government officials have all been targeted by criminal organizations and illicit networks.

Civil society is often under pressure because of its success in mobilizing, organizing and holding governments to account.

The 21st century offered promise as rapid technological innovations helped bring unparalleled development and continued gains in democracy, fundamental rights, and prosperity. Yet, today the world is fragmented, conflicted and under threat from global challenges such as climate change, migration and widening socioeconomic inequality—the effects of which undermine social cohesion, put peace at risk, and threaten to reverse hard-won 20th-century gains in all world regions. It is a tenuous moment for democracy. New challenges, if not adequately addressed, endanger democracy in today’s complex world. The contemporary global, regional and country-specific landscape of democracy has rapidly evolved in recent years, raising questions about democracy’s ability to thrive amid recent challenges and crises. What challenges threaten democracy today?

The Strains: Challenges affecting contemporary Democracies

Drivers of demographic, economic and social forces appear to be the root causes of authoritarian resurgence, contentious politics and democratic decline globally (Human Rights Council 2012). Some observers link these trends to the regression of democracy: they contend that globalization processes have induced social exclusion and contention, which present new and fundamental challenges for democracy (Munck 2002). In the post-globalization world of economic interdependence, these challenges interact with national and local contexts to produce localized social dislocation and grievances. Countries face tremendous pressure on governance in response to climate change and the effects of extreme weather events and natural disasters on land, water, biodiversity, and the oceans.

Research has linked environmental pressures to the vulnerability of communities and countries to conflict: governance institutions face the potential of environmentally driven conflicts at the local and national levels (often related to land and extractive industries); without ‘good’ governance, institutions may escalate into violence (UNEP 2004).

The Independent Commission on Multilateralism (2016) identified several challenges that governments and societies face, including environmental challenges stemming from climate change effects, social pressures from changing communities, economic issues such as youth unemployment, and management of natural resources and valuable commodities.

Migration is a serious transnational challenge to democracy that has led to social polarization, xenophobia and anti-immigrant movements in many countries (Piper and Rother 2015).

While migration generally produces net positive economic effects for recipient societies

(UNDP 2009), migration and debates over immigration policy and responses have created new strains for many democracies. Countries as varied as Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, and the USA face migration-related pressures and have seen violence against immigrants.

Among the most difficult and challenging global problems with local effects is ensuring security and combating terrorism; many governments justify restrictions of rights and freedoms with the need to prevent terrorism. Increasing terrorist attacks have had deleterious effects on democracy, most notably in relation to the restrictions on freedoms associated with responses to terrorist events (Chenoweth 2013; Large 2006).

Democracy’s resilience in a changing world

Democracy has grown impressively from the 1970s to the 2000s. Yet today, despite democracy’s long-term resilience, it appears to be fragile in many countries.

Democracy reflects the fundamental ethical principles of human equality and the dignity of persons and is thus inseparable from human rights (Beetham et al. 2008). Its core principles are manifested in different ways: the institutions, processes, and elements of democracy such as electoral systems or arrays of institutions have grown organically and uniquely in various countries (Beetham et al. 2008; Held 2006). A modern analysis must account for the wide variation in the norms, institutions, and processes that collectively comprise today’s democracies that goes far beyond traditional theories of liberalism or social democracy; democratic variation requires careful, close-in analysis of how local models reflect or detract from broad democratic values

(Youngs 2015).

Countries that successfully transitioned from authoritarian rule or civil war to democracy in the period 1974–2015 did so through domestic or national processes of negotiation and reform, at times with support from the international community (Stoner and McFaul 2013; Ould-Mohammedou and Sisk 2016).

For example, United Nations envoys and country-level resident coordinators played pivotal supportive roles at key moments in the transition processes in Myanmar and Tunisia.

In transitioning Nepal (2006–11) and in Colombia following the 2016 Havana peace agreement, the UN fielded political missions supported the transition and the demobilization of rebels. Yet there is considerable consensus that successful transitions to democracy are internal processes.

For decades, a prevailing assumption has been that in most instances, once democracy is ‘consolidated’, it will persist (Alexander 2002). Democracy is generally considered to have consolidated when two conditions are met. First, citizens and political leaders believe it is the only legitimate way to claim political authority. Second, there is greater institutionalization: the rules of democracy that allow for the pursuit of its principles are further defined, refined in practice and adapted to changing social contexts.

Progress towards democracy during a transition is not linear or inevitable (Carothers 2002), and countries considered to be consolidated democracies can experience backsliding (Lust and Waldner 2015).

Reaffirming democracy

It is now vital to reaffirm democracy as a value system for governance and as a form of government. Ruling regimes typically profess their commitment to democratic principles, and to universal human rights, as a system of laws, institutions and practices through which state authority is legitimized. According to International IDEA’s Voter Turnout Database (2016), 186 countries held legislative elections in the period 2011–15, with nearly 3.37 billion voters. More countries have the basic framework of democratic institutions and processes now than ever before. In the 21st century, state legitimacy originates from democratic processes that empower the state to provide security and deliver services (ostensibly, further enhancing its legitimacy) (OECD-DAC 2010).

Democracy’s long-term utility: peace and prosperity

There is increasing consensus that democracy— as an enduring set of values and principles and as a form of government—is a fundamental building block of human progress. Democracy is a form of non-violent conflict management that can reconcile divisions and contention within society; it is the basis of sustainable peace within countries. While authoritarian governments may be ‘resilient’, they do so at the cost of human rights. For years, scholars have argued that democracy generally contributes to international peace—the ‘democratic peace theory’ holds that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with other democracies—and can enable an internal ‘democratic peace’: democracies are less likely to experience internal social conflict that can escalate to civil war (Gleditsch and Hegre 1997; Russet and Oneal 2001).

In addition to its intrinsic value, democracy has enduring instrumental utility for development and peace (Sen 1999a, 1999b). It facilitates the equality of citizens’ voices, and thus allows for the expression of interests and preferences and the free flow of information, both of which are essential elements of development.

The sustainability of the social contract within countries is assured through inclusion, while participation in governance is undergirded by the protection of fundamental rights.

Policy practice in international organizations has evolved since the founding of the UN and the modern Bretton Woods system to recognize those goals such as development and growth, prevention of conflict, and broadening participation, dignity, equity and sustainability must be pursued simultaneously. Democratic governance provides the normative framework through which policies to address these issues are ‘formed and executed’ (Asher et al.2016: 80).

UN Sustainable Development Goal 16

(SDG16) builds on the premise that ‘governance matters’: it states that peaceful and inclusive societies are central to achieving all other development goals. SDG16’s promotion of ‘peaceful and inclusive societies’ and ‘effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions’ reflects a commonly accepted understanding that democracy, peace and development outcomes are inherently intertwined, and that reducing violence, delivering justice and combatting corruption are all essential to achieving sustainable development (Jandl 2017).

Democracy’s relationship with economic development (which appears to contribute to sustainable peace) is more contested, in both the scholarly literature and in practice.

Although many studies have investigated this link, some have found no direct relationship between democracy and development, as nondemocratic countries can have high economic growth rates; research on a direct, linear, immediate relationship between democracy and development is inconclusive (Rocha Menocal 2007). Others argue that modern inclusive democratic politics and competition for citizen support can induce the creation of public goods that facilitate the development of a middle class. In this way, democratic politics responds to citizen interests through the provision of basic needs such as a reliable system of market regulation, financial regulation, education and healthcare, and infrastructure. (Acemoglu et al. 2014; Stasavage 2005; Halperin, Siegle and Weinstein 2005; Leftwich 2005). Indeed, many people today associate democracy as much with their own personal welfare as with the voice, or avenues for expression, that democratic institutions and practices provide. The most important relationship between democracy and development may be their ‘co-evolution’ in the long run (Gerring et al. 2012).

Popular commitment to inclusive democracy

Broad economic and social processes continue to drive the demand for democracy. Increased access to education, rising incomes, and improved communication and urbanization have facilitated the development of the middle class and contributed to the popular demand for democracy. In bargains between elites and the masses, democracy emerges as an ‘equilibrium’ or middle ground. The more people understand how democracy works, the more they tend to believe it is the best form of governance (Cho 2014). Public opinion surveys have found little appetite for authoritarianism among Asian youth: those growing up in democratic regimes in the region have a more favourable view of democracy and expect it to continue (Dalton and Shin 2014). Restive movements for democracy in Hong Kong have symbolized youth demands for democracy beyond the semi-autonomous province.

Pathways to democracy may be driven by citizen beliefs in and attitudes towards political rights and liberties drawn from other contexts or from the diffusion of international norms (Koesel and Bunce 2013). Some argue that the increasing demand for women’s participation in governance is driven in part by the global spread of norms about women’s political equality. Following the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, known as the Beijing Platform), women’s political empowerment increased globally due to both internal drivers (economic and social gains for women secured at the domestic level) and international pressures to increase women’s participation (Paxton, Hughes and Green 2006). While networked domestic and international women’s movements have played a key role in advancing demands for democracy, women’s coalitions that pressed for initial transitions to democracy have been difficult to sustain (Baldez 2003).

When elites do not rely on the masses for support, demands for democracy are less common. This can occur, for example, when state revenue is derived from primary commodity exports, such as oil, or when antidemocratic elites can buy support through patronage and clientelism, or enforce their rule coercively with the support of a well-compensated military (Geddes 2009; Haber and Menaldo 2011).

The presence of a strong civil society is critical to democracy’s resilience.

The corrosive effects of capture and corruption

Capture, corruption and the unchecked infusion of money into politics are all too often manifested as an undemocratic influence by the powerful few. Informal networks of patronage, favouritism and illicit dealing also obstruct the empowerment of women and the inclusion of disadvantaged groups and result in uneven levels of development. The response to such capture requires capable, autonomous and independent judicial institutions—whose investigators, prosecutors and courts are critical to both prosecuting and preventing corruption—as well as a comprehensive approach to countering graft. Institutional resilience is essential to ensure that a wide range of integrity-enhanced rules for a political competition is in place to ensure meaningful citizen control in democracies.

Many countries have faced complex political, economic, and social challenges and crises that have threatened the legitimacy of the ruling democratic regime. Several countries also experience public antipathy to government and traditional political institutions. Such political challenges can result in the deliberate, gradual ‘erosion’ of democracy, or backsliding, as has been seen in Russia, which adopted laws that strongly restrict the ability of human rights and other civil society organizations (including the media) to mobilize or to perform advocacy or accountability functions (Sherwood 2015).

Can democracy self-correct? Considering institutional resilience

A longstanding feature of democracy is horizontal accountability—a system of checks and balances among separate democratic institutions and branches of government, including the executive. Independent or autonomous institutions that interact to achieve balance and survival can address internal weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and thus help safeguard democracy (Ganghof 2012).

Greater institutionalization and the prevalence of multiple checks and balances decreases the likelihood that a democracy can be fully captured by any branch of government or actor. Institutions such as judiciaries or local governments become more autonomous over time and are more likely to be able to resist threats to democracy—such as restrictions on fundamental rights—when they appear. Informal institutions or rules that are routinely followed can complement or supplement democratic processes and facilitate consolidation, though they can also detract from or work against formal democracy if they contradict (or serve as a substitute for) formal democratic processes (Helmke and Levitsky 2004).

The rule of law, access to justice, and a strong, independent, capable and efficient judicial system are critical elements of a resilient democracy. An important factor is democratic control of the armed forces and security sectors, and their professionalization under the civilian control of constitutionally elected authorities. The transition processes in many third-wave democracies involved a sequential (and at times turbulent) process of extensive security sector reform and transitional justice; the military in some countries—such as Egypt, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka—kept the autocratic regimes in power and became major economic stakeholders (Mani 2010).

Electoral processes can help adapt and strengthen democracy over time. Independent, autonomous and professional electoral management bodies are critical since their mandate is to protect the procedural credibility of democratic processes. The longer a country has experienced successful electoral cycles, the more the electoral process has been shown to ‘adapt’ to social conditions and thus becomes increasingly resilient.

Redressing women’s exclusions and inequalities

Deeply ingrained inequalities are synonymous with demands for access to livelihoods, reliable service delivery and corruption-free governance. Inequality and a lack of economic opportunities, especially for youth, were at the heart of demands for democracy in the demographically and economically unbalanced countries of the Middle East and Iran, and North Africa (Ncube and Anyanwu 2012). Following transitions, democracies must deliver in inclusive ways—assuring fundamental livelihoods and a marketplace based on fairness—to maintain credibility.

Addressing structural inequalities requires political will and the inclusion of poor, marginalized, or disadvantaged individuals or groups in democratic processes. Thus, broad measures to enhance social inclusion and protect the vulnerable are central to democracy’s resilience: the ideal of political equality is undermined unless all in society can access the resources necessary to meet basic human needs.

In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the CEDAW, which established a set of rights for the advancement of women’s human rights towards gender equality, including representation in governance. In the early 2000s, Millennium Development Goal number 3 set targets for the expansion of women’s representation, which is commonly achieved through the adoption of women’s quotas (Jones 2009). There is no single, one-size-fits-all approach to designing democracy to enhance women’s participation.

While women have enjoyed modest gains in representation, there is only a weak link between representation and influence (Ballington and Karam 2005). The percentage of women in parliament has increased from 11 percent in 1995 to 23 percent in 2017 worldwide, but this has not necessarily translated into an improvement in the human rights of women, especially those from minority groups (UN 2015; IPU n.d.). Women’s movements have been critical components of democratization efforts, often working across lines of conflict, historical divisions and ethnic divides. Women have been successful at uniting across social, economic and political divides in civil society to make critical differences in democratic transition processes.

The Solutions: Building Better Democracies

The effectiveness of quotas in elections or within political parties for expanding women’s participation affirms that elements of democracy can be designed to achieve desirable outcomes. But can democratic institutions be designed to make democracy itself more resilient? Scholars of institutions have argued that it is possible to design a set of rules—or institutions—to engineer specific desirable outcomes in democracies such as inclusivity, more meaningful representation or accountability. The ‘constitutional engineering’ approach, pioneered by the eminent Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori (1997), assumes that considerations such as presidential system design, electoral system design, or the delimitation of internal boundaries and decentralized governance (such as in federal systems) can promote specific desirable outcomes in democratic systems (stability, inclusion or ethnic politics).

Perhaps the most extensive application of this perspective is found in the electoral system design literature, which argues that a country’s electoral system must be chosen based on a close context assessment of goals such as accountability, inclusivity and gender equality (Norris 2004). Concerning other specific institutions, there is a widespread debate in the scholarly literature over what types of institutions produce more resilient democracies. Research on institutional design helps inform policy-related debates to help countries choose the ‘right’ institutions to create more inclusive electoral processes (Reilly 2006; Reilly and Nordlund 2008). Outside actors such as bilateral development organizations, transnational civil society and international organizations often provide guidance on suitable institutions for a country’s context.

Regional and International Responses

Although responses can be uneven, outsiders regularly act to support democracy within countries. Democracy building has emerged as a significant global ‘regime’ or set of negotiated international norms, rules and best practices, mechanisms for international monitoring and observation, and ‘reactions to non-compliance’ together with initiatives and efforts to build or develop local capacities through development assistance. Democracy building is closely related to the international global human rights regime since democracy promotion norms and the post-World War II human rights regime developed concurrently (Farer 2004). The UN’s role in democracy building has increasingly focused on the intersections between democracy and human rights, democracy and conflict prevention, and democracy and development.

Crisis Response, Long-Term Vision

Crisis response measures for safeguarding democracy vary widely, and successful interventions such as the crisis management in the Gambia are by no means uniform either within the region or globally. As UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Mohammed Ibn Abbas observed, former President Yahya Jammeh ‘didn’t have too many friends’ (Searcey 2017). Coercive regional and global reactions to democratic backsliding remain uneven, both in terms of regional spread and the types of responses.

Electoral mediation is a critical area of overall international (and often regional) engagement to safeguard democracy (Kane and Haysom 2016). Regional and sub-regional organizations in Africa, for example, increasingly partner with local civil society electoral mediators in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho and Kenya to promote sub-regional and continental norms that unconstitutional seizures of power are replaced with multiparty elections (Shale and Gerenge 2017). In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s constitutional crisis of 2016–17, as in Venezuela, the local bishops of the Catholic Church stepped in to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the constitutional crisis created by the delay of elections in 2017.

Building more resilient democracy requires immediate responses when democracy is in crisis, complemented by long-term efforts.

Conclusions and Recommendations: Building More Resilient Democracies

Democracy as a system of reconciling such differences cannot be taken for granted: policymakers and citizens must undertake measures to support and safeguard democracy to make it more resilient. Concerns about declines in the quality of democracy globally have caused some to retrench from the long-term tasks of democracy building. However, it is time to renew support for democracy with a clearer focus on (a) when it can be flexible and recover from likely future challenges, crises and changes and (b) how it can be strengthened.

The following recommendations address today’s most pressing concern for democracy: safeguarding it when it is under threat by building resilience from within.

  • Improving elections and representation

  • Protecting and advancing fundamental Rights

  • Curbing corruption and state capture: Accountability

  • Deepening and expanding participation

  • A democracy that delivers: an inclusive, capable state

Those who seek to build a more resilient democracy must be flexible, adaptive and innovative.

Thank you for listening.

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