Democracy dialogue held with CIVICUS staff, Johannesburg, 18 May 2018

Participants: around 10 people from a cross-section of CIVICUS staff

1. Visions and concepts of democracy

The concept of democracy must go beyond the holding of elections. Democracy should be about participation: people should be able to have real input on the governance of their country. There should be meaningful participation at all levels of government, beyond elections, including traditional government, where this exists, and local government as well as national government.

Democracy should not simply mean rule by the majority. The danger that the loudest voices are heard to the exclusion of others should be guarded against. Democracy should ensure that minority voices are heard and respected.

2. Current issues and challenges with democracy

Overall, participants felt dissatisfaction with the way that democracy is practised in the contexts they know best, and reported a sense that the quality of democracy had declined over the last five years.

For example, in many contexts in Africa, there has been regression on what could be seen as some of the key indicators of democracy, such as respect for constitutions and term limits and the holding of free and fair elections. There is a trend of presidents changing constitutions and making themselves life presidents. In several places elections have become rubber stamps.

There is a need to consider both the systems, institutions and mechanisms for participation - and particularly how open and robust these are - and the reality of who is participating and how, and what the actual levels and quality of participation are.

Systems may exist to enable people to engage but there may be little participation in practice. There can be passivity even where democratic space exists. People may vote in elections but participate little the rest of the time. This tendency, of voting but little else, may partly explain how people may make political choices on the basis of misinformation and how disaffected voters can embrace right-wing populist and extremist forces.

At the same time, apathy can have its own eloquence. It may signal dissatisfaction. People may not participate out of disaffection, or a perception that their voices will not be heard however hard they try, or because they see a lack of real political choice.

Similarly, high levels of participation can indicate a positive engagement in democracy, but they can also be an indicator of anger, or suggest that politics are dysfunctional or the system is broken. If the US is taken as an example, there are high levels of participation at present, but this has come in reaction to a political shock and could be said to indicate a problem. Before the 2016 election, it could be argued there was complacency about politics and an assumption that democratic values were commonly shared, which led to low levels of participation. This leaves open the question of how to motivate people to participate in conditions other than those of response to a perceived emergency.

In other cases, it seems clear that institutions of democracy exist there but are not working well or are insufficient for purpose. Mechanisms that once might have been thought good enough have now been found wanting. They may have failed to keep pace with change over time, or have been deliberately damaged by political leaders seeking to consolidate and extend their power. Good policies may exist but fail in practice, and policies may exist on paper but not be applied. Policies on democracy may make assumptions about shared democratic values that do not stand up in reality, or assume a capacity to participate that is lacking.

Not everyone can participate equally, and people may be held back by poverty and other forms of exclusion. Key institutions of democracy remain dominated by men.

In many contexts, current levels of political polarisation are unhealthy. Consensus and the centre ground has collapsed. Power shifts back and forth between two alternating and increasingly extreme poles.

3. Possible solutions and responses

There is a need to build stronger respect for electoral processes.

More and better civic education is needed to enable new generations to become committed, informed and engaged citizens who are equipped to hold governments to account, understand how systems work and know the best ways to vent their frustrations and voice their concerns.

Civil society should lead the debate about what is the best and most appropriate electoral system for each context. Where electoral systems do not encourage a sufficiently inclusive and representative democracy, civil society should campaign and build movements for fairer electoral systems.

Civil society should also advocate for the creation of better election monitoring bodies. This could include the development of guidelines, such as continental-level guidelines for Africa, on good practice in the running of election monitoring bodies and their relations with governments.

Civil society should work to encourage respect for greater political diversity, rather than binary, oppositional choices.