What can save democracy?

Ryota Jonen, World Movement for Democracy

Imagine what the world could look like 50 years from now. In a city, you see self-driving electronic cars passing by soundlessly without producing any CO2. Robots are taking orders and serving coffee at a corner cafe; the coffee is made with recycled water, coffee beans that are grown on Mars and heat generated entirely by solar power. Everyone on a sidewalk is wearing small devices over his or her eyes and ears, through which he or she gets news and GPS navigation, sends voicemails to colleagues, or talks to friends in seven different countries via a 3D virtual conference call.

With advanced technologies and highly developed artificial intelligence (AI), elections take place without you actually voting. Based on your social behavioural patterns, the electoral AI system determines which candidate your vote counts for. Law is now being made semi-automatically by the AI, directly gathering citizens’ opinions and their electoral behaviours. The AI also facilitates courts to make unbiased decisions based on all precedents. Since their opinions are expressed directly to the parliamentary AI, you see no street protests or advocacy campaigns.

The world’s future would be cleaner, more sustainable, more connected, and perhaps more efficient. The advancement of technologies would certainly help our Earth be more sustainable and ease problems with communication and information flows in our society. It might also help address today’s challenges facing democracy. But can technologies really save democracy?

Trajectory of democracy: things will get worse before getting better

The democratic retreat that we witness today is not a new phenomenon. Democracy has been declining for a long time. In 2007, the World Movement for Democracy launched the Defending Civil Society project, in partnership with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), to respond to the growing legal restrictions on civil society. The idea of defending civic space has gained attention in international arenas due to the efforts of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the Civic Space Initiative - a consortium of civil society groups - and many others. Nonetheless, democratic space has been shrinking. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report highlights 12 years of continuous decline of democracy.[1]

Recognising the urgency of this worrying trend, the World Movement for Democracy’s Steering Committee in 2015 issued its statement, ‘A Call for Democratic Renewal’, warning of enormous challenges facing democracy today. Two main challenges that the statement discusses are the closing of democratic space through new methods of repression and expanding undemocratic internet space:[2]

  • Closing democratic space through new repression: powerful authoritarian states proliferate repressive norms globally and undermine regional and international rules-based mechanisms that are important for safeguarding democratic norms and standards. Restrictive laws on civil society organisations (CSOs), public gatherings, political organisation and the media are becoming more sophisticated and pervasive. In his recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association also points out global repressive trends, including the increased adoption of restrictive legislation regulating civic space; the use of national security, anti-terrorism and public order laws against civil society actors; criminalisation of peaceful protest; stigmatisation of and attacks against civil society actors; restrictions targeting particular groups, particularly the LGBTI community; and limitations of rights during electoral periods.[3]
  • Expanding the undemocratic internet space: the internet is reshaping the public space and our lives. Access to information, communication with others and public-government engagements are all taking place in digital spaces and changing rapidly. This infrastructure, critical to our social and political engagements, is increasingly being shaped by non-democratic norms of internet governance. Authoritarian regimes are using sophisticated tools of digital attacks, surveillance, censorship and control. These challenges are being accelerated by the weaponisation of disinformation and the manipulation of the information space, particularly through social media. Tech companies are struggling to respond to these digital threats and to keep internet space democratic.

In discussing these challenges extensively during the recent Global Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Dakar, Senegal, in May 2018, many experts warned that things would get worse before getting better.

Internal challenges to democracy: democracy is challenged today by more than resurgent authoritarianism

Tightening political space may be attributed to the reactions of autocratic leaders, who feel insecure about their power following events like the colour revolutions in former Soviet Republics in 2004 and 2005, the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement in 2013 and 2014, which led to the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych. These leaders have created an effective narrative that democracy would bring chaos and instability by pointing to the situations in the Middle East and Ukraine. With this narrative, authoritarian leaders are mobilising public support for the ‘strong-man’ leadership and governance style.

This resurgent authoritarianism is not the only reason why we see the decline of democracy today. One concerning trend that contributes to the global decline of democracy is that the public around the world is increasingly losing its faith in democratic values and institutions. In its survey of 38 countries around the world, the Pew Research Center shows that only “[a] global median of 14% say they trust their national government a lot to do what is right for the country.”[4] Established democracies, such as many European countries and the United States, are part of this global trend. Further, in their article in the Journal of Democracy, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk argue that people, particularly younger people, in North America and Western Europe believe less in democracy.[5]

Many people are frustrated by corrupt politicians, legislative bodies that are dysfunctional due to severe partisanship, the globalised economy and policies that have benefited the rich and ultimately widened social inequality, and unresponsive or slow-to-respond government agencies. They also often feel threatened and marginalised by the demographic changes and diverse identities that globalisation and democratic development have brought to their societies. William A Galston analyses that today’s populist challenges to democracy, particularly in the global west, are “not merely … an emotion-laden expression of disappointment over frustrated economic expectations, resentment against rigged rules and special interests, and fear of threats to physical and cultural security.”[6]

In sum, democracy no longer works for many people in society. As a result, “in many nations, people with less education, those who are on the ideological right and those who are dissatisfied with the way democracy is currently working in their country are more willing to consider nondemocratic alternatives.”[7] And, by capturing the public’s dissatisfaction with the performance of democracy, the sophisticated use of technologies and disinformation efforts by authoritarian regimes and non-state actors have accelerated the rise of authoritarianism and populism.

So, how can we address the public’s distrust in democracy? How can weak democratic institutions be improved? How can democracy deliver its promises? Can technologies help improve the performance of democracy?

Updating democracy: civil society, not technologies, is a key player

Today's challenges to democracy need multifaceted and multidimensional responses. Technologies can offer tools to increase public participation in political debates through crowdsourcing mechanisms, provide efficient waste management systems to keep cities clean, and reduce petty corruption by using robots, instead of police officers, to control traffic. But civil society, not technologies, must be a key player in confronting and overcoming challenges of closing democratic space, dysfunctional or ineffective democratic institutions, and a lack of public faith in democracy. To be an effective player, civil society needs to work with other parts of society more closely and effectively, in order to integrate democratic values in society and build strong and sustainable institutions for democratic governance. In a time of ‘democratic retreat’, civil society needs to imagine and build new relationships with others to advocate for making democracy work. The following are among the key responses needed.

Building citizens’ movements

Active citizenship is crucial for revitalising democracy. The EuroMaidan in Ukraine, Y’en a Marre in Senegal, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the #GambiaDecides movement in the Gambia and many other citizens’ movements around the world have shown that citizens are ready to lead and act as agents of democratic change and be responsible for the future of their societies. These movements should serve as platforms to inform, mobilise and organise people at the grassroots level to engage in public debates on issues important to their societies, such as fighting corruption, eradicating social inequality and ensuring effective and efficient delivery of public services.

Civil society leaders who build these movements should also ensure that such movements are inclusive of different segments of society. By bridging different parts of society and facilitating the exchange of different perspectives, civil society needs to form a mutual understanding in today’s highly polarised societies, and also in politically apathetic societies.

Getting involved in politics and crossing over

Organising people at the grassroots level is not enough to rebuild people’s trust in democracy. Civil society must engage with political society and build close relationships with political parties to advance reform agendas and develop policies that address people’s concerns.

People in South Korea were able to hold government leaders accountable and defend the country’s constitution through the recent Candlelight Movement against the high-level corruption that involved then-President Park Geun-hye. The Movement mobilised over two million people onto the streets to protest against President Park for more than four months from October 2016 until March 2017. Many protesters were young university students who had often been perceived as politically apathetic prior to the Candlelight Movement.

At first glance, the Candlelight Movement seemed very successful in activating citizenship and defending South Korea’s democracy. Indeed, the Movement helped mobilise people, inform them of political developments and allowed them to take moral responsibility for the future of the country’s democratic institutions. However, according to analysis carried out by Professor Dukjin Chang of the Seoul National University, negative attitudes toward political leaders and political institutions after the change of government that resulted from the Movement were essentially at the same level as before the Movement.[8] This case exemplifies why a citizens’ movement itself cannot suffice in addressing the growing concern of public distrust in democracy.

One strategy that democracy movements have not explored deeply is ‘crossover’: moving from civil society leadership to political leadership. Civil society leaders play a significant role in influencing policy formation and decision-making by actively working with both citizens and the state. During times of political transition in particular, these experiences and expertise make civil society leaders important assets for successful governance. The Philippines’ People Power movement leaders in the late 1980s, anti-communist movement leaders in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement leaders in the mid-1990s, civil society leaders and human rights lawyers in Senegal after the 2012 elections and Ukraine’s EuroMaidan movement leaders are examples of those crossovers.

While the crossover from civil society to political society can contribute to the effective implementation of democratic reforms, many of those who have crossed over have struggled to advance a reform agenda in their new environment. Some have become disconnected from civil society and disengaged from reform discussions. Those in civil society have sometimes accused crossover leaders of being co-opted.

Despite those disappointments, many others have become strong advocates for democracy inside the government or within parliament. They have even developed effective partnerships with others to drive their democracy agenda forward. For example, Samuel Kofi Woods, a leader among human rights lawyers in Liberia, was appointed by then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become the Minister of Labor in 2006. Among many accomplishments, he was able to lead labour reforms in Liberia, which included repealing the country’s labour regulation, particularly Decree 12, which had prohibited strikes.

On 7 June 2018, EuroMaidan leaders, who became members of parliament in 2014, celebrated a major victory: the adoption of a bill to create an anti-corruption court. Many of those young EuroMaidan leaders went into politics to make Ukrainian politics clean and transparent. Partnering with civil society groups, they engaged in drafting the law, mobilising support for the passage of the law and putting pressure on those established politicians who were often reluctant to address corruption issues in any serious manner.

There are many other experiences that show that crossover can be a very strategic tool for a democracy movement. There is a significant need to collect and share experiences of these crossovers so democracy movements can foster change from outside, as well as inside, the governance structure.

For years, many in civil society have argued that civil society activists should not be political. But civil society work is actually very political. Helping refugees with medical treatments, building schools and other educational facilities, protecting the environment, promoting independent media, making the use of government funds more transparent and accountable, or many other things that civil society does involve politics, including by working with national government regulators, legislators, or municipal government officials. Civil society work contributes to developing and implementing policies that are made through political processes. Civil society should not shy away from being political.

Increasing those political actors who can represent people’s voices and respond to their needs would help institutions deliver democratic promises. While we need a strong civil society serving as an effective watchdog to keep those in power accountable, democracy movements must find ways to bring changes and reforms from within.

Making the business sector democracy’s ally

Imagine a port where hundreds of containers with goods are shipped off to other countries and where big cargo ships offload containers from other countries. There are a lot of commercial activities passing through the port. But one can also assume that many large and small acts of corruption are taking place between customs officials and business entities. This port is a unique place where civil society, the business sector and government officials can work together constructively to improve governance and foster business growth.

How? The business sector wants to increase the efficiency of how goods flow through the port. The government wishes to ensure that its customs regulations are effectively implemented. Civil society seeks to reduce corruption at the port. In Lagos, Nigeria, these three are in reality coming together to modernise the city’s major port by addressing regulatory inconsistencies, poor infrastructure and smuggling. These reforms expect to generate about 800,000 jobs and ultimately reduce corruption.[9]

Civil society naturally focuses on working with the government in policy-making, but civil society too often neglects to engage with the business sector, which increasingly has enormous influence over the development of public policies around the world today. For this civil society-business collaboration to be realised, mistrust between the business sector and civil society needs to be addressed. A recent panel discussion at the World Movement’s Dakar Assembly points out that lack of trust between these sectors is the biggest barrier against collaboration.[10] To overcome this mistrust, both sides must establish a shared understanding of problems and their causes.

Today, many business actors are moving away from the conventional approach of ‘corporate social responsibility’ and charity, and are increasingly embracing the concept of creating and working toward ‘shared value’, defined by Michael E Porter and Mark R Kramer in the Harvard Business Journal as “generating economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges.”[11] Porter and Kramer argue that business can “reconnect its success with social progress” through the shared values approach.[12]

This change in businesses’ thinking on their relationship with society presents a crucial opportunity for civil society to begin building strategic alliances with the business sector. Capturing this window of opportunity, the World Movement for Democracy and the Center for International Private Enterprise launched an initiative to foster collaboration among civil society, the private sector and the public sector by issuing the Ouagadougou Declaration on Strengthening the Voice of Business to Support Democratic Governance in January 2018. This outlines guiding principles for collaboration among the three spheres.[13]

Making the business sector an ally to serve public interests while pursuing their economic interests would help make democracy deliver. For this, civil society must creatively identify common interest areas, as our partners in Nigeria have done in modernising Lagos’ port.

Partnering with public influencers

To rebuild the public’s trust in democracy, there is a need to communicate with and reach out to the broader public more effectively. To do this, civil society needs to build strategic partnerships with various public influencers, such as religious leaders, musicians and artists. Working with them, civil society must develop counter-narratives that illustrate how democratic norms support and complement, rather than contradict, traditional values or national identities. The reach of those influencers would help to bring together people from different socio-economic backgrounds and generations.

Civil society in some parts of the world is building these strategic partnerships. For example, realising that a religion plays an important role in many people’s life decisions, a Georgian CSO has started partnering with the clergy of the Georgian Orthodox Church to explore how to develop narratives that democracy is not a western idea and it does not conflict with Georgian Orthodox Christianity. After over a year of informal conversations, the clergy have begun engaging in international dialogues on democracy, Georgia’s European Union (EU) integration and the role of religions in a democratic society. Through this engagement with the Church, the issues of democracy and EU integration are more constructively discussed with church members.

This programme has become very successful, because civil society groups understood that the Georgian Orthodox Church has more public support than civil society does. In a recent survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute, nearly 70 per cent of survey respondents had favourable views on the Georgian Orthodox Church’s work.[14] In comparison, according to the 2015 Caucasus Research Resource Center’s Caucasus Barometer, only 23 per cent of people trust CSOs in Georgia.[15]

In Africa, musicians have been responding to government repression, and leading democracy movements. While a handful of musicians in West Africa actively participated in the region’s democracy struggles in the past, it is notable that increasingly in recent years, musicians in West Africa have shown deep commitment to democratic values. Y’en a Marre, a citizens’ movement in Senegal, is an illustrative example. Rap acts such as Keur Gui and Crazy Sick Guy formed this movement, organised and informed young people through their music, and became an important political force during the 2012 presidential election. Y’en a Marre and others in Senegal inspired Burkina Faso’s Balai Citoyen Movement in 2013 and 2014. Y’en a Marre in fact worked with fellow rappers in Burkina Faso to help strengthen the movement. The recent #GambiaDecides campaign benefited from the participation of popular musicians, such as Killa Ace, Gee Bala-Gaye and others. Youth groups in Nigeria have also worked with famous musicians, such as Tuface, M.I, Jason Abaga, Banky W and others in various campaigns. Leveraging the ability of musicians to resonate with these different socio-economic groups can be important for generating and mobilising public support and countering negative narratives of democratic regression.

Recognising the recent emergence of musicians playing a more active role in citizens’ movements, particularly in West Africa, the World Movement is convening young civil society leaders and musicians to develop mechanisms in West Africa through which musicians can systematically engage in building a democratic society, rather than collaborating on an ad hoc basis.

The end of democratic retreat: not too long from now

These stories of emerging citizens’ movements, new types of political actors and creative partnerships with businesses, religious leaders, musicians and others give us tremendous hope that the prolonged democratic retreat will soon end. Also, we should not underestimate the strength of democratic institutions that have been built with the support of civil society over the years.

Over the past year, judiciaries and advocates for the rule of law in Africa displayed true independence in making decisions that held government leaders accountable and upheld the integrity of democracy. Courageous reports by South Africa’s Public Protector in 2014 and 2016 exposed corruption allegations surrounding then-President Jacob Zuma. This was followed by rulings by the country’s High Court and Constitutional Court to hold President Zuma accountable, leading to his resignation and changes in government leadership in February 2018.

In Kenya, the Supreme Court invalidated election results that would have confirmed the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta in September 2018. The Court ruled that the voting results had been manipulated. In a country where the independence of the judiciary has been compromised, this was a courageous attempt by the Court Justices to assert their independence.

In Liberia, the Supreme Court credibly handled electoral fraud allegations by carrying out a comprehensive and impartial review, and confirmed the decision to proceed with a run-off election. This helped build citizens’ trust in the electoral process, and allowed for a peaceful transition of power to take place.

In Angola, where judges have often been a tool used by the authorities to silence dissent, the politically charged trial of a prominent investigative journalist, Rafael Marques de Morais, led to his acquittal in July 2018. In 2016, Marques published a report that exposed the corrupt activities of the then-Attorney General, and Marques was charged with insulting the government. In acquitting the Marques case, Judge Soina Mussua Perreira Falcao argued that “this Court believes that we would be doing very bad as a society that wants to progress, if we punished the messengers of bad news,” and acknowledged that it is a duty of journalists to inform the public of the wrongdoings of those in positions of authority.[16]

Also in July 2018, judges in Poland decided to push back against the law that the government recently amended to force dozens of judges to retire early. Some analysts argue that the law contradicts the country’s Constitution, and many critics believe that through this law, the government is eroding the rule of law. People mobilised themselves and organised protests in more than 60 cities and towns around Poland.

These stories demonstrate the resilience of democratic institutions and people. It might be true that “things will get worse before getting better,” as panellists at the World Movement’s Dakar Assembly discussed. This dark time is testing our resilience, creativity and innovation. But in human history, we have always evolved. We should trust in our instinct to evolve further, and understand that democracy needs to evolve alongside us.


[1] ‘Freedom in the World 2018’, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018.

[2] ‘A Call for Democratic Renewal’, World Movement for Democracy Steering Committee Statement, November 2015, https://www.movedemocracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/A-Call-for-Democratic-RenewalENGLISH.pdf.

[3] ‘Thematic Report to the UN Human Rights Council’s 38th Session’, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, A/HRC/38/34, June 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session38/Pages/ListReports.aspx

[4] ‘Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy: But many also endorse nondemocratic alternatives’, Richard Wike, Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes and Janell Fetterolf, Pew Research Center, 16 October 2017, http://www.pewglobal.org/2017/10/16/globally-broad-support-for-representative-and-direct-democracy.

[5] ‘The Democratic Disconnect’, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, Journal of Democracy, July 2016, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 9-10.

[6] ‘The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy’ William A Galston, Journal of Democracy, April 2018, Vol. 29, No. 2, p. 11.

[7] Pew Research Center, op. cit.

[8] ‘People’s Movement in South Korea’s Democratic Consolidation: From Candlelight Protests to a Democratic Government’, Dukjin Chang, presentation made during the World Movement for Democracy’s Ninth Global Assembly, Dakar, Senegal, 7 May 2018.

[9] ‘CIPE and Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry Report Identifies Reforms Needed to Improve Nigerian Port Efficiency and Reduce Corruption’, Center for International Private Enterprise, 26 October 2016, https://www.cipe.org/newsroom/cipe-lagos-chamber-commerce-industry-report-identifies-reforms-needed-improve-nigerian-port-efficiency-reduce-corruption.

[10] Panel Discussion on Strengthening the Voice of Business for Democratic Governance, organised by the World Movement for Democracy and the Center for International Private Enterprise during the World Movement for Democracy’s Ninth Global Assembly, Dakar, Senegal, 8 May 2018.

[11] ‘Creating Shared Values’ Michael E Porter and Mark R Kramer, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2011, https://hbr.org/2011/01/the-big-idea-creating-shared-value.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘Ouagadougou Declaration on Strengthening the Voice of Business to Support Democratic Governance’, issued in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 17 January 2018, https://www.movedemocracy.org/ouagadougou-declaration.

[14] ‘Public Attitudes in Georgia’, National Democratic Institute, March 2018, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI_March_2018_Public Presentation_English_final.pdf.

[15] ‘People Who Trust NGOs Are More Active’, Caucasus Research Resource Center, 30 May 2016, http://crrc-caucasus.blogspot.com/2016/05/people-who-trust-ngos-are-more-active.html.