Wanted and threatened

People around the globe yearn for democracy – at least when it offers more than elections. Stefano Palestini explains why the Chilean example is a case in point.

Florian Bayer

On 25 October 2019, the largest demonstration in Chilean history took place. Around one million people marched in the capital, Santiago de Chile, holding aloft banners demanding ‘dignity’. Three decades ago, huge numbers of Chileans also took to the streets demanding an end to the military dictatorship and the election of a democratic government. Today, Chileans are pressing for radical changes to a socio-economic model perceived as deeply unfair and to political institutions seen as abusive and corrupt.



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Free elections, the rule of law, freedom of opinion – where the political system is at risk.


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Are demonstrations like the one in Chile an indicator that democracy is in crisis, or are they on the contrary a way of demanding more and better democracy? In its most basic sense, a democracy is a political system in which a variety of political forces compete for the support of citizens, as expressed through suffrage. Almost 40 per cent of the global population lives in a country that fulfills that minimal condition. A more complex definition of democracy goes beyond the narrow focus on elections. It includes three other sets of criteria: institutions that check the power of the elected authorities and that protect the equality of citizens before the law; institutions that enable the deliberation among citizens necessary for electing representatives and taking informed decisions. And finally, institutions that deliver public goods in basic areas of social life such as health, education, housing, and transport.

Some European countries display features of all these institutions. Yet, for most citizens around the globe, this ideal-type democracy is simply an aspiration. In Chile, the calls for dignity mean more and better public goods; in Hong Kong, citizens are protesting for more political rights; and in Sudan, citizens are calling for a transition to a democratic civilian government. The demands are different, but they all pursue the goal of putting in place a political system based on democratic institutions.

Not every conflict is a crisis

It has become commonplace among academics and commentators to say that democracy is in crisis. But we must examine this statement carefully. To begin with, not every conflict is a crisis. Democratic societies are by definition prone to disagreement and conflict, since they are composed of a plurality of groups with different visions of how society should be organised. In contrast to an autocracy – such as a monarchy or a one-party system – in democracies social groups can express their visions freely and compete for the control of the state. Only when conflict and disagreement turn holders of diverging opinions (the ‘other’) into enemies to be harassed, attacked or even eliminated, is a country facing a crisis that may ultimately even see the breakdown of that democracy.

‘Not every conflict is a crisis. Democratic societies are by definition prone to disagreement and conflict.’

In Venezuela, for instance, the government and the opposition saw each other as enemies. This led to a failed coup against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, who responded by suppressing the opposition and capturing the judiciary. In 2017, Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, stripped the opposition-controlled parliament of its powers and has since trapped the country in spiralling repression.

Different sets of democratic institutions can be under threat in democracies: elections, political rights and the rule of law, public deliberation, and public goods. Firstly, irregularities in the electoral process are a common threat to democracy. Although over the last thirty years elections have become freer and fairer according to available measurements, this trend was recently reversed: in 27 out of 158 countries, elections in 2018 were less free and fair than in 2008.

When governments cling to office

Crises of electoral processes can afflict any type of democracy, but are particularly recurrent in younger and less stable democratic systems, as seen in the recent presidential elections in Kazakhstan and Bolivia. The governments of young democracies are tempted to use the power of the state to cling to office and make the life of their opponents harder. They can obstruct the opposition’s political campaigns, as Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev did during the last presidential elections. Or they can gain influence over the authorities in charge of organising elections and counting votes, as President Edgar Lungu from Zambia did in the 2016 elections.

Secondly, the institutions in charge of protecting citizens’ political rights can be affected. As in the case of breaches to elections, threats against political rights and the rule of law are often perpetrated by the incumbent governments themselves. These threats have even emerged in relatively stable democracies, such as the United States, where President Donald Trump is endeavouring to erode the rule of law by arguably abusing the right of presidential pardon for political allies, and continuing attacks against the media as exemplified by a recent lawsuit against The New York Times. In Hungary – a country that had an exemplary transition to democracy in the 1990s – the ruling party Fidesz has suppressed civil society organisations, claiming that non-governmental organisations pose a risk to national security, and removed checks on the executive by restricting the competencies of the constitutional court.

‘The governments of young democracies are tempted to use the power of the state to cling to office and make the life for their opponents harder.’

But incumbent governments are not the only ones directly responsible for the erosion of the rule of law. In socially segregated societies like Nigeria or the Philippines, crucial institutions such as judges and prosecutors are captured by corporate actors and their economic power. In these societies, trust in institutions has plummeted and the rule of law is perceived to serve vested economic interests rather than citizens’ rights. This is a common cause of disaffection with democracy. It is also a breeding ground for ‘strong leaders’ and demagogues like the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. They promise to give the power back to ‘the people’, while frequently rolling back the very same political and civil rights that citizens seek to strengthen.

Independent media under threat

Thirdly, as in the case of the rule of law, the institutions that support public deliberation such as independent and pluralist media can be undermined by incumbents and market actors. In Poland, for instance, the ruling Law and Justice Party took control of state broadcasters and intimidated foreign-owned media outlets such as the US-owned TVN. The opposite is happening in Brazil, a socially and racially segregated country with a population of about 210 million, in which three corporate groups linked to elite families control the 19 most important national media outlets. Among them, Grupo Globo alone reaches almost half of the population through its media network. These groups also operate in other economic sectors such as financial services and real estate, thus concentrating a very worrying amount of political power in Brazilian democracy in their hands.

At the same time, digital politics through social media can hinder public deliberation when used to spread hate speech that bullies minority social groups and fake news that hampers people’s ability to make informed decisions. This might play a role in the recent mass protests in Hong Kong or in Chile, where protesters and bystanders struggle to distinguish the truth from the fake news.

Moreover, foreign powers and firms, such as Cambridge Analytica and Ponte Estratégia, are subject to investigations because they are suspected of having influenced electoral campaigns during the last presidential elections in the USA and in Brazil. They are alleged to have used digital profiles of millions of citizens in terms of social characteristics, ethnicity, and political preferences, and then to have placed targeted ads, misinformation and counter-campaigns. However, the recent emergence of these ‘digital politics’ must be seen in the existing context of the traditional media sector captured by the state or corporate actors. In countries where the media sector is plural and free of state or private influence, citizens are arguably less prone to manipulation and disinformation through digital social media.

Extreme differences provide fertile ground for populists

Finally, democracy is also at risk when states fail to provide public goods to their citizens. This threat is common to all countries, although different levels of development and degrees of democratic maturity surely determine where citizens set the bar to assess the quality of the goods. In more prosperous countries like in Western Europe, citizens are more demanding regarding the quality of public goods. This is a particularly prominent source of democratic crises in liberal-market economies where the state has rolled back its function as a provider of public goods and in some cases even as a market regulator.

In contemporary neoliberal societies, education, health and housing are not universal rights but either expensive commodities for the high and middle classes or low-quality public goods for the lower-middle class and the poor. In parts of the United Kingdom and in Chile, leading neoliberal economies, even water is a fully privatised commodity. Access to health, education and housing is divided: it either comes at the cost of household indebtedness or is limited to under-funded and sub-standard public goods. The intrinsic unfairness of this socially segregated model is the underlying cause for demonstrations in Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. As Aristotle warned 2,300 years ago, ‘a polity with extremes of wealth and poverty is a city not of free persons but of slaves and masters, the ones consumed by envy, the others by contempt.’ In the United Kingdom, these social problems are said to have had a crucial impact in the Brexit referendum.

International actors have a particular responsibility

The role of international and transnational actors is especially crucial in the context of global economic turmoil and increasing competition between global powers. For the first time since the 1930s, the number of countries facing an erosion of democratic institutions exceeds the number of countries undergoing an improvement of democratic institutions. Furthermore, this democratic erosion is apparent in states that, due to their size, population, and geopolitical location, are pivotal in the international system such as Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and the USA.

Nevertheless, in contrast to the 1930s, states are nowadays embedded in a network of international norms, international organisations, and transnational advocacy groups that promote and defend democracy. Organisations such as the African Union and the Organization of American States are equipped with instruments to monitor, mediate, and even impose sanctions on member states in response to breaches of democracy. These instruments can prevent electoral irregularities or flagrant coups against democratically elected governments.  

‘For the first time since the 1930s, the number of countries facing an erosion of democratic institutions exceeds the number of countries undergoing an improvement of democratic institutions.’

However, international organisations can become irrelevant if powers in their respective regions turn less democratic themselves. Hence, there is still much to be done. We must advance the global governance of the global media and social media platforms in order to reduce the manipulation of information. We must improve the enforcement of norms that regulate the practices of transnational corporations and global production chains that increase segregation and social inequality in democracies in the global South and global East.

Democratic states must also improve cooperation initiatives that aim at strengthening judicial and law enforcement institutions in young democracies. And multilateral financial institutions must provide leeway for progressive democratic leaders to adopt non-orthodox redistributive policies in the interests of the lower and middle classes, while preventing the emergence of authoritarian leaders. In doing so, the international community could help to fulfil the promises of democracy.

In conclusion, protests like the one in Chile reflect both threats to democracy but also demands for a better democracy. Chileans are embarking on a process that should lead to a new political constitution that is democratically written and approved by Chileans, in which dignity and social justice shall be at the core. But as the experiences of the Colour Revolutions and the Arab Spring have demonstrated, these are fragile processes in which domestic and international political actors will be crucial in preventing the emergence of authoritarian forces that could lead to a further erosion of democratic institutions or a total breakdown.

published in akzente 1/20

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