A democratic revival
29-01-2020

As part of our Democracy Special, developed in cooperation with Dutch development magazine Vice Versa, NIMD Director Thijs Berman looks into the causes and consequences of recent protests around the world and explores the power of open democracy as a sustainable alternative to populism.

Demonstrations have made a comeback. Political leaders around the globe have been jolted awake by loud protest movements.

The Lebanese youth…, the yellow vest movement in France…, protesters in Slovakia, Hong Kong, Egypt, Iraq and Chile… What connects these demonstrators is the gulf between them and their political leaders.

The gilet jaunes, or yellow vests, movement began in France in October 2018.

Voters are giving established political parties a harsh reminder that their vote can no longer be automatically counted on; that the time of lifelong support for parties has gone forever.

Strikingly, most media analyses point the finger at politicians, saying they have failed their populations. But this does not explain the timing. Why the sudden increase in protests?

There is another essential development that casts more light on this: It is voters themselves who are changing, especially the youngest voters.

Why the sudden change?

In poor nations, three factors play a role in the change among young voters:

  • the growing proportion of young people
  • their rising levels of education
  • their access to information.

Some 41 percent of the global population is under the age of 18, with that percentage considerably higher in most poor nations.

The vast majority of these youths have completed primary education. That means they can read about the causes of their poverty and use the internet to see levels of prosperity elsewhere.

Malian youth in class: 19 of the world’s 20 youngest countries are in Africa.

So impatience is on the rise, and a sense of resignation is gradually giving way to anger. Young people are angry about corruption and ineffective policymaking that fails to tackle issues crucial to their future: employment, healthcare, human rights, the climate, biodiversity, raw materials and capital flight.

The effects of climate change

The dynamic of despair and rage is exacerbated by the climate crisis, and the pressures it places on consumption of water, land and raw materials. While the climate crisis was not caused by the poorest countries, they are the most affected. And the poorest people within those countries are the hardest hit of all.

This will continue, as long as their voices are not heard and their rights are not respected, nor their interests served.

In the near future, climate action worldwide is set to be so far-reaching that it will not be possible to implement without broad support. At this stage, all parties must be brought together to find solutions. This means that working on democracy, and on inclusive democratic processes, has now taken on an urgency that was not conceivable a decade ago.

Tackling climate change will require a comprehensive multiparty response.

What does it mean for our leaders?

Business as usual is no longer an option for elected representatives at any level. In our information age, restoring and maintaining public confidence requires much more contact with people. It takes more openness about dilemmas; and more emphasis on values, boundaries and ambitions.

That’s a big step away from the paternalistic culture of talking rather than listening; from politicians who are “in the driver’s seat”; and from a political culture built around elections.

An open door for populism

For populists, the solution is simple. Imply that you have power and conviction through hard-hitting slogans and simple solutions; whip up existing fears; narrow the debate to a single topic; find a scapegoat; proclaim that you are the only one who truly represents the “people”; cast suspicion on scientific facts and objections; accuse “the elite”… and then take power.

Discontent can open the door to populist ideologies.

Arguments based on self-interest and short-termism are attractive for groups that still benefit from the status quo – the middle class, and especially those who feel the most uncomfortable with the consequences of globalization and the changes that must be made to curb the climate crisis.

Autocratic regimes are increasingly open in propagating their illiberal model as an appealing alternative to ‘Western’ democracy.

But, although populists might appear to be unstoppable, there is no reason to feel dejected. Time is against the populist, as they can rarely fulfil their promises. And that’s if they even come to power in the first place.

Dramatic promises can get you votes, but fulfilling those promises is a very different story.

A better alternative

The alternative lies in strengthening open democracy. This option creates confidence in institutions, making peace and stability more likely in the long term.

In open democratic systems where every voice is heard, exclusion is less common and social inequality is generally less flagrant. That’s why investing in democracy should top agendas.

Democracy must be deepened, to create a system where people have confidence in a credible parliament and political parties and politicians have a real link to the population. Formal democracy, when it is limited to holding elections, is not enough.

What’s needed are an independent judiciary, strong social organizations and an independent media that call leaders to account and give shape to an open democratic society. Where these factors are absent, large groups remain marginalized and trust in politics can rapidly erode.

Now is the time to invest in democracy

Countries that are advocating an open society could not choose a better time to invest in democracy. Governments and regional bodies must act urgently, given the levels of unrest and the rise of anti-democratic movements.

Now is the time to invest in social organizations that stand up for the most vulnerable groups and give them a voice.

Now is the time to invest in better governance; a kind of governance that is open to dialogue and really represents the voters, involving them in building and giving shape to their country.

Now is the time to invest in an open and inclusive democracy.

 

On Monday 10 February, NIMD is partnering up with Vice Versa to host “Talkshow: Een Inclusieve Democratie” in The Hague. The talkshow will bring experts from the forefront of the democratization movement together, featuring current and former politicians and experts from civil society.