Miguel Ángel Medina
Member of ‘Antoni de Montserrat’ Chair of World Studies at Universitat Abat Oliba CEU
s every September 15 we commemorate the International Day of Democracy, understood throughout the world as the least bad of the systems for organising political and social communities, based on pillars such as the division of powers, the periodic holding of elections, fundamental freedoms and rights, alternation in power, popular sovereignty, market economy and collective welfare. However, the Hellenes’ greatest contribution to humanity seems to be in crisis, or at least in question, at the present time, for a number of reasons. Let us therefore outline below a few points to help us understand the canvass of the rule of the people and why we should enter into a sane and calm debate on democracy today. And also to shed light on why it makes no sense today to talk about the everlasting dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship.
First, until recently it seemed that the greatest political legacy of the Cold War was that liberal democracy has triumphed forever, that it is the only way, that it should be the quasi-ideal political system to which the 200 nations of the world should aspire. The postulates of hugely influential intellectuals such as Fukuyama, Huntington, Garton Ash and Giddens envisioned a future in which Westminster, Wall Street, McDonalds and the Atlantic Alliance would lead the way, always within the framework of Western-style democracy, and in which countries that did not play this game would fall into the dustbin of history. It seemed that the Soviet bloc or socialist-influenced countries had their transition to a democratic regime in the making, and the so-called Non-Aligned or Third World countries at the time would end up knocking on the doors of Washington and Brussels. Three decades later, the reality is quite different: countries considered full democracy are no more than forty, and only 2 out of 10 of the world’s citizens live in a country with such a political system, according to all international indicators and standards.
Secondly, it was trumpeted that economic growth is intrinsically linked to a free market liberal democracy and a certain amount of social justice and welfare. The second great axiom of the current period has come to nothing. Various international economic institutions and specialised think tanks note that in the last five years only one of the ten fastest growing economies is a full democracy (India), while players such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Botswana, Qatar, Macao or Vietnam are experiencing the economic miracle that we enjoyed in Europe and North America after World War II, but without winning the ‘democracy prize’ that we Europeans are so fond of. To a large extent, we should ask ourselves, is democracy the only system that delivers economic growth and individual well-being, and should we cut and paste the legacy of the Greek polis to the whole world, in our own image? Surely not.
Third and finally, let us remember that democracy is also a product of its time, and in the last decade we live in an international context marked by the decline of the multilateral system, based on international rules and institutions, and by the crisis of the liberal order of the last seventy years. And this situation goes far beyond a dichotomy between Western-style democracies versus autocracies or dictatorships of very different kinds. Today’s international society is tremendously liquid, where there are no friends or enemies, but allies and rivals depending on the issue on the agenda, and in this swampy terrain, actors that are difficult to classify into one category or another have gained prominence: Indonesia, Turkey, the petro-monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Brazil, Morocco… These are countries where dictatorships and populisms are at ease. And where playing chess with China and Russia is not advisable. And this is precisely democracy’s greatest enemy, not being considered the best of all possible systems. Democracy is an old rocker, which suffers from the vice of being at the same time very positive but very old. It needs to tune up its instruments and compose new songs, as it will never again perform in the stadiums it used to frequent.
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