Why democracies must deliver


Salil Shetty |
Omar Waraich
Jul-Dec, 2023
-Updated in March 2024-
When the people of Brazil threw off Jair Bolsonaro’s authoritarian rule, the celebrations were heard far beyond Bahia, Pernambuco and Maranhão. Across the world, numerous countries have witnessed strongmen vaulting to power through the ballot, using their time in office to eviscerate democracy from within. For alarmed onlookers, Bolsonaro’s fall created an important opening. “Thank you, Brazil”, the Indian journalist Rana Ayyub posted on social media, just as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory was confirmed. “You give us hope”.

The electoral triumphs of progressive parties in Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Guatemala in recent years offer hope not just to the region, which had plunged to its lowest levels of democratic decline since the end of the Cold War, but also to minorities and other groups of people across the world—particularly in the global South—who are resisting the onslaught of autocratic forces in their countries. They can also take heart from the recent victories in countries as diverse as Zambia, Poland, Slovenia, and Malaysia, where democratic forces have also staged an impressive comeback.

It’s a fight that won’t be easy. According to the Swedish research institute V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2023, advances in global levels of democracy over the past 35 years have been «wiped out» [1][1] Democracy Report 2023, Defiance in the Face of Autocratization, V-Dem Institute, University of Gothemburg, 2023. Available here: https://www.v-dem.net/documents/29/V-dem_democracyreport2023_lowres.pdf. As of 2022, nearly three quarters of the world’s population lives in autocracies. For the first time in more than two decades, there are more dictatorships than democracies in the world. There are now 42 countries that are “autocratizing” and just 14 that are “democratizing”. Seeking to cement their rule, autocrats are also targeting their opponents with ruthless impunity: removing them from the political process, imprisoning them, or in the tragic case of incarcerated Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, apparently assassinating them.

Photo_ Sebastián Poch Velasco_ CC BY 2.0
But faith in democracy hasn’t disappeared. As the 2023 Open Society Barometer recorded, a global average of 86% recognizes the importance of living in a democracy. Some of the highest figures appeared in countries where democracy has suffered great setbacks or is absent altogether: 96% of people in Türkiye, 95% in China, and 93% in Egypt—compared with 80% in the U.S. Democracy is also, overwhelmingly, the preferred form of government. Only a fifth of people believe authoritarian countries are more capable of delivering «what citizens want» [2][2] Open Society Barometer, Open Society Foundations, 2023. Available here: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/uploads/e6cd5a09-cd19-4587-aa06-368d3fc78917/open-society-barometer-can-democracy-deliver-20230911.pdf.

Democracy isn’t working

The problem is that democracy isn’t working in its current form. We see this, for example, in the reactions of many governments to the incredible human suffering in Gaza. Even as the death toll nears 30,000 civilians, hundreds of thousands take to the streets each week, and large majorities call for a ceasefire to put an end to the human suffering, governments in many western capitals remain unmoved. Democracy cannot be reduced to a procedural exercise conducted once every four or five years. It must be a sustained effort to respond to people’s needs and to be accountable throughout the periods between elections.

Numerous countries around the world have witnessed strongmen vaulting to power through the ballot, using their time in office to eviscerate democracy from within.
For too long, there has been a narrow and restricted conception of democracy that is fixated on elections—on how power is transferred, rather than how it is exercised. The mere fact that elections take place with some frequency is not enough. In fact, the most serious setbacks to democracy over recent years have come about when strongmen, claiming to represent the popular will, have used elections to seize power. They are more dangerous than military dictators. They use elections to claim legitimacy for their rule, spend their time in office crushing the very institutions that democracy depends upon, and then rig the process to block effective challenges to their rule.

The democratic systems we have on offer currently are ill-suited to serve the contexts we are confronted with. Designed by patriarchs who sought to preserve their privilege, they do not represent the interests of women and the youth. There’s also a striking absence of young or female leaders in the countries that have revived their democracies.

In the Brexit referendum, 70% of British voters aged 18-24 voted to remain. For women in that age category, the figure was higher, at 80%. Women have been steadily claiming a larger income share across the world—though still, dismayingly, far from levels of gender parity. In Chile, Mexico and South Africa, this share has risen by 10% over the past 30 years. But they have not been given a larger share in their political systems.

Women have often been at the forefront of movements resisting autocracy. In Brazil, there were protests against Bolsonaro’s misogyny from the moment he sought the presidency, through the famous #EleNao (“Not Him”) mobilizations. A record number of indigenous women stood for public office in the most recent elections. In India, women have been a key part of social movements, from the protests against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act to the economic justice work of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union representing two million Indian women in the informal sector.

According to the ILO, global youth unemployment levels are more than three times as high as the adult rate. In Sri Lanka, nearly a quarter of people under 30 are unemployed. In Spain, it’s nearly 30%, and in South Africa, the figure rises to a startling 60%.
Meanwhile, there are high levels of political disaffection recorded among the youth. That disaffection is partly a function of the rising income inequality that disadvantages them. According to the International Labour Organization, global youth unemployment levels are more than three times as high as the adult rate. In Sri Lanka, nearly a quarter of people under 30 are unemployed. In Spain, it’s nearly 30%, and in South Africa, the figure rises to a startling 60% [3][3] Global Emplyment Trends For Youth, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2006. Available here: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_077664.pdf. For those in the workforce, young workers are twice as likely as adult workers to live in extreme poverty—earning less than $2 a day.

Youth, climate, and technology

But it isn’t merely economic questions that trouble them. Young people also perceive democracy in very different terms. While youth participation is relatively high in Latin America, the figures are strikingly lower than adult rates across the rest of the world. Young people are less likely to join political parties. The political class fails to address their most important concerns, like the ravages of climate change. A recent global survey found that three quarters of young people believe that “the future is frightening”. In the Philippines, that figure is 92% [4][4] HICKMAN, Caroline; MARKS, Elizabeth; PIHKALA, Panu; CLAYTON, Susan; LEWANDOWSKI, R Eric; MAYALL, Elouise E; WRAY, Britt; MELLOR, Catriona & VAN SUSTEREN, Lise, (2021) Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey, Lancet Planet Health, Vol 5, December 2021. Available here: https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2542-5196%2821%2900278-3.

Despite fears of bleak prospects, researchers note that young people are more civically engaged than ever. They are more involved in their communities. They take part in demonstrations. They hold strong views on important questions that confront their lives and the wider world around them, evident across a proliferation of social media platforms where they seek and respond to the news, at a distance from staid traditional outlets [5][5] How Young People Consume News and The Implications For Mainstream Media, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University, 2019. Available here: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2021-02/FlamingoxREUTERS-Report-Full-KG-V28.pdf. They do not, however, appear to have faith in the governance systems that have built the unfair world they will inherit.

We are in the midst of what some commentators have described as “the polycrisis”: the collective experience that humanity is confronted with in the form of a confluence of multiple, overlapping crises. These include the burdens of debt on some of the world’s poorest countries, the enduring effects of the pandemic, the outbreaks of conflicts and the shockwaves they have sent across the world, and the soaring costs of energy, commodities, and the general cost of living. Dysfunctional democracies are incapable of resolving these crises. We need better, more responsive governance to begin tackling this difficult task.

One tragic consequence of the rise of autocrats has been their callous attitude towards the environment, exemplified by Jair Bolsonaro’s damaging years in power. The Amazon was ravaged at breakneck speed, and it will be hard to reverse. Autocrats pose a double threat to the climate. Not only do they deny the facts presented by science, but they are also prepared to accelerate its destruction to feed the insatiable greed of the extractive industries that bankroll their governments.

Coming generations aren’t willing to wait for the slow and weak compromises of procedural democracies to address these existential crises, one election cycle at a time.
Coming generations aren’t willing to wait for the slow and weak compromises of procedural democracies to address these existential crises, one election cycle at a time. In a reflection of the technology that increasingly define their lives, they want to see responsive and accountable governance in real-time. This tension will become more acute with the advances of generative artificial intelligence, which will further complicate their lives in ways that will not all be positive. We are already seeing the effects of artificial intelligence being used to manipulate flows of information, notably during elections. The broader effects of artificial intelligence will reshape economies, potentially leading to job losses and further economic precarity for young people.

Young people, like any social group, are diverse in their views. One negative effect of the ubiquity of technology is that it has exposed more young people than ever to the seductions of demagogues, who offer simply packaged explanations and solutions, wrapped in toxic ideas associated with ethno-nationalism, religious extremism, and other dangerous varieties of division. A failure to create a governance system that is responsive to their needs will make the appeal of these merchants of hate even stronger.

Democracies that deliver

Fixing democracy means creating democracies that deliver. This is partly an economic question. We have seen that the decline of democracies over recent decades correlates with rising inequality. This wasn’t always guaranteed. Rising growth could have, with the implementation of effective policy, diminished inequality. But the triumph of neoliberalism in the early 1980s meant that accumulation of private wealth, helped by the loosening of regulations and taxes, was prized over all else. The result, a generation later, is that the wealthiest 1% have benefited the most in societies that have become staggeringly less equal—and less democratic.

Autocrats like to position themselves as anti-elite, but often create a crony capitalist class that helps them consolidate their rule. This is glaringly apparent in Russia, where Putin surrounded himself with a new oligarch class as he tightened his grip on power. But it’s also evident in countries like India, where a “billionaire raj” has carved up large chunks of the economy amongst itself, including snatching control of once lively and independent media houses to convert them into pliant instruments of the ruling party.

B. R. Ambedkar warned that the ceremony of political equality through the ballot box in the form of “one person, one vote” will not survive if other inequalities remain untouched.
The failure to create a more equitable order can imperil democracies. BR Ambedkar, one of the principal authors of the Indian constitution, warned that the ceremony of political equality through the ballot box in the form of one person, one vote will not survive if other inequalities remain untouched. “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?” he asked, in a powerful speech in parliament in 1949. “If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy”.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, with a revolution sparked by the despair of a street vendor. Over the past decade, as successive governments barely lasted a year on average, the culture of corruption and clientelism went unchallenged. Inequality persisted within cities and between regions. The mismanagement of the pandemic, which led to the second highest death rate in Africa, triggered President Kais Saied’s autogolpe. The generation that led the revolution did not lament the departure of the political class that had failed them. As life is drained out of the country’s brief experience with democracy, the youth unemployment rate is now higher than it was on the eve of the 2010 revolution.

Dreams of dignity

Less inequality is a necessary, but insufficient guarantee of a democracy that delivers. We have seen people prepared to inflict great harm on their democracies without any promise of economic rewards. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union cannot be explained by economic factors. The country is now poorer than its former colony India. Another former colony, Ireland, now boasts three times higher GDP per capita—with EU membership a key source of its robust growth. The idea that animated the Brexit campaign was a pursuit of “control”, of “sovereignty”. As ridiculous as the notion of a former empire losing its sovereignty sounds, it had wide resonance.

The idea that animated the Brexit campaign was a pursuit of “sovereignty”. As ridiculous as the notion of a former empire losing its sovereignty sounds, it had wide resonance.
Supporters of democracy have often failed to think beyond an appeal to numbers and other metrics that can be neatly translated into progress on, for example, the sustainable development goals. We have failed to appreciate the intangible things that people reach for in their lives, their dreams of dignity. Dreams that aren’t easily comprehended but derive from a yearning that exists at a more visceral level. Dreams that can also be manipulated by those who listen for them carefully, but answer them through toxic appeals to race, religion, and nationalism. Liberals and progressives have tended to scorn politics along these lines, seeing them as stains on their pristine universalist visions of humanity. But this is a mistake. The identities that people cherish the most have to be honoured, not dismissed. The difference is that we must honour them through appeals towards inclusion, rather than division.

New champions of democracy

There are other divisions that we must be wary of geopolitically. We are living at a time when the unipolar order is receding, and a new multipolar order is emerging in its place. We no longer live in a G7 world but increasingly in a G20 world, with the wider community of states represented across the global South—especially less developed and climate vulnerable countries—demanding a greater say on issues of international importance. There are opportunities for democracies in this moment, but also dangers. One clear danger is having to choose between the United States and China or being caught in the middle of their rivalry.

We have failed to appreciate the intangible things that people reach for in their lives, their dreams of dignity, their most visceral longings.
This is not a choice that the new champions of democracy are willing to make. “The bifurcation has not helped regional or international cooperation,” Anwar Ibrahim, the recently elected Malaysian Prime Minister, told an interviewer. “We should be fiercely independent, and interact and engage with both”. The same goes for Lula in Brazil, who values his relationship with the United States and also plays a leadership role in the coalition of BRICS countries with China. As for Hakainde Hichilema, the new Zambian President, who realizes that the only way to lift his debt-distressed southern African nation out of its economic struggles is by engaging both Washington and Beijing.

Democracy will only flourish in this new emerging order if its new champions can protect it from global bloc politics. By pulling democracies to one side, and locating it solely within a pro-American camp, we risk diminishing its appeal. For many across the global South, a more just and equitable domestic order must exist within a more just and equitable international order. This also offers possibilities to imagine democracies in different, more compelling ways that are better suited to the different environments in which people are challenging the grip of autocrats. Democracy cannot be reduced to a fast-food franchise menu that looks the same at every store.

Brazil, Malaysia, and Zambia are very different countries with very different leaders and very different systems. And yet there are notable similarities. Each of their leaders was imprisoned on politically motivated charges by the autocrats who came before them. When we worked at Amnesty International, we visited Hichilema at his home in Lusaka after he had been tortured. We also campaigned for Anwar as a prisoner of conscience after he was unjustly consigned behind bars. Like Lula, they embody the struggles they lead. The fight for democracy unites us today, even if it looks a little different in different places.