I AM in the European parliament, participating in a discussion on “Democracy today and tomorrow”. We are supposed to be celebrating the “International Day of Democracy” decreed by the United Nations to review and assess whether the ideal of democracy is being translated into “a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere”.
We are reminded that the values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy.
But the mood is sober, self-critical and reflective. Gone are the self-congratulatory speeches and back-patting which would have marked such occasions in the past.
Twenty-five years after Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “End of History” and the victory of Western liberal democracy as the best form of government, liberal democracy, human rights and democratic values are increasingly being questioned and challenged.
In this troubled world can any country today really claim to be a ”model democracy”?
There is consensus that we are living in challenging times. Democracy in the US and Europe is in deep crisis. The problem is no longer “over there” in the non-Western world, but within the “mature democracies” of America and Europe.
The meeting is just a day after the televised encounter between the two American presidential hopefuls, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There is general dismay — even horror — that Trump could be only weeks away from stepping into the White House.
For years, the US has been the champion of democracy, the gold standard for others also trying to experiment with a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
But democracy in the US is being tested as never before. The emergence of Trump as a credible candidate has shocked mainstream European political parties who fear that something similar could happen very soon in Europe.
Already far-right populists like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) are snapping at the heels of established political leaders.
Their xenophobic, anti-Muslim and anti-Europe message is striking a cord with angry men and women who feel uncertain and uneasy in the face of change. Le Pen is expected to do exceptionally well in national elections in France next year. The AfD has already made massive gains in recent regional elections in Germany.
The parliament is apprised of some surprising facts: surveys show a fall in the level of support for democracy among young people. Several seem to think it would be nice to have a “strong chief”.
There is no agreement on whether the economic slowdown, austerity and unemployment are making people ever more suspicious of politicians. But everyone agrees that there is a growing gap between the political classes and the electorate.
And as political parties lose credibility and relevance, populists step into their space and start spinning their tales of hate and woe.
The far-right populists in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere are often in the spotlight but it is time the illiberal leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with their message of division and disunity, received equal attention.
As one participant put it, “We worry about what’s happening outside Europe but as we all know the fundamental rules of democracy are being breached inside Europe. Are we doing what is needed to stop the rot?”
“How can the EU impose principled, punitive measures on autocrats around the world when it has been unwilling to use any kind of sanction against the likes of Viktor Orban in Europe itself,” asked another.
Also, is it enough to hold elections in order to be a democracy? The response from participants is that it is important to think beyond the elections to models and structures of governance.
Political party reform is important for instance. And winners in elections have to learn that once they are behind the driving wheel, they must work for ALL their citizens, not just for those who voted for them.
The discussions are animated and open. There is concern about the growing polarisation of electorates, the rise in extremist ideologies, the lack of space for people in the centre who don’t want to vote for either the Left or the Right.
In addition, the Western liberal model is losing traction worldwide as countries look for help and inspiration to Russia or China. Many in China are already beginning to tout the “Beijing model” to countries as an alternative to democracy.
It is sobering stuff. We leave the conference in a muted state of alarm. It’s good to be aware of the dangers around us and of the even more perilous times ahead.
But I wish someone had come up with a solution to revive and reboot a form of government which — for all its weaknesses — is still the best one around. At least for the time being.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2016