“Why we can not fully celebrate”, a Club de Madrid Op-Ed about the quality of Democracy


Members of the Club de Madrid express concern on International Democracy Day

The spread of democracy around the world has undoubtedly been one of the major political achievements of the 20th century. The 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to herald yet another wave of democratic transitions, political freedom and economic prosperity in regions that for decades have been plagued with unrelenting authoritarian rule, repression and corruption. Expectations of swift and wide-ranging transitions have, however, been mostly frustrated. Once again in 2014, Freedom House highlights alarming setbacks rather than advancement in political rights and civil liberties in most transitional regimes.

Even though the numbers of those voting in 2014 have been greater than ever before, analysts observe that “democracy appears to be in a holding pattern around the world—if not outright retreat.”[1] Elections, although essential, are only a tool for the implementation of democracy. According to the UN General Assembly resolution that established the International Day of Democracy that we celebrate today, democracy is a system based on the “freely-expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of life.”[2] People today want to express their will broadly and deeply, in ‘…all aspects of life…’, not just with a ballot every four or five years. Representative democracy is not keeping up with the growing demand for direct participation, and the result is growing disaffection.

That ‘fourth wave of democracy’ thought to have been set off by the Arab Spring has been followed by an intricate web of dramatic conflicts in and around Syria; mounting tensions in Wider Europe flowing from Russia’s actions in Ukraine; and the continuing muzzling of on and offline citizen voices from Latin America to the Middle East, among others. The world seems to be lurching from one crisis to another and, while there are encouraging developments in Myanmar, Indonesia, Colombia, Tunisia, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, global trends are nevertheless far from propitious. New and often subtle forms of populism and authoritarian behavior are appearing in a variety of countries, irrespective of past democratic credentials. The resurgence of terrorism from certain groups of Islamic fundamentalists will not only continue to taint foreign policy, it could again result in a further weakening of individual rights and democratic values as governments struggle with tensions between liberty and security.

If these disquieting trends continue to deteriorate, the future of democracy will soon be in real jeopardy. Political stress is being exacerbated by growing inequality within nations, even in the face of significant poverty reduction globally. The expansion of middle classes beyond ‘Western industrialized countries’ has broadened access to education and technology for hundreds of millions in emerging regions of the world, rapidly expanding the needs and expectations of newly empowered citizens and putting insurmountable pressure on slimming public institutions. On the one hand, new pro-democratic movements, often led by the youngest generations of citizens, are intensively using social media and communication technologies all over the world in order to generate values for a truly global democracy. On the other hand, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has created additional strains, particularly in consolidated democracies, where long-established middle classes are experiencing a sharp decline in living standards. The expectations of citizens for a better future are being thwarted at such a pace that democratic institutions may not be able to cope.

Democratic economic governance is a relatively new concept. Even if, for many, democracy only has a political facet, economic policies are at the heart of today´s governance and cannot be shielded from claims for greater participation. Inclusive access to the market economy is central to the future of democracy. The progressive decoupling of democracy and capitalism entails rethinking capitalism in democracy. Democratic countries need to show that they can be no less efficient in creating conditions for all citizens to live a decent life than those nondemocratic states where the market economy has already taken root.

Democracy is today facing another, apparently ‘external’, danger. Contemporary democracy needs not only continue to be sustainable as the best form of governance, but must also secure a sustainable planet for the sake of future generations. Here again, the electoral cycle induces short-termism precisely when lasting commitments are desperately needed. A long-term, global, economic and social deal is essential if our soil and air are to continue being suitable for humankind to exist.

The progressive fragmentation of decision-making (a consequence and defining feature of modern, multi-level democracy) is making effective responses more difficult, in spite of increasingly well-informed leaders and societies. While the crisis in democracy is manifesting itself differently in different regions of the world, commonalities among regions have never been more apparent. People are hungry for mobility, interaction and participation, within and beyond national borders, but defensive identities are often leading to exclusion and radicalization. There is no law of the pendulum in sight, but rather the unfolding of simultaneous and contradictory processes.

As Members of the Club de Madrid, we are convinced that democratic governance is the answer. Governance determines our lives as individuals and members of our community and organizes the use of resources and the economy in general. Governance must therefore generate collaboration across sectors in order to protect our rights and provide for the preservation of ecosystems while creating business opportunities for all. We are convinced that no form of governance but democratic governance can effectively deal with such multifaceted challenge in an inclusive manner.  

During the coming months, the Club de Madrid, with various partners and stakeholders from different regions of the world, will be leading a collaborative and participatory Next Generation Democracy (NGD) project aimed at reversing signals of decline and advancing democracy. On the basis of a thoughtful analysis of trends in democratic development from 2000 to 2015 and projections towards 2030, we will develop regional and global agendas compiling emerging values and innovative practices and ideas on democracy.

No pessimistic diagnosis will discourage democratic thinking and action. Let us today cautiously celebrate democracy, recognizing that much remains to be done and all contributions are welcome. As this year´s Day of Democracy highlights, our common endeavor cannot be fulfilled without actively engaging young people as future but also current leaders of democracy.


Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former President of Latvia, on behalf of the 97 democratic, former Presidents and Prime Ministers, Members of the Club de Madrid

[1] Uri Friedman, “Report: Global Freedom Has Been Declining for Nearly a Decade,” The Atlantic, January 23, 2014.

[2] Preamble, UNGA Res. A/62/7 (2007).


Read here the spanish version of this Op-Ed