What Is the Future of Democracy?

On a global scale democratic systems are facing grave challenges. The first global “Summit for Democracy” discussed possible ways to counter the negative trends. Looking back at the summit, expert Annika Silva-Leander shares her views on challenges, potentials and limitations. 

Sabine Fischer | February 2022
Headerbild Summit for Democracy
IMAGO Media Punch

During the first global “Summit for Democracy” US President Biden delivers some remarks while Antony Blinken, Secretary of States, listens. 110 countries joined the digital summit. 

In International IDEAs latest report “The Global State of Democracy Report 2021” it is stated that democracy is facing grave challenges on a global scale. What are they? 

One the one hand, we are seeing a decline in the number of democracies: In 2015 there were 104, in 2020 only 98 remain. We also see that the quality of these democracies is declining. The number of countries suffering from severe decline, what we refer to as democratic backsliding, has doubled in the last decade. It is important to note that some of them are old democracies like the US and India. On the other hand, we have more and more countries moving towards authoritarianism. In the last 40 years the number of countries moving towards democracy was consistently higher than the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism. In the last five years this number has shifted – that is the longest such negative trend we have seen for a long time.

Half of the non-democratic regimes have seen declines on their transformations towards democracy.

What are the trends when it comes to non-democratic regimes? 

Almost half of non-democratic regimes have seen declines as well. Particularly hybrid regimes which are not democracies but show Democratic facades – for example: they hold elections which are not minimally competitive – have backsliding. Because of the Pandemic it has been much easier for those types of countries to justify disproportionate restrictions on Democratic rights like freedom of movement or speech for example. Russia is a typical example for such a hybrid regime. Before the Pandemic we also saw some positive trends of non-democratic countries transitioning to democracy for the first time. But many of those processes have been halted or even reversed by the Pandemic. Myanmar is one example which suffered a military coup in 2021.

Against this backdrop, how do you assess the role of the “Summit for Democracy” and its potentials and limitations to counter these trends? 

We welcome this unprecedented initiative on two levels: On the one hand it is very timely because the negative trends that we see on the global democratic landscape have never been as severe as they are now: It is time to make a signal that democracy matters and is worth nurturing. On the other hand the world of democracies is very fragmented and we need to get better at collaborating. We hope the Summit continues on a regular basis so that countries that have made commitments now will continue to do so. However, it is important that the summit does not become just a high-level summit with lofty goals and few concrete results. An initial assessment conducted by IDEA of the verbal statements made by 98 of those 110 countries invited shows that more than half of the statements included very generic or even no commitments. 

Annika Silva-Leander
Foto: privat

About the person

Annika Silva-Leander is Head of North America Outreach and Analysis at “International IDEA” where she oversees the initiative’s outreach in the region. As an opinion-builder on democracy she also contributes to the global debate on democracy through her analysis and speaking engagements. The Robert Bosch Stiftung supported International IDEA in organizing a civil society forum in the run-up to the Summit. In addition, IDEA developed a monitoring platform to track the declarations and commitments of the participating countries.

One goal of the Summit was to get countries to commit to certain steps and measures to strengthen democracy. Do the commitments made so far offer a perspective for a global renewal of democracy?

Unfortunately, very few countries have made written statements yet: The deadline was 7 January, by 22 January only five countries have made their commitments. The verbal statements leave a lot to be desired. However, among the efforts to strengthen democracy at home, corruption came out as the first priority for most governments, followed by efforts to promote inclusion of marginalized groups and to fight discrimination. This is encouraging as these are both critical issues in many countries. However, the issues that were least prioritized were parliaments, access to justice, public service delivery and civil society which in many countries have weakened in recent years. It will be important that the commitments to fight corruption do not crowd out other important issues. 

Which role would you ascribe to civil society actors before, during and after the summit?

The summit focused on three main themes: human rights, corruption and defending against authoritarianism. But there are many other issues that don’t fall directly under these three pillars, for example women’s participation. I think civil society actors played a very important role in placing those other issues on the agenda during the planning process. However, while some civil society actors were present in the panel discussion, going forward a better job could be done at a more inclusive approach with civil society: Involving them in the agenda-setting of the second summit and expanding their participation to more actors from the Global South.  

It is important to provide more space for civil society actors from the global south.

US President Biden announced that he would hold a second personal summit by the end of 2022. What are your expectations for the second summit?

It would be important to look at the progress on the three pillars of the first summit and on the commitments that were made. I’m also hoping that the issues can be broadened to include other topics such as the integrity of elections. What was also missing at the first summit is looking at the multilateral system and what role it can play to counter negative democratic trends: The UN is a global system that includes a lot of non-democratic countries. That makes it very difficult for the UN to engage on democracy at all. But we need to address some of the transnational issues, such as the use of surveillance technologies – and that needs a multilateral response.