The Challenges Facing Democracy Promotion in 2014 and Beyond

Publication Date: 
15 Jan 2015

News Type:

By Adam Gallagher, Editor and Writer

In 2014, a host of international crises – from the rise of ISIS to the Ebola crisis – dominated the agenda of the international community. While there were some notable democratic successes last year, such as Indonesia’s continued democratic consolidation and the positive progress of Tunisia’s transition, 2014 was not exactly a banner year for democracy worldwide. Over the course of the last decade, pushback against democracy assistance has presented serious challenges to the democracy agenda as more and more governments have created legal obstacles for democracy programs, questioned their utility and harassed organizations engaged in such efforts. At the same time, U.S. funding for democracy assistance has decreased by 28 percent during U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, with similar reductions for democracy assistance in many Western democracies. 

As 2014 came to a close, I sat down with two circumspect observers of democracy around the globe, one an imminent scholar and another a seasoned practitioner, for a wide-ranging conversation on the state of democracy and governance assistance and the challenges facing democracy promotion. An authoritative scholar on democracy promotion and U.S. foreign policy, Thomas Carothers is the Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of six critically acclaimed books. Bill Sweeney, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) President and CEO, has decades of experience in election assistance and democracy support and has observed elections throughout the world. Both Carothers and Sweeney soberly assessed the state of democracy promotion in recent years and detailed the challenging international environment for such work. Moreover, both agreed that many of the international crises the world saw in 2014 make a strong case for a robust democracy promotion policy.

Over the course of the last decade – after two decades of an advancing democracy promotion movement – more and more governments began to restrict democracy and governance programming and cracked down on international NGOs engaged in such work, as Carothers has detailed elsewhere. According to both Sweeney and Carothers, this backlash continues and stems from both general, ideological factors and more pragmatic, political reasons. “There is a power shift going on in the world, and it does not mean the West is losing power, but other countries are gaining power in different regions and as they do so they are questioning some of the basic rules of international order. One of the things they are questioning is whether there really is a shared value regarding democracy. Both whether there is a common understanding about what democracy is and if it’s right for everyone,” Carothers asserted. 

More straightforward political factors have also led to this backlash, as those in power fear the loss of their position, particularly in societies where losing political power can result in being incarcerated or worse. The rise of civil society, which is protesting more intensely and frequently in many places around the globe, has also spurred this backlash and governments trying to account for these protests are often blaming outside forces for stoking protesters. However, as Sweeney noted, “Citizens are now more educated and realize the gulf between the promise and the performance of their governments.” With a more active and engaged citizenry, power holders looking to maintain the status quo view democracy promotion as a dangerous enterprise to harness this people power and move to more democratic forms of government.        
Although the backlash against democracy promotion has been taking place for at least a decade, 2014 presented unique challenges to the implementation of such programming. Crises like the Ebola outbreak and the rise of ISIS have distracted the attention of the Western policy community, not only pulling policymakers away from the democracy agenda, but also causing policymakers to prioritize stability over democratic transformation, a phenomenon that has been evident in policy toward the Middle East. For Carothers, “These different crises have a complicated effect that should ideally strengthen the democracy agenda, but in some near-term ways weaken it.” From Ukraine to the chaos in Syria and beyond, there is a common thread linking these crises: the weakness and failing of political institutions. For example, Carothers argued, Ukraine would not have been a magnet for Russian interference if it had had a more successful institutional and political transformation in the last 20 years. The Ebola outbreak is fundamentally a governance problem that has hit affected countries with weak institutions and much of the problems we see in the Middle East today have been caused or exacerbated by authoritarianism in the region. “Issues as disparate as Ukraine, the Middle East and the Ebola crisis,” Carothers averred, “can distract us from the democracy agenda and make us feel that other agendas are more important. But, if we look carefully we see that underneath them all the weaknesses of democratic transformations and institutions are the breeding ground for such bad situations.” Thus, these crises, while having a near-term distraction effect, should ultimately make the case for the democracy agenda even stronger. 

According to Sweeney, the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis has also hampered democracy promotion policy as Western governments have reduced the levels of assistance for such programming. “In society after society, we have seen the budgets for development cut or frozen, which has reduced the capability to support the democracy and governance programming and directly affected the capacity of the West to promote a democracy agenda,” Sweeney noted. Indeed, the negative ramifications of the financial crisis for funding democracy promotion have been exacerbated by international crises that divert funding away from democracy and development programming.  

Looking at elections in 2015, Carothers and Sweeney identified two important elections that the democracy community will be closely watching. Myanmar’s fall general elections are important in a number of ways, particularly given the implications for the particular path of democratization that has taken place in the country. The authoritarian Burmese political system has engaged in a piecemeal transition to democracy through a top-down process that has only happened in a few other instances – such as in Mexico and Taiwan – around the world. Can an authoritarian system gradually transition to true democracy from the top down? “This is an important question, especially in places like the Middle East where we hope reform can happen in more authoritarian countries from the top down. Does democratic change need to take place through a big disruptive event?” Carothers asked. The results of Myanmar’s fall 2015 general election will say much about this type of rare transition and, if successful, present a model for other regimes wary of more disruptive transition paradigms. 

Elsewhere, Sweeney pointed to the February elections in Nigeria. The most populous country on the continent, Nigeria’s elections will be a major test for democracy in the country that is so crucial to Africa’s future. Indeed, given the high-profile importance of Nigeria, and the turmoil the country is experiencing, a successful democratic election will demonstrate the viability of democracy in a region embroiled in conflict. Sweeney also pointed out that elections in the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada, and other donor countries, will also be vital to the state of the democracy agenda in 2015. “The elections in the UK and Canada are also critical in regards to whether or not donor societies will continue to invest. It’s been a matter of debate in all donor countries in recent years,” Sweeney noted.

Whether its pushback from unwelcoming governments, distracting international crises or reduced financial capacity, democracy promotion will certainly remain beset by a host of challenges in 2015 and beyond. Yet, these challenges only underscore the need for a robust democracy promotion policy. What is more, despite operating in many chaotic and uncertain situations, democracy programming continues to have pronounced successes, as in Tunisia and Indonesia in 2014. Amid these challenges, organizations like IFES continue to work in such challenging, fluid environments because of the fundamental belief that the right to vote is a human right.