by Michael Svetlik*
Since 2007 when the United Nations General Assembly designated September 15th as the International Day of Democracy, organizations – governmental and nongovernmental – have joined with others to commemorate the importance of promoting and upholding principles of democracy. On this day, we lift our voices with other like-minded supporters of human freedom and dignity to raise public awareness about the power that citizens have to determine by whom, and how, they are governed.
To appreciate the relevance of this year’s International Day of Democracy we need look no further than to Hong Kong and Moscow, or to Khartoum and Caracas, where calls for self-governance, greater representation and genuine self-determination underscore that democracy is not an end, but rather a means to achieving human dignity and meaningful human development.
The rising tide of threats to democracy in recent years also means that the International Day of Democracy is an opportunity to reflect on how we can do better to ensure that the freely expressed will of the people is the basis of responsive governance and respect for human rights. As well, International Day of Democracy reminds us that all governments are obliged to respect their citizens' right to substantive and meaningful participation in political affairs.
The theme for this year’s International Day of Democracy is participation. In our organization’s efforts to support inclusive, responsive democracy and credible electoral processes, we know that democracy flourishes only when all groups of society are represented and able to freely participate. Together with our civil society and national partners, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) works to empower citizens to find their voice and fully participate in all aspects of democratic society. Recent highlights of our efforts to promote full participation by all people include:
- Preparing women to take leadership roles in local and national politics. In Myanmar, “She Leads” participants gain knowledge and skills to play a leading role in transforming their communities.
- Working to support inclusion of both voters and observers with disabilities. In Guatemala, IFES partners with the national disability council to undertake accessibility observations of polling locations.
- Facilitating trainings with multiple stakeholders to counter disinformation, hate speech and incitement to violence. In Indonesia, IFES supports the election management bodies’ efforts to develop a range of strategies to address these critical challenges to safe and equal participation of all people.
- Working to provide voters with the information required to engage in political life. In Tunisia, IFES has joined with the Tunisian Mediterranean Center to train and deploy women ambassadors to encourage women, especially illiterate women living in remote areas, to register and vote.
These efforts demonstrate that vibrant, resilient democracies require full and active participation and engagement of all. Whether voting in elections, participating in community meetings or advocating for local development and greater accessibility, democracy is about people and about achieving a society’s collective ambitions for a better future.
Our celebration of International Day of Democracy continues on September 30th when we honor Margot Wallström, former Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Madeleine K. Albright, former United States Secretary of State and Stephen J. Hadley, former U.S. National Security Adviser, with our 2019 Democracy Award. As we honor these stalwarts of democracy and pay tribute to their long public service, we underscore our commitment to democratic principles and human security.
*Michael Svetlik is vice president of programs at IFES.