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The global state of democracy as seen by citizens

Written by Ionel Zamfir,

EPRS Policy Roundtable ‘Declining commitment to democracy : What’s going on around the world ?’

On 7 March 2018, the EPRS Members’ Research Service organised a roundtable on the global state of democracy as seen by citizens. The main questions addressed were: do citizens still trust democratic forms of governance? Are they still committed to the model, and can such commitment be boosted? What factors drive public preference for representative democracy over non-democratic options? These are vital questions to answer if there is to be a future for democracy in Europe and in the world.

Opening the event, Etienne Bassot, Director of the Members’ Research Service, highlighted the importance of the topic, particularly with the approaching elections for the European Parliament.


Warning that the failures of our democratic systems weaken citizens’ trust and embolden the enemies of democracies, the first speaker, Ana Gomes (S&D, Portugal), said we must learn the lessons of history and address these failures with courage. For example, the failure of our governments to uphold their legal and moral obligations towards those who need protection, such as refugees, has fuelled extremism and radicalisation. Complacency towards the rise of illiberal democracy in Europe is unacceptable. In fact, there is no such thing as an illiberal democracy, a democracy which does not respect human rights is not a democracy. Furthermore, democracies’ weaknesses in the face of corruption and criminal activities have to be addressed. Much of the deregulation associated with the supposedly liberal economy is deliberately encouraged for the benefit of certain groups, sometimes criminal organisations, such as terrorist groups that have taken advantage of the VAT fraud system. Our governments and the EU have not responded adequately. Populists therefore build on citizens’ justified mistrust towards government. We should not allow democracy’s enemies to exploit the weaknesses of our governments to interfere with public perceptions and capture people’s support. While it is not easy to find a solution, according to Ana Gomes we cannot remain idle. It takes courage to address the faults of our political systems, but it has to be done.

Monika Nogaj, Head of the Members’ Research Service External Policies Unit moderated the debate, during which Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC, presented a recent 38-nation Pew Research Center survey, which has found that there are reasons for calm as well as concern when it comes to democracy’s future. People still do be believe in democracy. More than half of respondents in each of the nations polled consider representative democracy a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat good’ way to govern their country. In all countries, pro-democracy attitudes coexist however, to varying degrees, with openness to non-democratic forms of governance, including rule by experts, a strong leader or the military.

Bruce STOKES, the director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC

Bruce Stokes focused on the survey’s European findings. Europeans are equally divided on the question whether they are satisfied with their democracy, which places them among the least satisfied in the world. Regional divides are important: Northern Europeans are quite satisfied with their democracy, while Southern Europeans are not. Europeans’ trust in their government is also lower than in other parts of the world, although it is stronger in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany. Despite their dissatisfaction with the way their government works, Europeans overwhelmingly support representative democracy as a government model. A majority of Europeans reject rule by experts. Europeans also overwhelmingly reject rule by a strong ruler. A striking outcome of the survey is the people’s desire to be more directly involved in political decisions. Some 70 % of Europeans want major issues to be put to a popular vote in their countries. Populist party supporters are even more supportive of direct democracy – likely one of the reasons some people prefer these parties.

EPRS Policy Roundtable ‘Declining commitment to democracy : What’s going on around the world ?’

Andrew Bradley, Director of the International IDEA office to the EU, presented the IDEA 2017 Report on the Global State of Democracy. The report, the first edition of the publication, focuses on exploring the resilience of democracy and analyses a set of key challenges to democracy. Bradley highlighted that democracy is at a cross-roads, facing serious challenges. Taking a longer and global perspective, however, reasons to be optimistic exist: global progress has been made in all aspects of democracy since 1975, based on the indices selected by IDEA. However, during recent years, threats have arisen which cannot be ignored. We should not therefore take democracy for granted.

The main challenges include backsliding and shrinking democratic space (more specifically constitutional amendments; concentration of power in the executive; undermined judicial independence; media restrictions; restrictions on opposition parties and civil society); rising populism and nationalism; spreading of fake news and disinformation; decreasing trust in political parties and elites; state capture and corruption, such as unchecked inflows of money into politics; spill-overs from regional conflicts, such as migration and refugee flows, that fuel populism in Europe.

Democracy is undergoing a crisis of political representation, which has to be addressed. IDEA makes a series of recommendations in this respect. Political parties have to remain responsive to the electorate’s needs during the entire electorate cycle, to address policy challenges without compromising ideology, to communicate political vision, and to outline innovative programmes. They have to be democratic, transparent, based on fair processes, open to pluralism, inclusive – particularly of young people and women, ready to engage with citizens, open to alternative forms of membership, able to restore trust (through anti-corruption measures and internal democracy), and open to alternative means of communication (ICT).

EPRS Policy Roundtable ‘Declining commitment to democracy : What’s going on around the world ?’

Commenting on the findings presented, Ionel Zamfir, policy analyst at EPRS, welcomed the distinction the Pew Survey drew between people’s trust in democracy as a form of government and their attitudes towards their existing government. Sometimes, there are positive reasons as to why people have become wary of the way their democracy functions, such as better access to information (including on corruption cases) and setting of higher standards, particularly by the young. Dissatisfaction with the way democracy works in practice does not necessarily represent a rejection of democratic principles as such. The popularity of direct democracy, as shown in the Pew Survey, clearly illustrates this distinction. Furthermore, the IDEA report’s findings that, taking a longer-term perspective, democracy is progressing in the world, despite current challenges, is important. Even if democratic progress is not linear, democracies are particularly fit to overcome crises, as they are flexible and able to adapt and reinvent themselves. The survey also provides some interesting insights for EU democracy support – a subject on which the EPRS has recently published a briefing. The EU is at the forefront of efforts to support democracy in third countries in the world. As the Pew Survey shows, people expect democratic systems to deliver, and the state of the economy and the effectiveness of the government are strong drivers of citizens’ trust in democracy. These findings legitimate the approach taken by the EU with regard to democracy support since the Lisbon Treaty, according to which consistency and coherence with other external policy must be assured and strengthened. Economic success and good governance (and EU aid can play an important supportive role) is important for the strength and resilience of democracies. In this respect, EU development aid, as well as the human rights and democracy conditionality enshrined in many of its bilateral relations, can ensure that democratic and economic progress go hand in hand.

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