The Big Question: What is the biggest threat to democracy?

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From the Fall 2012 Democracy Issue

What is the biggest threat to Democracy?

Democracy is more than just a buzzword of revolution. It represents hope for a better, freer, and more prosperous future in countries around the world. But all too often, it faces threats to its expansion or even to its very existence. We have asked our panel of global experts to weigh in on what they see as the biggest threat to democracy in their respective nations.



Jaan Kaplinski: Estonia: “Right of Blood”

Democracy in Estonia has a short history. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Estonia briefly experimented with democracy before suffering through authoritarian one-party rule until the breakup of the Soviet Union and its liberation in 1991. Now, as a member state of the European Union, Estonia has all the requisites of a modern democratic state. Unfortunately, this means that in addition to the problems faced by other EU members (nepotism, “short-termism,” influence of big money), Estonia faces a host of other issues—due partly to its inexperience in democratic politics and partly its division into two communities, a minority of Russian-speakers and a majority of Estonian-speakers.

The Estonian majority has introduced legislation effectively banning a large part of the Russian community from participating in political life. Our laws of citizenship are based on jus sanguinis (right of blood). Only citizens of the pre-war Estonia and their descendants had their nationality reinstated. Rules of naturalization are rigorous and include exams in Estonian language and law. As a result, large parts of our population are non-citizens.

In Estonia, unlike in neighboring states, Russians are not considered compatriots, leading to serious conflicts with Russia. To solve our ethnic problems, a real dialogue is needed. Unfortunately, steps toward such a dialogue are hindered by the perception of Estonia as a homeland only for ethnic Estonians. Thus, Estonia will most likely remain an ethnic democracy for the foreseeable future, preserving the existing tensions both with local Russians and the Russian Federation.

Jaan Kaplinski is an Estonian poet, philosopher, and writer. He has published 14 collections of poems, five collections of essays, and a number of non-fiction books.


Ahmed Kathrada: South Africa: Opposition FEARS

South Africa’s liberation struggle, which culminated in the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress, the release of political prisoners, and a free election in 1994, signifies hope in the process and institutions of democracy to millions inside and outside the country. Yet there are threats to our nascent republic. It is disturbing that 18 years into our democracy, elements in the ruling party regard opposition parties, which are protected under the constitution, as enemies rather than rivals, an essential ingredient in all democracies.

Statements by leaders regarding the judiciary and their calls for a review of the Constitution are also matters of grave concern. If allowed to go unchecked, they will undermine the independence of vital pillars of our democracy. Another growing threat is the ignorance of young people about the history of our struggle. They need to know that with freedom comes responsibility. Freedom did not fall from heaven. It was fought for at great cost and sacrifice.

While democracy has given people the right to vote, the vast majority remain stricken by poverty. Growing inequality results in a loss of faith in the institutions of democracy. The preservation of democracy in our country, as elsewhere in the world, is not guaranteed. It must continue to be fought for, with integrity and selflessness.

Ahmed Kathrada is a former political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist. In South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections, he became a member of parliament.


Raheel Raza: Pakistan: Lessons From India

When Pakistan gained independence from India in 1947, it failed to implement three major changes that Prime Minister Nehru embedded in the Indian constitution—an independent judiciary, assurances that the army can’t play a political role, and the abolition of the feudal system. Without these, Pakistan has floundered for 65 years, trying to establish democracy. The role of the Pakistani army both as a political force and as the biggest landlord and industrialist in Pakistan has been detrimental to free and fair elections. Some 80 percent of the country’s budget is siphoned into army coffers, and no civilian government in Pakistan has ever run its full tenure.

Today, due to continuous army interference in politics, there are few free educational institutions, leaving more than 75 percent of the population
undereducated. Furthermore, the import of extremist Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia has resulted in a toxic mix of religion and politics as well as an unholy alliance between the mullahs and the military. There is hope for democracy only if feudalism, corruption, and interference by the army and intelligence agencies stop. Only when education becomes a priority and when a single civilian government is allowed to run its full course can people decide who they want to run their country.

Raheel Raza, born in Pakistan, is a Canada-based journalist, public speaker, film-maker, interfaith advocate, and the author most recently of How Can You Possibly be an Anti-Terrorist Muslim? (2011).


Eman Al-Nafjan: Saudi Arabia: The Unknown

In an absolute monarchy such as ours, political awareness, never mind democracy, is hard to come by. Democracy as a form of government is a completely foreign concept. This lack of awareness and experience among the people has been used by academics, political analysts, and even the people themselves to postpone the inevitable. “Saudi people are not ready for democracy,” is heard practically everywhere. Throughout history, few nations have eased into democracy, but sooner or later, the people will rise up and demand it.

In the best case scenario, the transition from a second generation monarchy to a third generation goes smoothly, and this third generation turns out to be progressive and allows the incorporation of democracy so that eventually we have a governing structure not that different from Britain’s.

In the worst case scenario, the transition does not go smoothly. Then the international community will get involved to protect the oil fields and stop the outbreak of an all-out civil war. By the end of such a nightmare, will there be a Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether or not it’s democratically run? The answer is yes, as long as stability is maintained and the transition goes well from a horizontal line of heirs to the throne to the more common vertical line. Then, all that’s standing in the way between democracy and the Saudi people is time.

Eman al-Nafjan blogs about Saudi social and cultural issues at Saudiwoman’s Weblog.


Lobsang Wangyal: Tibet: A Gift from Above

The biggest disappointment of my life is never having seen my own country. As a Tibetan refugee in India, I have a special responsibility to bear witness and experience democracy in my neighboring countries. Indian democracy can be raucous and absurd while China has no democracy, rule of law, or government transparency. In India, communal conflicts, religious riots, corruption cases, and socio-economic disparities are everyday phenomena. Activists calling for reforms in China have been ostracized and tortured for their work. And for the exiled Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has imposed democracy from above.

The 14th Dalai Lama, who fled to India following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, relinquished all political powers more than a year ago. Now he is only the spiritual head of the Tibetan people. Tibetans will eventually have to carry on their fight for a free Tibet without him. The exiles elected their new political head democratically. Almost 50,000 people voted.

I see the biggest threats to democracy as lack of education, morality, and common sense in the community; poverty, which quells courage and enthusiasm among the masses; the lack of a political will to effectively apply democratic practices; and the lack of commitment to the growth of democracy and national development among the political leadership.

Lobsang Wangyal is a photojournalist based in Mcleod Ganj, India.


Gyula Hegyi:  Hungary: Pesky Populists

Hungary became a democracy in 1989-90 mostly due to geopolitical changes. It had never been a real democracy.

Rather, the country has a long tradition of a strong government and a weak, if vocal, opposition. Perhaps that’s why the simple fact of getting a freely elected parliament didn’t bring long-term contentment to Hungarians. In a country of 10 million inhabitants, 1.5 million jobs disappeared. Most Roma were excluded from the labor market, and social inequities grew. Those born and raised after World War II faced homelessness, extreme poverty, and open forms of racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalist demagoguery—to a degree never before experienced. The gross national product declined. While many became millionaires with lavish lifestyles, others lost everything.

The biggest weakness of democracy is its portrayal as an elitist game to cover up increasing poverty, social inequality, and injustice. The public consensus on democracy, anti-fascism, and tolerance is melting rapidly. The only good solution is to extend, not eliminate, democracy. While total equality in incomes and wealth is impossible, democratic initiatives are required in social and economic policy. Fair and progressive taxation, strong social dialogue, equal access to education, and health and social services for every citizen are needed. Social economy like co-operatives should be encouraged. The biggest chance for democracy is a fair society with as little inequality as possible in a market economy.

Gyula Hegyi is a member of European Commissioner László Andor’s cabinet. Earlier, he was a member of the European Parliament and a journalist.

The views expressed are purely those of the writer and may not be regarded as an official position of the European Commission


Sawsan Al-Sha’er: Bahrain: Threat of Democracy

In Arab societies where civilian gains such as freedom, co-existence, and pluralism are relatively new and where anarchic democracy is being practiced unchecked, what concerns me is that our few gains are at risk of vanishing—taking us centuries backward. Our achievements could be lost amid manipulation of electoral blocs in villages by the most radical religious scholars.

We risk hardliners, enemies of civic rights and freedoms, taking control of the legislative decisions in the name of “democracy.” I fear they will implement their theocratic doctrine and strip me and my fellow females of every achievement we’ve made over the past two long centuries.

Female education began in Bahrain some 100 years ago, making us the first Gulf country to offer education to girls and move toward eradicating illiteracy. I fear that I will wake up to find myself and other supporters of liberal trends dragged into an unbalanced confrontation, making us appear to be against evolution and democracy and wrongly accused of defending a specific political system. In this case, will there be any use of defending female rights after what “is done is done?” How did Shirin Ebadi benefit from the Nobel Peace Prize after she had lost most of her gains under Khomeini’s rule, eventually recognizing that she was being treated as inferior to her fellow men simply because she was a woman? I am ready to take the risk of being labeled anti-democratic in order not to meet the same fate as Shirin Ebadi. Without freedom, a million Nobel prizes will be of no use to me.

Sawsan al-Sha’er is host of the “Final Word” on Bahrain TV and columnist for Al Watan newspaper.


Ritva Koukku-Ronde: Finland: Global Threats

Without a widely held belief in democratic values, the importance of rule of law, and an overarching respect for human rights, it is not possible to achieve sustainable development economically, socially, culturally, or ecologically.

Finnish society is built on the principle of equality. In 1906, Finland was the first European country to grant women the right to vote in and stand for parliamentary elections. Everyone is entitled to free health care and numerous other social benefits. All education up to and including the tertiary level is free (undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees).

Despite the democratic successes Finland has enjoyed since its independence in 1917, growing inequality could pose a threat to our democratic state. Additionally, global threats are also our threats.

Finland is committed to enhancing the spread of democracy and rule of law around the world, and we welcome any steps toward the goal of a democratic world based on rule of law and universal respect for human rights.

Ritva Koukku-Ronde is the ambassador of Finland to the United States.


Compiled by Richard Armstrong, Neha Madhusoodanan, and Yelena Niazyan

[Illustration by Meehyun Nam-Thompson ]

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