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Power to the People

If democracy is to win, it has to be fought for

Political decisions are made by international companies and multilateral institutions, and without input from the citizens they touch. The time has come for a different kind of participation.

Recent revolutions have toppled dictators without subsequently leading to democracy. In countries such as Ukraine, Russia, Tunisia and Egypt democracy is a huge, unfulfilled promise. And if that doesn't change, these societies will fall back into the hands of authoritarian rule, and democracy will lose out. At least in the first instance.

Twenty years ago, liberal democracy was the only clearly defined and collective political aim of myriad regions and cultures around the world. But this trend appears to be passé.

True enough, by the end of the 20th century, a number of totalitarian ideologies - National Socialism, fascism and communism - were no more. Perestroika and Glanost, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall, sent the last of Europe's authoritarian communist and socialist systems to the dogs.

But a quarter of a century later, there are hurdles on the victory lap to democracy - both in the newest revolutionary countries and in long-standing democracies.

Undemocratic models in the majority

The recipe for democratic success is at risk. Promises of life free from ideology remain empty, and as a result many places around the world are witnessing the emergence new anti-democratic political models. They offer security in an insecure world - either with clear political and societal order via Shari'ia law, or through a strong state. They might be undemocratic models, but they are popular, because what people want most is security. And they don't start asking for greater involvement until they have it.

So do people want freedom more than bread? A look at current developments would suggest not. The 2011 protests in Tunisia and Egypt began with calls for bread and water, then for dignity and justice, and later for greater participation. From the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the mass protests in Russia in 2011, to the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, the 2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and civil movement in Egypt - not one of them led to the establishment of a stable democratic system. The revolutions deposed dictators, but failed to change the systems over which they had ruled.

Democracy has competitors

There is no gentle transition to a one-world democracy. In the past two decades, liberal democracy has met with steep competition from a myriad of hybrid systems and mock democracies. Many have dressed up as democracies for the sake of protocol, and in order to disguise their dictatorial and authoritarian trademarks. That goes for soft dictators in eastern and southern Europe, and for the many states that are ruled with a despotic hand, but which have succeeded in creating economic growth for the majority of their citizens without guaranteeing them their civil rights.

But in this globalized economic world of ours, even established democracies are starting to reach their political limits. Important decisions are not made in parliament or by national governments, but by players and institutions on which citizens barely have any influence: be that the world of global finance, multinationals or the impenetrable EU bureaucratic machine.

This is where politics happen without codetermination or input from citizens. And that, in turn, has led to the credibility crisis in which democracy now finds itself - even in societies that evidently benefit from it. A third of Germans, for example, don't believe democracy can solve the most important problems.

Learning from the past

One thing is clear: The problem is not democracy itself, but the way it is shaped and used. And it is clear where there is room for improvement: How to secure greater participation? How best to start the process of opinion formation? How and where are complex political issues communicated in order not to alienate people from politics?

And how can democracy be used to improve the existential lot of a majority of people? Memory and experience are stronger than the belief in a new abstract idea, no matter how promising it might sound. Populism and growing resistance to Europe in the bloc's core states such as Spain, Greece and Italy underscore the fact that nobody is going to lay their hand in the fire for a political model that doesn't give them what they need.

Arguing allowed

If democracy is to be saved, it is imperative to revitalize the process of reaching workable compromises. That means it is okay to argue, be that in parliament, at the ballot box, in the media, online and on public platforms. Indeed a new culture of debate is important if democracy is to succeed. And that, in turn, requires new public platforms, such as those launched by globalization critics and civil movements like “occupy” or “Stuttgart 21”. It also requires new instruments for the participation of citizens in political decisions - but not only for harmless issues such as the construction of cycle paths or swimming pool opening hours.

It is here that journalists are also important. There is a call for journalism that lays out the issues, cleverly moderates discussions, and differentiates between what is and isn't important - because as such it creates a public space for political debate, which in turn, can initiate participation and controversy.

No more consensual democracy

It is all a far cry from the new form of lush, pragmatic consensual democracy, which even in Germany is becoming less pervasive. Party differences are blurred and issues are resolved before they reach the public. We are expected to be clear and to endure controversy both internally and externally - and the same applies to Europe. And if democracy were curtailed here, it would damage its credibility. Who was it that said democracy in Hungary was gradually being fazed out? The criticism from Germany and the EU Commission was too tame, too bent on compromise. Hungary is not ashamed to hurl unobjective accusations at its critics, and Europe should make it clearer that such behavior does not sit well with Europe's shared democratic values.

More democracy at all levels

It is not only the culture of democracy and democratic debate that has to change, but global structures. Multilateral institutions that order and shape our world should genuinely represent it. If the UN Security Council doesn't need a permanent member from Africa, or if the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank puts the US or Europe at the helm, there are clearly credibility issues.

It is important that elected democratic institutions live up to their responsibilities as lawyers of democracy and of the people who vote for them to do just that. Whoever elects democratically, does so because he or she wants to be certain that democracy will be fought for. We should do everything we can to make sure this is, and remains, the majority.

Ute Schaeffer is editor-in-chief of the Deutsche Welle. The focus of her journalistic work is German and European foreign and development policies, as well as political, economic and social development in Africa and Eastern Europe.

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