This was the question researchers put to thought leaders and activists from nearly 80 countries across the globe, in a year-long ‘Reimagining Democracy’ initiative. Even though the project coincided with the rise of regressive populist ideas and political polarization in many parts of the world, the resounding answer is that people want more democracy, not less of it.
Led by global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, the initiative’s report entitled, ‘Democracy for All: Beyond a crisis of imagination’, draws from insights gleaned from almost 100 interviews, 54 essays and 26 ‘democracy dialogues’ from across the world to discuss the state of democracy.
“We were motivated to explore the question of reimagining democracy by looking at current challenges while examining fundamental flaws in institutions and the practice of democracy,” said Mandeep Tiwana, CIVICUS’ Chief Programmes Officer and one of the initiative’s leaders.
“The world’s governance systems are living in the moment, stymied by a crisis of imagination, short-term thinking and the tactical considerations of those in power. We need radical solutions grounded in democratic values for the future,” said Tiwana.
In country after country, democracy is under attack. In many countries, we see democratic regression and the withdrawal of democratic freedoms. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform measuring civic space, freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are being undermined in most parts of the world. We see the rise of polarising politics and the cult of the strong-arm leader. We see right-wing populism on the march. At the same time, profound global problems such as climate change, inequality and conflict are left largely unaddressed. Everywhere around the world, people are unhappy with the limited and exclusionary forms of democracy they experience.
The initiative’s participants outlined several innovative solutions for a renewal of democracy, centred around access to political and economic decision-making at all levels. The report identifies three fundamental shifts required to reimagine democracy.
First, decision-making needs to take place at the local and community levels. The report calls for new and enhanced forms of community-level participation, with decisions defined by local needs and aspirations. It recommends more direct and deliberative democracy, through means such as citizens’ assemblies and community parliaments.
Second, global problems need global solutions, developed through global democracy. Citizens should have a direct say in international decision-making that impacts on their lives. One solution offered is a world parliament, elected directly by people and not on nation-state lines. In the face of today’s challenges, the report points to international governance as a legitimate sphere of action for people and organisations to claim rights and advance change.
Third, a new vision is needed to address exclusion and inequality through a democratised economy that works for all. Key elements include democratic participation in economic decision-making; properly functioning tax regimes; redistribution of wealth; provision of quality non-monetised public services for all; workplace democracy; and sustainable management of world’s finite resources through democratic control.
The report concludes that civil society has played a key role in leading the global response to democratic challenges. In places as diverse as Armenia, South Korea and The Gambia, people’s movements have recently sparked democratic breakthroughs, successfully challenging autocratic leaders at the ballot box and in the streets. In West African countries such as Burkina Faso and Senegal, young people have led movements, mobilising creatively to stand up to autocratic rulers who tried to extend their time in office. Malaysia’s ruling party was finally defeated after more than six decades of entrenched power, with civil society’s campaigning against corruption and electoral abuses pivotal.
The Me Too and Time’s Up movements mobilised huge numbers of people, changing the debate about the status of women in societies and workplaces not just in the US but around the world. In Ireland, people’s mobilisations have shown how citizen assemblies and referendums can advance rights with a successful campaign to change the abortion law, marking a victory for women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
“To progress, we must work harder to make elections fair while building diverse alliances that support independent judiciaries, media and other stakeholders interested in protecting democratic values. Notably, civil society needs to lead by example, by modelling democratic accountability that we want to see,” said Tiwana.
Overall, the ‘Reimagining Democracy’ initiative found that in general, people still believe that democracy is the best form of governance, even if they are dissatisfied with their current experience of it. It’s a fundamental human aspiration to have voice and influence over the circumstances of our lives. With substantive democracy, better decisions can be taken and decision-makers can be held more accountable.