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2015-09-16. International IDEA 20'th Anniversary - Stockholm Conference i Sveriges Riksdag - Andra kammaren. Photo: Uffe Ringblom -

Democracy: Achievements and Challenges

During the celebration of International IDEA’s 20th anniversary in Stockholm, Kofi Annan reflects upon the achievements of democracy over the past two decades and warns about four possible future threats to democratic principles.


Mr. Secretary-General, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Let me start by conveying my profound appreciation for your 20 years of hard work. These last two decades have been a period of unprecedented democratization, during which IDEA has provided invaluable support to fledgling and advanced democracies alike.

You have developed democratic norms and provided the expertise to strengthen institutions of democratic governance. In 2010, IDEA and my Foundation launched a joint initiative to explore challenges to the integrity of electoral processes, and we continue to work closely on this vitally important issue.  I look forward to pursuing this collaboration with IDEA’s new leadership.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are living in uncertain times. The period of optimism that prevailed in the aftermath of the Cold War has come to a close.

But as Antonio Gramsci once observed: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

Violent conflict is on the rise again, triggering an historic movement of peoples, a huge humanitarian drama that challenges our collective conscience. The world economy has yet to fully recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Economic inequality is deepening. Pandemics threaten the health of entire regions. And we grapple with the disturbing consequences of our changing climate.

Perhaps the greatest danger, however, is the seeming inability of leaders and institutions of democratic governance to effectively respond to these threats. As a result, faith in democracy itself is eroding, and many are looking for facile alternatives. And yet recent citizens’ movements in societies as disparate as Venezuela, Burkina Faso and Hong Kong are making it clear that democratic aspirations across the world remain undimmed.

Indeed, more countries than ever before hold democratic elections. I firmly believe that even imperfect democracy remains the best-suited political system to manage changing social and economic conditions. We must acknowledge, however, the clear and present challenges to democratic ideals and institutions. Today, I would like to identify four such challenges, which the distinguished panel may wish to address in subsequent discussion.

The first challenge lies in the rapid changes in the world order consequent on rapid globalization and regional integration. This phenomenon has produced unparalleled economic opportunities but it has also created an impression that democratically elected governments no longer control the forces that shape peoples’ lives.

Here in Europe, we have seen how this sense of alienation and failed expectations has encouraged the rise of populist movements. Governing in a globalizing world makes it that much harder for national politicians to fulfil their campaign promises. In other regions, we have seen citizens forsake the ballot box in favour of the street despite elections that were considered as reasonably free and fair.

Such reversals highlight the second challenge I would like to raise for your discussion: the failure of elections to peacefully adjudicate political competition and manage transfers of power. Elections are at the heart of democracy. When conducted with integrity, they allow citizens to have a voice in how and by whom they are governed.

They give citizens dissatisfied with the way they are governed regular opportunities to hold their leaders to account. But when they lack integrity, citizens’ confidence in governance is reduced, and elections become flashpoints for violence. Sadly, some leaders have come to believe that no matter how they win an election, it is merely a formality that allows them to continue ruling however they want.

Well, evidence is mounting that demonstrates that elections without integrity fail to confer legitimacy on the winners, as we see, for example, in Burundi. And without legitimacy, a government’s rule is likely to be fraught and contested. But even elected leaders, if they flout the rule of law or govern in an exclusionary manner, can and will be sanctioned by their peoples with or without an election, as the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt demonstrated.

The role of money in politics is a third source of increasing concern as it greatly skews democracy and undermines the integrity of electoral processes, both in established and fledgling democracies. Opaque political finance robs democracy of its promise of political equality.

Unregulated or undisclosed campaign funding enables special interests to usurp the political process; worse, it may permit organized crime to penetrate the political arena. This problem may well worsen with growing levels of economic inequality, which we are witnessing in many societies around the world.

There is a great danger that extreme wealth will distort the political process and undermine the basic premise of democracy.  Income distribution is not the normal purview of institutions providing electoral and democracy assistance. Nonetheless, economic inequality within societies does represent a major challenge to democracy.

We know that the benefits of globalisation are not being spread evenly or equally. While creating wealth on an unprecedented scale, globalisation is also creating social dislocation and heightened inequality. And open borders and free movement of capital allow wealthy individuals and companies to evade the taxation that might otherwise counter-balance these effects.

The growing disparity in incomes and standards of living that result make it harder and harder for societies to chart a shared vision of the future. Coupled with insufficient controls on political finance, this inequality creates a sense that large corporations and wealthy individuals are exercising undue influence over political processes and outcomes. As a result, social cohesion and political representation are undermined and with it the belief in democracy itself.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have outlined some of the more critical threats that I see emerging to democratic principles and practice. I look forward to hearing the views of our Panel and other experts here today on how we can best address them.

But before I conclude, I do want to emphasize, however, my belief in the aspirational power and enduring resilience of democracy. A lifetime of experience has led me to the conclusion that healthy and sustainable societies are built on three pillars: peace and security; sustainable and inclusive development; and respect for the rule of law and human rights.

Lest we forget, article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” Each pillar is crucial, yet regimes often prioritise security and economic growth, while human rights and the rule of law are deemed luxuries; desirable in the long term but subordinate to the immediate need for jobs and security.

I cannot overstate the danger of this approach. In the years prior to the Arab Spring, many were citing Tunisia as a success story, pointing to its healthy economic growth and comparative stability. But the lack of respect for human rights, including political rights, meant it was a fragile edifice. As we know, it caused the Tunisian regime’s downfall and launched a democratic uprising.

The chaos that has ensued in many countries is tempting many to try to unlearn the lessons of Tunisia. They should not, for the same causes will have the same effects. I am confident that other non-democratic success stories held up as alternatives today will eventually crumble too. This is because while human beings need security and livelihoods, they also need freedom, dignity and justice.

Democracy, whatever its flaws, is the political system that can best respond to those human needs.

That, at the end of the day, is why I champion the cause of democracy and why I am happy to be among friends and allies here at IDEA who are working to widen and strengthen the democratic order around the world.