Reflecting upon the challenges to democracy in the face of economic crisis, Vidar Helgesen, Secretary-General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), highlights an important distinction between faith in democracy as an aspiration, and trust in democracy as a conviction based on the experience of democracy and its effective delivery. He says,
We witnessed a deep faith in democracy as tens of thousands of young people filled the streets of Tehran a couple of months ago. Yet, trust in democracy – particularly if measured by the popular rating of institutions such as political parties and parliaments, including in long-standing democracies of the North – is shorter in supply. Whatever the reason, trust has probably been further eroded by the financial crisis as millions lost their jobs and their homes.
This year’s International Day of Democracy, September 15, coincided with the first anniversary of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, an event that triggered the global financial crisis. Helgesen notes that one crucial way in which both faith and trust in democracy – and markets – can be restored is through bringing decision-making process closer to ordinary citizens to make it more accountable:
Democracy needs constant citizen oversight to be kept on course. A broken chain of participation, representation and accountability is a dangerous state of affairs. The ensuing vacuum is fertile ground for politics based on distrust, suspicion and fear. When fear becomes the driving force it feeds easily into populist and authoritarian discourse, sometimes disguised in a “patriotic coating.”
Revitalising the system of democratic representation and accountability is first and foremost the responsibility of national politicians. (…) It means putting new emphasis on the need for democracy to deliver in terms of social and economic development.
This is precisely the emphasis that CIPE has maintained in its 25 years of work – helping build democracies that deliver.