Facing the Crisis of Democracy

2 November 2013, 10:57

Democracy is a mosaic of hundreds of small and big constituents, and it is moving constantly. Many parts, such as rights and institutions, are not stable. Not all of them move in the good direction. But all of them combined define the quality of democracy in a specific moment.

Today, a lot of these elements see a regress in many countries. The quality of public debate declines and big media prefer scandals over substance. National democracies are subject to markets and too weak to civilise them. Parties no longer represent the majority of society. That is why many talk of the crisis of democracy. Some write that we have reached a “post-democratic” time; that democracy is no longer real, no more than a smokescreen. That is painful. But we have to face it in order to know what we have to do to restore it.

Elections are a big constitutive part in the democratic mosaic. In too many of the 57 member-states of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as in 47 member-states of the Council of Europe (CoE), democracy is weak because the quality of the election process is bad. As a result, political power lacks legitimacy, is often misused and does not respect human rights or the general interest of people.

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This October, many Europeans witnessed such failed presidential election in Azerbaijan, and were astonished that not all observers stated what has to be said when the quality of democracy is served, not the interest of those who get power illegitimately. I observed the preparation for this election in the PACE Monitoring Committee and the day before the election in Gedebey, a very rural municipality on the feet of the South Caucasus, 440 km away from Baku. OSCE delegates – experts who observed the campaign for several months, as well as short-term observers – all came to a clear conclusion: “The presidential election in Azerbaijan was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates. Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes and underscored the serious shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections.“

With this statement, OSCE delegates showed that the quality of an election cannot be judged by just one day when citizens actually vote.

However, the majority of PACE delegates ignored the obligation to look at the whole process, in which even a director of a CoE political school was arrested and prevented from being a candidate. Instead, they concentrated on what they saw with their own eyes on the election day and came to a statement which was not well understood: „ Overall around election day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process. (…) From what we have seen, electoral procedures on the eve and on election day have been carried out in a professional and peaceful way. (…) On election day we did not witness any evidence of intimidation against voters, in or close to polling stations. (…) However, improvements are still desirable with regards to the electoral framework, notably concerning the respect of fundamental freedoms during the months before the election.“

The biggest surprise for me came from OSCE Acting Chairman and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Leonid Kozhara. „In these statements the international observers conclude that a number of aspects of the conduct of the Presidential Election in Azerbaijan showed progress towards meeting the OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and other international standards for democratic elections, while also outlining the areas which need to be further improved. (…) In this regard, I congratulate the people and the leadership of Azerbaijan on this achievement that represents an important step forward in democratic development of their country,” his statement said.

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Many of “the people” of Azerbaijan showed immediately what they thought about such a statement at a protest that took place the next weekend after the election in Baku. The statement may have pleased the winner, the oligarchs and the energy-supply needs of many, but it had nothing to do with political truth or the quality of democracy. The Ukrainian Minister also committed the faux pas to refer himself to “international observers” who where invited and paid by the regime and do not live up to the Copenhagen Criteria – the reference for evaluation of elections for the international community.

Such conceptual and diplomatic mistakes do not help restore democracy in Europe. Those who want to do this have to face the facts and name the shortcomings clearly. Only then we may learn which stones in our mosaic have to be repaired and how this has to be done. Then we can stop the regression and improve the democratic process, knowing that this effort will never end.

The crisis of democracy is painful. But we have to face it in order to know what we have to do to restore it


Andreas Gross is a Swiss political scientist, an expert on the quality of democracy. He lectures at different European universities, serves as Swiss MP and leader of the Social Democrats in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

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