faculty & experts
09 October 2020

Democracy in Question

Within the framework of Geneva Democracy Week, Professor Shalini Randeria examines some of the challenges facing liberal democracies today.

The world is more democratic than ever before, if measured by the number of countries that have formally instituted a representative form of government. And yet there is not only widespread disappointment with elected governments, but the very norms and principles of liberal democracy are being called into question by the recent political transformations sweeping across the world from India to Hungary, and from Brazil to the US. Democracies are being torn apart by social and economic inequalities, political polarisation and a politics of hate. Worldwide, they are burdened with huge public debt and popular discontent.

Why are citizens, who have the right to vote, protesting instead in the streets to hold their governments accountable? How can citizen voices be heard in soft authoritarian regimes that are the new face of many elected majoritarian governments worldwide? Through which mechanisms are liberal democratic institutions being hollowed out using formally democratic means? Can civic activism protect democracy weakened by a mix of crony capitalism, toxic masculinity, ethnonationalism and majoritarian rule?

The Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s new podcast series “Democracy in Question?” addresses some of the challenges facing liberal democracies today. In each episode, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, and Director of the Centre Shalini Randeria invites a leading scholar to analyse a variety of democratic experiences and experiments across the globe. Together they discuss not only the current disenchantment with liberal democracy’s unfulfilled promises, but also some of its fundamental dilemmas in addressing inequalities and injustice, or populism and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, they explore how democratic institutions could be reformed from above and below to make them more inclusive and tolerant. The series was launched this 8 October, during the Geneva Democracy Week, promoted every year by the Geneva Chancellery of State.

The theme of this year’s Democracy Week drew from Pierre Rosanvallon’s idea of “counter-democracy”. The Centre organised events within this framework that explored political participation and civic activism outside the formal institutional realm. In his video interview, Rosanvallon explained that democracy is not only defined by its institutions and by the ballot, but also by citizens, who use their voice and also their eyes to scrutinise the state. Surveillance and oversight from below accompany the constitution of (alternative) expertise by citizens, as shown in the case of the strong mobilisation around climate change that was discussed in our opening panel discussion.

As academic and activist Mary Kaldor argued in our webinar, also organised during the Democracy Week, transnational civil society organisation is not new. Strong personal ties between human rights and activists in Eastern Europe and the anti-nuclear and peace movements in Western Europe across the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and 1980s were crucial to the success of both movements and to the end of the Cold War. And yet as Niccolò Milanese reminded us in his discussion with Kaldor, legal and bureaucratic hurdles continue to plague the institutionalisation of pan-European civic activism even today.

Both panellists voiced their concern about the right to assembly being at risk during the pandemic, as did Pierre Rosanvallon. How citizen voices, oversight and solidarity can be enhanced in view of the weakness of political parties, a fragmented public sphere and disinformation circulated through social media remain issues of concern. Making states answerable to citizens and democratising international organisations through civic activism from the local to the global scale is as urgent as before in view of the assault on liberal democratic norms and practices the world over.