Panel 3: More democracy than ever before?

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By Lorraine Vaney

(Vienna) 3 March 2017 – The DASICON conference of the Diplomatische Akademie opened the afternoon session with a panel of practitioners and academic experts on the topic “Shrinking Democratic Space” in Europe, in the wake of rising nationalist and populist movements. The changing political environment of Europe is testing the influence of the OSCE as an intergovernmental organization promoting and protecting democratic principles from Vladivostok to Vancouver. Harmut Mayer from the University of Oxford, moderated the debate between Matthijs Berman and Jan Haukaas, representing the OSCE, Melanie Sully, Head of Go-Governance and former professor at the DA and Kerem Öktem, specialist on Southeast Europe and Turkey. The panel has stressed the positive progresses and called for a meaningful participation of the young generation in politics.

Melanie Sully caused surprise to the audience and her fellow panellists in opening the debate by an optimistic statement on the state of democracy in today’s world. “We have more democracy than ever before” she said, naming the wide NGOs network in Europe, the continuous efforts of organization working on anti-corruption and the rising awareness on the right of minority and gender equality. She recalled the current protests in Romania against corruption of the political elites as evidence that European citizens “don’t want to go back”. This statement was supported by her fellow panellists who underlined that “democracy is an unstoppable process” that is still spreading everywhere in the world.  Authoritarian countries, such as Burma, Gambia and countries of Latin American are slowly, but surely, giving more importance to human rights and democratic governance.

Nevertheless, the world’s politics seem to flow both ways. Matthijs Berman, Principal Adviser of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, notes that “In the OSCE, we see a paradox” between the overall spread of democratic principles and the rise of authoritarian politicians in European liberal democracy. His colleague Jan Haukaas completed this statement in explaining how the perceived “failing of conventional politics to listen” has undermined the trust in political institutions and boosts the rise of populist movements across Europe. “Political institutions need to adapt their communication,” he recommends.

So in this complex environment, a question remains: what can the OSCE do? Melanie Sully underlined that member countries are concerned by their image and thus care about the documentation work made by the OSCE. She also advocates for a “flexible” democratic concept to avoid the “parachute effect” of democratic principles in illiberal countries that has led to the current “return of geopolitics” and cultural relativism.

Finally, the panel concluded the discussion on a two-sided statement: “the golden age of the democracy seems to have yet vanished” but there is still hope coming from the youth as proved by the growth of exchange programs, summer schools and political initiatives. We may not see the direct impacts of these actions on today’s politics, but they will still be the next generation in charge.