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people power An autumn of hope for democracy across the globe

demonstration in peru

Supporters of anti-corruption measures proposed by Peru's recently-elected president, Martin Vizcarra.

(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Though still under attack in countries like Brazil and the United States, democracy is showing signs of hope elsewhere around the globe. Where people power is advancing, it should be institutionalised with care, writes Bruno Kaufmann.

The bad news for democracy, simply put, is that there is bad news. From the first-round victory of a dictator-praising candidate in Brazil to the daily Trump soap opera – as well as setbacks in countries like Poland, Bulgaria and Turkey, people power is not where it should be in 2018.

Having said this, much of the truly good news is often hidden behind all the black clouds that dominate newspapers, televisions, and the Internet. Indeed, there is probably more good news out there this autumn (spring, if you are in the Southern hemisphere) than many observers would have expected.

It started in July, with an election in Mexico that went off surprisingly peacefully and with high turnout. After years of political violence and sore losers, for the first time since the 1930s a true transfer of power was spurred by the 89 million voters.

In the capital, Mexico City, a Nobel-prize-winning climate researcher, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, became Mayor, while her predecessor Manuel Lopez Obrador is becoming the new president of a country that utilizes many forms of modern direct democracyexternal link at all political levels.

Further south, in Peru, remarkable developments in recent months have transformed a truly dysfunctional governance system into a promising democracy: here, engineer Martin Vizcarra has succeeded the scandal-ridden Pedro Pablo Kuczinskzy as president, with the focus on finally institutionalizing people power in the Andean republic of 32 million people.

On December 9external link this year, citizens will have the opportunity to approve four key constitutional amendments at the ballot box, updating both the judicial and the government system. With this reform Peru could overcome some of the democratic problems engendered by the 1993 constitution, which was adopted during the authoritarian regime of then president Alberto Fujimori.

A nation of 100 countries

Across the Atlantic we see more good news for democracy: in one of Africa’s major countries, Ethiopia, a post-revolution force had been ruling with an iron fist for decades, jailing dissidents and fuelling internal and external conflicts.

But in spring this year, the old guard of the “Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front” was replaced by an opponent from an ethnic group – the Oromo – which has never before held any important political posts. Since then, new prime minister Abiy Ahmed has made a promising start – including securing a surprise peace treaty with neighbouring Eritrea.

To keep his promise of holding truly democratic elections by 2020, Ahmed now needs to fix many of the structural weaknesses of the federal state in North East Africa, including getting rid of many freedom-limiting laws. 

Promoting genuine democracy in a country of over 100 million people from 100 different ethnic groups is a true challenge and success is far from certain. But the recent changes in Ethiopia open a great window of opportunity for a part of the world where elected leaders tend to resist handing over power even after big electoral defeats.  

‘The Maldivian people have decided’

The ability to relinquish power was also far from a key competence of Abdulla Yameen, head of state in the Maldives, an archipelago state in the Indian Ocean. For many years, buoyed by Chinese backing and money, Yameen transformed the 1200-island nation into an autocratic stronghold, prisoning critics and limiting press freedoms.

But on September 23, almost 90% of the electorate turned out at the polling stations to deliver him a clear defeat. After a night of silence, Yameen appeared on television on September 24 and declared: “the Maldivian people have decided what they want. I have accepted yesterday’s results”external link.

And though the Maldives is a small nation of less than 500,000 inhabitants, this sudden turn towards proper democratic behaviour is another encouraging sign in South Asia. It follows a similar pattern to Malaysia, where the democratic opposition scored a historic victory earlier in the year, defeating the “Barisan Nasional Coalition” party which had run the country for over 60 years.

Such democratic inroads across the world offer windows of hope. From the Americas to Africa, Europe and Asia, billions of people are still being called to make their voices heard, not just at the national but also at the local and regional levels. Soon, almost one billion Indians will be called to elect their new parliament, the 545-seat Lok Sabha, in what will be the biggest ever election in history.

With elections to the European Parliament (an electorate of approximately 380 million citizens) taking place at almost the same time, in May 2019, the signs are clear: democracy is here to stay. The big question is how the principles and procedures of people power can be institutionalized carefully, so that democracy is also felt in practice.

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