“Democracy gives you a chance to throw rascals out”

Interview with Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary General of the Stockholm-based International IDEA during his visit to Kathmandu this week.

Photo: Fundación Carolina

Kevin Casas-Zamora, PhD, is the Secretary General of International IDEA, the Stockholm-based intergovernmental organisation supporting democracy worldwide. He used to be Costa Rica’s Second Vice President and Minister of National Planning and National Coordinator of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report. Nepali Times caught up with

Casas-Zamora during his visit to Kathmandu this week. Excerpts:

Nepali Times: In your recent op-ed for The New York Times, you wrote about democracy in Latin America and anti-corruption populism. You noted that the collapse of party systems would lead to an emergence of outsiders who would accelerate the erosion of democracy. How similar is this scenario to other parts of the world, like Nepal?

Casas-Zamora: It would be very presumptuous of me to start babbling about Nepali politics, but we are seeing a global trend towards the dissolution of the mechanisms that society had created to aggregate social preferences, social demands, like political parties. Latin America might be a particularly acute example, but it is certainly not unique. The World Values Survey covering 80 countries showed the people’s trust in political parties was in the single digits. This is particularly damaging, because one of the big problems that democracy has globally is that democratic communities are being torn apart.

Polarisation is on the rise pretty much everywhere. Disinformation on social media is one of the key centrifugal forces. Inequality is another, and it weakens democratic communities. When political parties are weakened and party systems become fragmented, it becomes very difficult to govern, to build majorities, to implement any kind of agenda. In the end, what do you reap out of that is dissatisfaction. We are seeing a growing gap between growing social expectations, growing social demands and the inability of democratic institutions to respond to those demands. It is in that gap that monsters are growing. And it is in that gap that populism finds fertile ground.

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When IDEA was established in 1995, there was euphoria about democracy, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, and many thought it was the end of history. Things did not turn out that way. Is there a design defect in the democratic project itself that allows this algorithm-driven populism to gain foothold?

It is an interesting question, and I don’t think so is the answer. The normative case for democracy continues to be very strong. It is the only system that treats people according to their human dignity and respects their agency. That’s not a small thing. But beyond the purely normative argument, there is a very practical one, which is that democracy resolves in an elegant way, something authoritarian systems have great problems resolving: the issue of succession. Democratic systems also have the ability to self-correct. This is really the essence.

And this is where the real value of democracy in practice lies. The pandemic proved very telling in that respect. Three years ago a lot of people blamed the faulty performance of democracy and the messiness. And sure enough there were democracies that performed very poorly, others that did better. But there was this sense that well, democracies are not up to the task, when it comes to a very acute crisis. They’re not efficient enough to respond to the problem, whereas in China, they are very efficient and they do what needs to be done. Well it turns out the performance of democracies with regards to the pandemic is looking much better than it did three years ago. And the performance of China with regard to the pandemic is not looking nearly as good. That’s down to the ability of democracies to self-correct.

If you live in a democracy, and you don’t like the policies that are being enacted in four or five years, you’re going to have a chance to throw the rascals out. You may or may not succeed, but you have that chance. Living under an authoritarian system is like playing the roulette. You might be very lucky, and end up with Lee Kuan Yew and you do great. But you might not be so lucky and end up with Idi Amin.

Still, we need to rethink democracy for a new time. If you take the basic design of democratic institutions, the emergence of political parties about 100 years ago, it hasn’t changed much for the past two centuries. You have this dissonance between the speed and the scale of social change over the past century, and the relative lack of institutional innovation in democracy over the same period. It is time to rethink representative institutions.

One concrete example could be citizens assemblies, selected randomly that are given the task and the information to study an important problem for society and then they are expected to make recommendations, which are then taken up by the political system. They've used it for abortion in Ireland, in France for environmental issues, and that is the kind of innovation that needs to happen.

It’s a time for institutional innovation and for political reform. And if we do that, if we take those serious issues seriously, a democracy has a strong case to make for itself.

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How does IDEA’s membership model work? What if a democratic member country goes rogue and elects a despot?

It’s an issue that we’re grappling with. Backsliding was not a thing back in 1995, the assumption was that the good times would last forever. That is perhaps the biggest mistake that was made: the notion that this was a linear process. Well, there’s no such a thing in human affairs as a linear process other than ageing.

Even in the best of circumstances it is a case of two steps forward one step back, which may also be the case for Nepal. That’s the way most democratic transitions work. Where the performance of our own member states is less than adequate in terms of adherence to democratic values that we put in place, we establish a process of dialogue with the country in question. IDEA offers some support to the country. But ultimately, it’s up to the country to put that action plan in place.

We are having that discussion at the moment and it’s a complicated one, because to be very honest, and this is something that I’ve seen at just about any intergovernmental organisation, member states are loath to pass judgment on other member states. But we have to face up to the fact that democratic practices can really break down in some of our member states in gradual ways, or in abrupt ways.

Our statutes have a clause that allows for a country to be suspended. It has never been used but what we are trying to put in place a due process so that this doesn’t come out of nowhere, but then there are certain steps that are followed before we get there. And hopefully, we’ll never get there.

Kevin Casas-Zamora

In many democratic Asian countries, there is disillusionment with poor governance and lack of delivery. We look enviously at China or Singapore and the Asian tiger economies. Even in Nepal there are many who say we have tried it for 30 years and democracy is not delivering.

Evidence tends to show that in the long run, democracies perform better. Of course, you may say that in the long run, we’re all dead. Most authoritarian systems are not like China or Singapore, the average is much lower. But while you can accept the proposition that on average democracies do better than autocracies when it comes to economic performance and development, China and Singapore are a big distortion. At the same time, we have to admit that in vast swaths of the world the pressure for development forces governments to adopt certain practices of democracy that are less than liberal.

There is a lot of lecturing going around. When I travel I sense an increasing impatience when Western countries talk about democracy. A lot of folks in places like India, South Africa, in parts of Latin America roll their eyes. And this has become very evident in the context of the war in Ukraine. The West is baffled that much of the rest of the world is not seeing the war in Ukraine as part of this huge struggle against authoritarianism. Well no: that’s not the way it’s perceived. So, a little more sensitivity to the pressures for development that countries find themselves under is called for.

We owe it to ourselves to have a truly global conversation about what democracy means in different places. We might not be talking about the same thing. So a little more humility, and more sensitivity is called for. A truly global and respectful conversation about the meaning of democracy can agree on certain, common denominators as the core tenets of democracy. But beyond that, there’s a lot of flexibility.

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Where does the media fit into this?

The Erdogans, Orbáns, Dutertes, Bukeles of the world are united by a desire to weaken any kind of check on executive power. And that means weakening the independent judiciary, press freedom, the ability of civil society to self-organise and demand things, and to hold people in power to account. They are weakening autonomous electoral authorities. And this thing comes in different sequences in different places, but the result is always the same. Some governments start out going after the press before they go after the judiciary, some do it the other way round. But in the end, the result is the same.

The press is one of the scapegoats. I remember when I was an active politician, you lived in fear of the press, and that is the way it should be. That is the single most important check on your power. There is a reason why wannabe-autocrats go after the press, or buy them off. The more sophisticated among them buy the media off, others go after journalists.

According to our measurements, one of the aspects of democracy that is most acutely under siege is freedom of the press. Out of 18 Latin American countries over the past decade, press freedom has decreased in 15 of them.

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