DAVOS, SWITZERLAND | Governments that call themselves democratic often fear democracy in practice, leaving it up to their people to seize the initiative, as last year’s Arab Spring revolutions across the Arab world have shown.
That was one conclusion from a lively “democracy debate” hosted Thursday by the Associated Press at the World Economic Forum.
It explored the recent failure of democratic governments to meet people’s economic needs, how political Islam will function in democratic systems, and the pressure on the world’s newest democracies when they still lack stable institutions and traditions of human rights for all citizens.
The discourse brought together the leader of the Islamist party elected in Tunisia’s first democratic vote, the foreign ministers of Brazil and Pakistan, a U.S. Republican congressman and the director of Human Rights Watch.
All wrestled with the question: “Is democracy up to the challenge of the 21st century?”
When regimes are under siege from mass uprisings; when once-cozy power-brokers are brought down amid charges of corruption, cronyism and economic failure; and when even developed democracies seem paralyzed by extreme partisanship; the participants debated whether democracy itself is working.
At this annual summit of the world’s powerful and well-connected, moderator Michael Oreskes, AP’s senior managing editor for U.S. news, challenged the participants to respond to an Occupy Davos protester’s sign: “If voting could change anything, it would be illegal.”
The answer from the panelists: Western-style democracy is still a valid model for the world, as long as it draws in all segments of society and takes social equality as a central tenet.
“We haven’t got any choice” other than democracy, said Rachid Ghannouchi, founder of the Ennahda party that won Tunisia’s first free elections last year.
He spoke of a centuries-old “dream” of democracy in the Arab world that finally has the opportunity to emerge.
But Mr. Ghannouchi cautioned that huge risks remain.
“The process of elections is not enough to achieve democracy. Democracy needs a very rich civil society,” he said. “Democracy without social justice can be transformed into a mafia.”
Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said democracy will remain strong as long as everyone has a voice.
“If democracy is the rule of the majority and the majority is poor, then democracy has to be about social inclusion,” Mr. Patriota said.
U.S. Rep. David Dreier, California Republican, said activism such as the Occupy movement needs to be a part of the democratic process.