The ‘Foreign’ page of every Indian newspaper is replete with images and reports of protests and revolts these days. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy is facing its deepest crisis since the 1930s. On the external front, it is on the defensive, facing a strange combination of democracy and dictatorship on the one hand and the jihadists on the other. It is undermined by a paralysis of institutions that makes it ungovernable and prompts the feeding of populism.
Endless strife is now paving the way for endless elections. Spain had its fourth legislative election on 10 November in four years. It managed to have a clear majority in favour of Pedro Sanchez. In Israel, Benny Gantz continues his efforts to form a government, while Benyamin Netanyahu is trying to snatch a third election in one year. In Germany, Angela Merkel is reduced to the status of a zombie chancellor, the prisoner of a large coalition formed by default after the elections of September 2017. While the German model based on industry and export becomes obsolete, the security of the country is no longer assured because of the withdrawal of the US guarantee and the liquidation of NATO. While the European Union is threatened with disintegration, the German government lies impotent.
Such difficulties of governance are not the exclusive preserve of countries that have adopted proportional representation: in the United Kingdom, the general election of 12 December is likely to obtain, as in June 2017, an uncertain result after a very acrimonious campaign. However, these problems are not the monopoly of parliamentary regimes only, as evidenced in the United States by the presidency of Donald Trump, tied up by the opposition in Congress and the launching of impeachment by the Democrats.
The immediate causes of the impasse, in which democratic institutions are locked up, lie in the fragmentation of the political system and the breakthrough of populist parties. They refer to the atomisation of individuals and the polarisation of opinions, fed by the disintegration of the middle class and social networks as well as extremist tendencies. They also indicate a stagnation of income for most of the population and the explosion of inequalities, the confusion of identity in the face of immigration and Islam, the rise of insecurity, the great fear of the de-westernisation of the world.
It is therefore vital to make the democratic institutions legitimate and effective for applying the principle of one man one voice in conducting universal suffrage, decentralising decisions to make them accessible to citizens, reaffirming the impartiality of the state and the functioning of counter-powers, reintegrating social networks into the rule of law and rehabilitating the spirit of compromise against the grip of fanaticism.
Northern Europe, especially countries like Switzerland, shows that democracy is still not powerless. It reminds us that the antidote to a dysfunctional democracy is not the worship of demagogues or violence, but patience and devotion in reorienting the nations once again in tune with their histories, their structures and their cultures. This is the time to remember that the only effective counterpoise to an excess of freedom is freedom itself.