Housecleaning time for democracies

Next week’s summit convened by the U.S. will show democracy’s capacity for self-correction.

Hong Kong participants attend a vigil in Taipei, Taiwan, on June 4, 2020, to mark the 31st anniversary of the Chinese military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

When President Joe Biden convenes a virtual summit of democracies next week, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will not be represented. Those billions of people live in unfree countries. Yet if government censors allow them, that mass of humanity may be able to witness one of democracy’s greatest strengths: its capacity for self-correction.

The summit’s focus is more on the renewal of democracy from within – especially after nearly two years of a pandemic – than on confronting threats from without, such as Russia’s meddling in Ukraine or China’s threats against Taiwan. The summit is expected to end with commitments by each country for internal reform. A follow-up summit next year will then hold them accountable.

“What sets us apart from authoritarian nations is that we deal with our struggles transparently. We don’t ignore our shortcomings or try to sweep them under the rug,” says Uzra Zeya, a top U.S. State Department official. A democracy’s unique ability at self-righting relies on the rights-based equality between citizens and a popular control over government decision-making.

Not all authoritarian regimes are immune from being held accountable. Russia and some of its autocratic allies will be at the annual meeting of the world’s largest regional security group on Dec. 2-3. Ever since the Cold War, the 57 nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – ranging from Canada to Russia – have agreed to observe the state of universal rights and security problems in each other’s territory.

The OSCE is best at election monitoring. After the debacle of the 2000 presidential election in the United States, for example, OSCE observers have been welcomed to pass judgment on the U.S. voting process. Yet it is Russia that continues to be a prime focus of the OSCE’s work in upholding fundamental freedoms within member states.

Mr. Biden’s reform-minded summit comes nearly two years into a pandemic, which, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Sweden, has “evinced democracy’s resilience in key ways.”

In 31 democracies, voter turnout has gone up during the pandemic, finds IDEA’s latest report, The Global State of Democracy 2021. The pandemic has fueled pro-democracy movements from Belarus to Myanmar. More than 82% of countries have experienced protests during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has preyed more on weaker democracies and fragile states while political systems with strong rule of law and separation of powers have proved more resilient,” states the report.

Mr. Biden’s summit is timely for a renewal of both weak and strong democracies. What binds these countries are their shared ideals, more than their shared national interests. They run their affairs by consensus more than by coercion, by rules more than by rulers. Most of all, it is their ability to fix their governance that has the rest of the world fixated on next week’s summit.

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