Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2017
Volume 28
Issue 3
Page Numbers 184-88
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Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal

On May 24–26, scholars and democracy activists convened in Prague for a conference hosted by Forum 2000 entitled “Toward a New Coalition for Democratic Renewal.” Participants discussed the formation of a coalition to defend democratic principles and to facilitate the exchange of strategies to address contemporary challenges to liberal democracy. The conference culminated in the issuance of an “Appeal for Democratic Renewal.” Among the signatories were Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, political scientist Ivan Krastev, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Anne Applebaum, Cuban activist Rosa María Payá, and Hong Kong legislator Nathan Law. The full text of the Appeal follows:

Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defense.

Democracy is threatened from without by despotic regimes in Russia, China, and other countries that are tightening repression internally and expanding their power globally, filling vacuums left by the fading power, influence, and self-confidence of the long-established democracies. The authoritarians are using old weapons of hard power as well as new social media and a growing arsenal of soft power to create a post-democratic world order in which norms of human rights and the rule of law are replaced by the principle of absolute state sovereignty.

Democracy is also being threatened from within. Illiberalism is on the rise in Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela, and other backsliding democracies. In other countries—even long-established democracies—support for liberal democracy has eroded in recent years, especially among younger people who have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism. Faith in democratic institutions has been declining for some time, as governments seem unable to cope with the complex new challenges of globalization, political processes appear increasingly sclerotic and dysfunctional, and the bureaucracies [End Page 184] managing both national and global institutions seem remote and over-bearing. Compounding the difficulties, terrorist violence has created a climate of fear that is used by despots and demagogues to justify authoritarian power and restrictions on freedoms.

Such problems have caused widespread anxiety, hostility to political elites and cynicism about democracy—feelings that have fueled the rise of anti-system political movements and parties. These sentiments, in turn, have been stoked and inflamed by authoritarian disinformation, which increasingly penetrates the media space of the democracies. The latest Freedom House survey shows that political rights and civil liberties have been on the decline for eleven consecutive years, and this year established democracies dominate the list of countries suffering setbacks in freedom.

Collectively, these factors—the geopolitical retreat of the West, the resurgence of authoritarian political forces, the erosion of belief in democratic values, and the loss of faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions—have brought a historic halt to democratic progress and threaten a possible “reverse wave” of democratic breakdowns. Democracy’s supporters must unite to halt the retreat and to organize a new coalition for its moral, intellectual, and political renewal.

The starting point of a new campaign for democracy is a reaffirmation of the fundamental principles that have inspired the expansion of modern democracy since its birth more than two centuries ago. These principles are rooted in a belief in the dignity of the human person and in the conviction that liberal democracy is the political system that can best safeguard this dignity and allow it to flourish. Among these principles are fundamental human rights including the basic freedoms of expression, association, and religion; political and social pluralism; the existence of a vibrant civil society that empowers citizens at the grass roots; the regular election of government officials through a truly free, fair, open, and competitive process; ample opportunities beyond elections for citizens to participate and voice their concerns; government transparency and accountability, secured both through strong checks and balances in the constitutional system and through civil society oversight; a vigorous rule of law, ensured by an independent judiciary; a market economy that is free of corruption and provides opportunity for all; and a democratic culture of tolerance, civility, and non-violence.

These principles are being challenged today not only by apologists for illiberalism and xenophobia, but also by relativist intellectuals who deny that any form of government can be defended as superior. Although democracy is often considered a Western idea, its most fervent defenders today are people in non-Western societies who continue to fight for democratic freedoms against daunting odds. Their struggles [End Page 185] affirm the universality of the democratic idea, and their example can help bring about a new birth of democratic conviction in the world’s advanced democracies.

Despite its intrinsic value, democracy’s survival cannot be assured unless it can demonstrate its ability to help societies meet the challenges of a changing and unstable world. We acknowledge the deep anxiety and insecurity of large segments of democratic societies and believe that democracy will be strong only if no group is left behind.

While democracy embodies universal values, it exists in a particular national context, what Václav Havel called the “intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions that breathe substance into it and give it meaning.” Democratic citizenship, rooted in such traditions, needs to be strengthened, not allowed to atrophy in an era of globalization. National identity is too important to be left to the manipulation of despots and demagogic populists.

The defense of democratic values is not a luxury or a purely idealistic undertaking. It is a precondition for decent, inclusive societies; the framework for social and economic progress for people throughout the world; and the foundation for the preservation of international peace and security.

A new Coalition for Democratic Renewal will serve as a moral and intellectual catalyst for the revitalization of the democratic idea. The goal is to change the intellectual and cultural climate by waging a principled, informed, and impassioned battle of ideas; defending democracy against its critics; working to strengthen mediating institutions and civil associations; and fashioning persuasive arguments for liberal democracy that can shape the course of public discussion. It will also be necessary to go on the offensive against the authoritarian opponents of democracy by demonstrating solidarity with the brave people who are fighting for democratic freedoms, and by exposing the crimes of kleptocrats who rob and oppress their own people, falsify the political and historical record, and seek to divide and defame established democracies.

The Coalition will also be a broad and interactive forum for the exchange of ideas about the best ways to address complex new challenges facing democracy such as static or declining living standards for many citizens, the backlash against increased immigration, the rise of “post-truth politics” in an age of social media, and the erosion of support for liberal democracy. Such a global hub would also advocate and promote effective forms of action to revive faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions.

There is no excuse for silence or inaction. We dare not cling to the illusion of security at a time when democracy is imperiled. The present crisis provides an opportunity for committed democrats to mobilize, and we must seize it. [End Page 186]


On May 7, Emmanuel Macron of the new En Marche party decisively defeated Marine Le Pen of the National Front in the second-round presidential vote. One week later, Macron delivered his inaugural address at the Elysée Palace, reaffirming a commitment to French global leadership and to the principle of European unity. Excerpts from his inaugural speech appear below. (For a full version of this text, see​.) 

Today, more than ever, the world and Europe need France. They need a strong France sure of its destiny. They need a France that speaks out for freedom and solidarity. . . .

But for decades France has been doubting itself. It has felt threatened in its culture, its social model, its deep beliefs. It has doubted what created it. My mandate will therefore be guided by two requirements. The first will be to give French people back that confidence in themselves which has been weakened for too long. Let me reassure you, I didn’t think for a second it would be restored as if by magic on the evening of May 7. It will involve slow, demanding but essential work. . . .

Everything that contributes to France’s robustness and prosperity will be set in motion: work will be freed up, businesses supported and initiative encouraged. . . .

Everything that makes France a safe country where people can live without fear will be extended. Republican laïcité will be upheld and our security forces, intelligence and armed forces strengthened.

Europe, which we need, will be overhauled and revitalized, because it protects us and enables us to promote our values in the world. Our institutions, decried by some, must regain, in French people’s eyes, the effectiveness that has guaranteed their long-term survival, because I believe in the institutions of the Fifth Republic and will do everything in my power to ensure they operate in accordance with the spirit that created them. To that end, I shall ensure our country experiences a resurgence of democratic vitality. Citizens’ voices will be heard, and listened to. . . .

France is strong only if it is prosperous. France is a model for the world only if it sets an example. And that is my second requirement. Because we’ll have made French people excited again about the future and proud again of what they are, the whole world will listen to what France has to say. Because, together, we’ll have overcome our fears and anxieties, together we’ll provide the example of a people capable of asserting its values and principles, which are those of democracy and the Republic. . . .

France’s mission in the world is an eminent one. We’ll shoulder all our responsibilities in order to provide, whenever necessary, an appropriate response to the major crises of our time. Whether it be the migration crisis, the climate challenge, authoritarian abuses, the excesses of global capitalism [End Page 187] or, of course, terrorism—nothing hits some people while sparing others any more. We are all interdependent. We are all neighbors. France will always ensure it stands alongside freedom and human rights, but always in order to build peace over the long term.

We have a huge role: to redress the excesses of the world and ensure that freedom is defended. That is our mission. To do it, we will need a more effective, more democratic, more political Europe, because it is the instrument of our power and sovereignty. . . .We are living in a period which will determine France’s destiny for the coming decades. We will be fighting not just for this generation, but for the generations to come. It is up to us, all of us, here and now, to determine the world in which these generations will live. This is perhaps our greatest responsibility. We have to build the world our young people deserve.

Latin America

On April 29 the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) presented the inaugural Guillermo O’Donnell Democracy Award and Lecture-ship to Chilean politician and political scientist Sergio Bitar at its annual congress in Lima. Excerpts from Bitar’s remarks appear below. (For a full version of this text, see​.)

I speak here about two subjects: future transitions to democracy and the challenges confronting today’s democracies. The subject of transition to democracy remains relevant today. Those of us who participated in the processes of transition thought that we were living completely unique realities, and we didn’t think to ask for the experiences of others. But how much it would have helped to have known these! Transitions aren’t processes of the past—they are latent in many countries. If indeed each case is specific and unrepeatable, there are recurring features. . . .

Many democracies in the world are entering complex and unfamiliar terrain. It is argued that the number of people living in democracies has stagnated and even diminished in recent years, and that the challenges to come are of a magnitude that makes possible regression to authoritarianism. Fear and uncertainty feed the positions of the extreme right that see in nationalism and isolationism the solution to their problems. In every region, the topic of democratic governance is hotly contested. But how much do [these regions] have in common? What phenomena are global and which are local? . . .

A second challenge is the growing gap between the new demands, expectations, and behaviors that accompany the rapid expansion of the middles classes, and an elite-driven system of politics with a state apparatus of feeble capacity. . . .

This challenge requires us to deal with two topics vital to our future: creating institutional channels for citizen participation and fixing weak state capacity. [End Page 188]