International Day of Democracy

People march through a street, in two lines, holding up blue and white
Photo by Avishek Das (CC BC-NY)

International Day of Democracy

Participation in a Time of Crisis

“Democracy is under attack!”

Over the last few years, this alarm has grown louder and more frequent, but for a good reason. Research shows that democracies are backsliding and facing substantial decreases in freedoms.

Electoral processes are among the largest victims of this backsliding, with freedom of expression and human rights following closely behind. Every year on September 15, countries around the world celebrate the International Day of Democracy. This year, the United Nations chose participation as the theme.

At a time when democracies worldwide are under attack and ordinary citizens are increasingly disenfranchised, the theme is appropriate.

As a young adult, I’ve often questioned why democracy is touted as the greatest form of government. For 20-somethings, Reagan’s Westminster speech does not resonate as it did against the backdrop of the Cold War and the threat of Communist expansion. Since then, the end of the Cold War and the advent of the internet has shifted the conversation around democratic freedoms; there is a new focus on structural and social inequality.

I studied in the Middle East in the years following the U.S. policies that toppled long-standing governments in the name of democratic reform. It was, and is, right for me to question these policies and the purity of democracy.

After studying in the Middle East and becoming disillusioned by the rhetoric surrounding democracy in the region, I worked for a civil society organization in Amman, Jordan, while simultaneously studying social policy. In the classroom, I learned how the Jordanian government—a monarchy—controlled and limited political participation.

But, while living there, I witnessed working-class Jordanians protesting, both legally and illegally, against increased bread taxes. Ultimately, Jordanians were protesting for their right to afford a staple product that was crucial for their survival. The protests steadily grew, leading to the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet and the reversal of the tax. Jordanians continue to protest for their right to live and influence their government. I was, and still am, inspired by their leadership and courage. Their fight convinced me of the importance of democracy, no matter how imperfect it may be.

Participation in politics and social dialogue is far from guaranteed. During the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, citizens across the world protested for the opportunity to participate and influence their government. Many people gave their lives to the idea of a free and democratic country.

Today, the fight for the same freedoms wages on, and ordinary citizens are starting to win. In Sudan, young people successfully demanded that Omar al-Bashir step down and allow the country to democratically elect their next leader. In Hong Kong, protestors have successfully derailed a bill that would have extradited citizens suspected of crimes to mainland China.

Democracy is built on active participation. All citizens and civil society must constantly demand that their government grant them the freedoms and opportunities to thrive. As seen in Sudan and Hong Kong, change only happens when ordinary citizens gather to demand it.

If our fear is democracies devolving and backsliding, we must remember the value and effectiveness of participation. It is important that governments provide the opportunity for meaningful participation, but my time working abroad taught me that it is equally as important that we as citizens take advantage of every avenue available for greater change. Protest, publish, discuss, and vote to preserve your democracy and those around the world.