Opening remarks by Matjaz Gruden, Director of Policy Planning in the Council of Europe

Before I start, I would like you to retain two dates. The first is 414 BC. The second date is never.

Everyone agrees that democracy is a fine thing when everything is OK. Look at Norway for example. It is not difficult to be so exemplary democratic when you have all these oil and gas reserves. Did you know that it takes them at least eight years to change constitution, two mandates of the parliament in order to ensure any change enjoys the widest possible support?

But Europe today is not a happy place. Economic crisis maintains its iron grip on people’s lives; periods of recession and shallow, jobless growth are succeeding each other in ever-shorter intervals. Extremist violence is increasingly frequent and finding its way from Europe’s neighboring regions into Europe’s neighborhoods.

People are frustrated, uncertain about their future, and afraid.

People are loosing confidence in the authorities, nationally and internationally, because they do not seem to be able to deliver concrete and effective responses to their concerns.

Voters are demanding action and results. They are not ready to wait for eight years before things get better.

So the question some are beginning to ask – is democracy able to deliver in the time of crisis? When times get tough, are human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law an asset or a liability? 

To try to answer this question, let us imagine an imagined country – Syldavia, for example.

The historic ruler from the times of Tintin and Captain Haddock, King Ottokar has long been dethroned, the country has undergone a series of internal and external turmoil, and the Republic of Syldavia is now finally investing a lot of effort to build a functioning democracy and a functioning economy.

A young energetic leader is elected, with comfortable, even constitutional majority.

And then the crisis hit.

But our young leader is not discouraged. He, or she, but let’s agree it is a he – Syldavia still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality - knows what has to be done, and how. He has the democratic mandate. He has the support of the people.

And that is when problems start.

The Constitutional Court throws out key parts of his reform programme.

Prosecutor’s Office is indicting some of his allies for a variety of offences – embezzlement, corruption, links with organized crime, you name it.

The opposition is being unhelpful and obnoxious, looking for every possible way to obstruct his policies. 

Media are investigating and reporting on alleged bank accounts in foreign countries. Nothing more than a few Euros from a consultancy fee, a college fund for his kids, but the coverage is enormous and malicious.

Civil society is organizing increasingly popular protests against the social consequences of the reforms. 

You can see the Prime Minister’s dilemma. All this is jeopardizing the success of reforms.

He has two possibilities. 

First. He can analyse the situation and conclude this is all orchestrated, fabricated and exaggerated plot to distract him in his path to meet the obligations toward the nation. He can decide he will not bend and betray his people. He can appeal to national unity and patriotic sense of responsibility and dismiss all criticism as a plot financed by foreigners. Perhaps by Tintin and Captain Haddock.

So he does not give up, he takes up the challenge with courage and resolve.

He uses his constitutional majority to “clean up” the Constitutional Court and make sure only judges with appropriate sense of patriotic duty are allowed to sit.

He introduces clever legislative changes to obtain control over judicial appointments and dismissals, to ensure no trumped up Mickey Mouse charges are brought against important supporters of the reform programme.

He changes licensing regulations to ensure non-patriotic media finds it difficult to broadcast. Printed media are disciplined through adequate legislative and administrative measures.

Civil society is vilified as fifth column, paid by foreign forces set to destibilise Syldavia. Tax and registration legislation is adjusted accordingly.

To make sure all aspects are taken care of, a patriotic campaign is started against political opponents and appropriately selected chosen minorities, be they ethnic, religious or sexual, making them the scapegoats for any problems Syldavians are facing in these difficult times.

Ultimately, there are no obstacles and obstructions left for a bold and effective reform action to bring everlasting stability and prosperity to the country.

Of course, Syldavia is a fictional country. And I have caricatured the situation a bit. But only a bit. What is described above could be labeled managed democracy, or vertical power democracy, or illiberal democracy, or any other oxymoron you may wish to use to deprive the word democracy of its purpose and meaning.

The other option our young energetic leader would have is to comply with democratic rules, respect human rights and uphold the rule of law.

I will not go through this in details, because I am certain you know them very well.

What must be acknowledged is that the democratic option is not trouble-free. It has disadvantages and risks. It is sometimes cumbersome and time consuming.

It may seem ineffective when confronted with real systemic challenges – such as politicized judiciary,or biased media. Overcoming these usually require protracted negotiations with political opponents and considerably higher degree of political culture as it is traditionally found in Syldavia.

And do not forget – those resorting to democratic rules are always at risk of losing an election. They may lose power. They may fail in their rendezvous with history.

All this while the crisis continues and shows no sign of early improvement.

So what to do?

Let us leave moral judgments aside for a while. Let us look for the most effective way to respond to people’s needs and concerns?

Can illiberal democracy deliver better then the liberal one? Will a temporary loss of freedom be compensated with lasting improvements in peoples’ lives? More security? Better living standards?

Let me end the suspense right here – the answer is an adamant no.

The fact is that an illiberal democracy will sooner or later end up in failure, instability, turmoil, even conflict.

The reason is very simple.

Without effective and independent judiciary, without free media, without active and influential civil society, without properly functioning democratic institutions, without effective measures to ensure inclusiveness and non discrimination of all individuals and groups in the society there are no safeguards and no deterrents against incompetence and abuse of power.

And where there are no such safeguards, incompetence and abuse of power will eventually prevail. Even if, at the beginning, there are only pure and good intentions.

For all its shortcomings and defects, democracy will ultimately always serve people better.

I can support this claim with empirical evidence.

Remember the two dates I mentioned at the beginning?

The first is 414 BC. This was the siege of Syracuse by Athens during the Peloponnesian wars. It was also the last time in recorded history that two democracies went into war with each other.

The second date is never. This, according to Amartya Sen, the Nobel prized economist from India, is how often a country with a relatively free press has experienced famine.

Here is where I will stop. The bottom line is that sometimes, the most responsible and patriotic thing a politician can do is to lose an election.

But of course I wish you all the best and much success in your careers.

Thank you.