The photo opening this article was taken towards the end of the 1970’ies, on one of my trips to Peru. Street vendors in the centre of Lima would sell portraits of some of the heroes of many Latin Americans, not only those belonging to the parties and movements on the left. Che Guevara is not seen on the posters, because his was sold out, being one of the most popular of the heroes, despite his unsuccessful attempt to export the Cuban revolution to other parts of the continent. He met a violent death in Bolivia in October 1967, when soldiers finally hunted him down. In the middle you can see Salvador Allende, the doctor who was elected President of Chile in 1970 in a democratic manner, and met his death in an equally violent manner as Che Guevara on 11 September 1973, when the military moved to oust him in a coup d’état supported by the United States. Allende committed suicide inside the presidential palace, when troops surrounded it – and the military under the leadership of General Pinochet continued to rule Chile with ruthless force until 1990.

Many from my own generation will remember both the events surrounding the death of first Che Guevara and then Salvador Allende. And many will also remember that less than a year after the death of Allende, we witnessed what came to be known as the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. On the 25th of April 1974, military officers staged a coup, which overthrew the authoritarian regime that had ruled since the 1930’ies. The officers were soon followed and supported by citizens engaging in civil resistance, and slowly a new and vibrant democracy was born. This is considered as the beginning of what has been termed the third wave of democracy, which over the following four decades produced more new democracies than history has ever witnessed in such a short period.

Reasons for pessimism, but…

Today, it is not difficult to become pessimistic about the health of democracy globally when you read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch news on television. Populism is rising, and so is nationalism. Civil society is under serious pressure in many countries, and not only in the global South. Rule of law and human rights are being questioned and challenged, not only in developing world where many would not see it as surprising. Freedom of the press and the role of media in holding those in power accountable is being questioned at the highest levels, even in a country like the United States, by its nely elected President. People seem not to trust the politicians, and politicians seem not to be able to address what people are concerned about.

It is rather messy! And it is clear that the optimism following the revolution in Portugal in 1974 has disappeared. But does that mean that the patient (democracy) is on the death bed, waiting for the last oil? Or is democracy ‘just’ seriously sick? If the latter is the case, what type of treatment can cure the patient?

I would recommend those interested in this debate to read what Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs have recently written on the website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Democracy in Decline?

Another interesting contribution to this debate can be found in the book “Democracy in Decline?”, edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner and published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2016. The book is a small collection of articles written by prominent thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Larry Diamond, Thomas Carothers and others. They deal with questions like: Why are many democracies not able to deliver better on the expectations of citizens? What is the attraction of the authoritarian countries now presenting themselves as an alternative with great self-confidence? Can we turn the present ‘recession’ around?