Beginning in 2008, September 15 has been designated by the members states of the United Nations [UN] as the day to celebrate the importance of democracy and the role of democratic values and principles. People who follow the UN will know that this is only one thematic day among many, and if you want to be a bit cynical, you could argue that the multitude of such days undermines the very purpose of the day – to focus the attention of the entire world on an important issue for all of humanity. I agree that there is some merit to this argument, but I also believe that it is the responsibility of the UN system to lead the world on such a key issue as that of the role of democracy in the development of our societies.

This year is the tenth time the world is celebrating the International Day of Democracy. The fact that the quality of democracy has weakened in many countries around the world over the same period is not an argument for not taking time out to reflect on the state of affairs. More than ever do we need political leaders and citizens to come together and find ways to reinvigorate our democracies.


This is the first time that we have António Guterres, the new Secretary-General of the UN setting the tone of the message from the organisation. He has a background as the head of the UN organisation for refugees, UNHCR, and it therefore makes sense that the theme chosen for 2017 is that of democracy and conflict prevention. The message of the Secretary-General is as follows:

The International Day of Democracy is an opportunity to recommit to a world defined by values enshrined in the United Nations Charter: peace, justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity. Yet in many societies around the world, there is a crisis of faith. Globalization and technological progress have lifted many out of poverty, but have also contributed to inequality and instability. There is a growing and deepening divide among people, as well as between people and the political establishments that exist to represent them. Fear is driving too many decisions. This is a danger to democracy.

It is time to reconstruct relations between people and leaders — national and international. It is time for leaders to listen and show that they care, about their own people and about the global stability and solidarity on which we all depend. And it is time for the entire international community to address one of its most severe shortcomings: our inability to prevent crises.

To work credibly for prevention, we need to better support countries in their efforts to strengthen their democratic institutions and make their societies more resilient. In some countries, a dangerous illusion has taken hold that democracy is in contradiction to stability or conflict prevention.

Quite the contrary: by destroying democratic institutions, by suppressing civil society, by undermining the rule of law and human rights, authoritarian rule creates conditions for extremist ideologies and terrorist activities to thrive. It prevents societies from developing peaceful channels and effective instruments for the resolution of grievances and other challenges.

By the same token, toppling a dictator, or holding elections in a post-conflict situation, does not mean democracy will flourish by itself. It requires leadership, in ensuring that emerging and developing democracies are supported, so they can succeed. It requires strengthening civil society, empowering women and upholding the rule of law.

These are the conditions that allow democracy, stability and peace to prevail. On this Day, let us dedicate ourselves to those values enshrined in the UN Charter — without double standards, with full commitment, and with full transparency.

These are wise words indeed. You could argue that we have heard them before, but we have failed to deliver. Nevertheless, over the past few years, we have actually heard political leaders – and others as well – argue that we cannot really afford to focus as much as some think we should on the promotion of democracy. On the contrary, we should rather focus on stability and conflict prevention. It is good to see the Secretary-General strongly argue that this is not right! It is actually the destruction of democratic institutions, suppression of civil society, etc. that fuels extremism and terrorism. Democracy is about resolving grievances in a peaceful manner.


In recent years (2011-16), when I was the Director of the Danish Institutte for Parties and Democracy [DIPD], I had the opportunity to work on the strengthening of political parties, party systems and democratic culture more broadly in a variety of countries. Before that, while working for the UN/UNDP in Botswana and the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre [OGC] in Norway, I also had the opportunity to follow developments and advise on democratic reforms in a number of countries. Since the focus this year is on the link between democracy and conflict prevention, I will briefly mention a few experiences of how it is possible in some countries with conflicts to contribute as external actors.

NEPAL: Modern political history of this small country, squeezed between China and India in the Himalaya mountains, and still among the poorest countries in the world, has seen a lot of violence and conflict between different groups and parties. However, following a peace agreement in 2008, a new Constitution was negotiated, and after several years of disagreement, the major parties in 2015 agreed on the implementation of the new constitution. A group of parties organised in the JOMPOPS platform have received support from DIPD, based on the sharing of experiences on how to build a democratic culture characterised by peaceful dialogue, both at national and local level. We know from conflict research that women need to be involved if we want to achieve stability, and the involvement of women in politics has been a key focus in the work of JOMPOPS. Has it changed everything? No! Has it contributed? I believe so.

MYANMAR: This is still a young democracy, and still not what we normally term a ‘full democracy’. Elections in 2015 gave Ang San Suu Kyi and  her party, the National League for Democracy, a dominating position in Parliament – and positioned herself as the de facto leader, although the military is still around in force. But despite her own and her party’s dominance, Myanmar needs to develop a democratic culture, which allows other and smaller parties to participate in shaping the policies and legislation. Being a dominant political party is not a ‘magic bullet’ in a country with great diversity and many local conflicts that have been active for decades. The present crisis with the Rohingya refugees crossing the border into Bangladesh is also an example of a conflict which requires democratic values to be resolved, and this seems to be difficult for Ang San Suu Kyi and the military to accept. DIPD is working with many political parties in Myanmar, but a new democratic culture is not established overnight, it takes a lot of patience.

EGYPT: We were all surprised in early 2011, when the Arab Spring suddenly broke the back of the dictatorship of President Mubarak and opened up for efforts to develop a genuine multi-party system and a Parliament with power to legislate in a democratic manner. Together with others, DIPD decided to support this process – knowing very well that it would be difficult, and sensing as well that some of the forces of the authoritarian era could return and challenge the reform process. This was in fact what happened, with more force and determination than most of us had anticipated. At the end of the day, it just became too difficult for DIPD and too dangerous for partners to continue to push for democratic reforms – when not even the word ‘democracy’ could be spelled out. Not even the UN seems to be able to make this possible, often because the major powers consider security issues more important than democracy.

KENYA: Following the post-election ethnic violence back in 2008, there has been a lot of focus on the development of a peaceful and democratic culture – and democratic political parties in general – in this important country in East Africa. With DIPD funding, the Danish Liberal Party has invested in support for the youth sections of all the political parties organised in the Centre for Multiparty platform. Ideas that can inspire and training sessions involving young Danish and Kenyan politicians will not do away with violence as a political instrument overnight, and there are no guarantees for success. However, it needs to be tried! Right now, the world is waiting for Kenya to conduct a re-run of the presidential election, following irregularities in the first round. Will it be possible to avoid violence this time? Will it be possible with a peaceful transfer of power to the winning candidate if it happens not to be the incumbant?

TANZANIA: This East African country has been an official development partner of Denmark for more than 50 years, and contrary to many other African countries, it has generally been characterised by stability and peace. For many years there was only one party, but this has changed in recent decades. Today there are three major parties, with the ruling party dominating and clinging on to its power, but with the two opposition parties playing a stronger role than before. Politics has consequently become more polarised, and the ruling CCM party is doing its best to make life difficult for the opposition. DIPD has suppported the process towards the consolidation of democracy, both through support for the multi-party platform, and through partnerships between individual Danish parties and the two opposition parties, CUF and CHADEMA. This is becoming increasingly difficult, but it will hopefully be possible to continue the support. You wonder what the official Danish response should be, if the government and ruling party makes it impossible to support the democratic process? Is this not what Denmark has also tried to achieve during more than 50 years?

ZIMBABWE: Formally speaking, Zimbabwe is a multi-party democracy, with several parties competing for power in both presidential and parliamentary elections. In reality, it has been impossible for the parties challenging President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party to establish what is termed ‘a level playing field’. This means that all parties have equal access to the media to get their messages communicated to the public; the election commission is truly independent; the voters roll is up to date and accepted as the basis for the electorate by all parties; the electorate can cast their vote without feeling intimidated by police and security forces. This is not the case today in Zimbabwe. Despite this difficult situation [or really because of it], DIPD – together with NIMD from the Netherlands – decided to support a local partner to bring the major parties together and make an effort to foster a dialogue that could ensure peaceful elections and more cooperation. I personally felt that this was a risky, but necessary investment. Earlier this year, DIPD decided to stop the support.


All of the country examples just mentioned point to the conflictive nature of politics, although the nature of the conflicts are very different – different historical backgrounds, different party systems, different electoral systems, and different geo-political contexts. Not all of the countries mentioned are officially categorised as in-conflict or post-conflict countries. Using the concepts loosely, this would probably be the case for Nepal, Myanmar, Egypt, and Zimbabwe, while countries like Kenya and Tanzania are in a different category. However, looking closely at the realities of the countries, it would be difficult to argue that the conflicts facing Nepal today are more serious than those facing Kenya, maybe even on the contrary. If you add other DIPD-countries like Zambia, Swaziland and Ghana, they all present aspects of violent political conflict, although they are not normally considered as being in the conflict category.

The systems and experiences of all of these countries are indeed also very different from the Danish political system and its history, and it is therefore relevant to ask: Does it make sense at all to offer ideas that can inspire to these countries and their political parties, based on Danish experiences? Based on a history of more than 100 years of peaceful elections and peaceful transfer of power from one group of parties to another? Based on the high level of homonogeity of Danish society for most of the 100 years?

I think it makes sense! But I also think we need to be careful, cautious, thoughtful and sensitive when we design our programmes. They should never be prescriptive, but must remain inspirational, and it takes people with knowledge of the political economy of the partner countries to be able to communicate the Danish experiences so they make sense to representatives from political parties in other countries. We need to remind ourselves, again and again, that democracy cannot be imported, nor can it be exported. However, under the right circumstances, we can support what local forces decide to push.

Let me finally repeat one part of the message from the UN Secretary-General that I find important and fully in line with my own experience and thinking:

Toppling a dictator, or holding elections in a post-conflict situation, does not mean democracy will flourish by itself. It requires leadership, in ensuring that emerging and developing democracies are supported, so they can succeed. It requires strengthening civil society, empowering women and upholding the rule of law.

Supporting the political parties in the manner done by DIPD is very important – and in line with the message. Investing in the empowerment of women in particular is what DIPD has been doing since the start in 2011 – and in line with the message. Reaching out more broadly to civil society is also part of the mandate given in the law that established DIPD in 2010 and has so far also been part of the strategy of DIPD – and in line with the message. Again, there is no magic bullet mentioned in the message from the Secretary-General. He knows full well, like many of us do, that this is hard work in many areas at the same time. It is not the BIG ‘D’ BANG we can rely on, but rather the MANY SMALL D’s coming together, one day, into a forceful river.

You can read more about the work of the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy on the website: