Language selection


Side by side with democracies under pressure

Introductory remarks delivered at the 25th Anniversary Global Conference of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), entitled “Democracy Now and Next”.

Participation in the session “Challenges to Democratic Processes in Democratizing Countries”, virtually held in Stockholm, Sweden

November 20, 2020

Stéphane Dion

Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe

and Canadian Ambassador to Germany

It is an honour for me, as Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe, to deliver the introductory remarks for a session featuring three eminent panelists—one from Lebanon and two from Tunisia—dedicated to the cause of democracy in their countries and around the world.  

I do not claim to be an expert on Tunisia and Lebanon, but it is fitting that we are talking about these two countries in a session on democratization, since they illustrate my main argument: I firmly believe that in our efforts to promote democracy around the globe, we must not only criticize dictatorships and despotic regimes, but also provide effective and specific support to countries and governments that are striving, against all odds, to keep democracy alive, in conditions that people in well-established democracies cannot even imagine.  It is for that reason that, when Prime Minister Trudeau appointed me Canada’s foreign affairs minister in 2015, I was keen to make an official visit to both Lebanon and Tunisia.

To begin, I would like to say how happy I am that this session on democratization is taking place as part of the conference marking the 25th anniversary of IDEA, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. It just so happens that I heartily concur with IDEA’s perceptive diagnosis of the state of democracy today, notably in its 2019 report, “The Global State of Democracy: Addressing the Ills, Reviving the Promise.”  

On the one hand, IDEA confirms what other observatories such as Freedom House and The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index have been saying: democracy—which IDEA defines as “popular control over public decision-making and decision-makers, and equality between citizens in the exercise of that control”—has been in decline since approximately 2006, in the sense that there are more countries where the quality of democratic practices is deteriorating, than countries where it is improving. According to IDEA, this deterioration, which affects fundamental freedoms, the electoral process, judicial independence and the fight against corruption, was seen in half of all democracies in 2018.

On the other hand, International IDEA reminds us that we have made phenomenal progress over the decades. Its observations show that 26% of countries were democratic in 1975, compared with 62% in 2018. While democratic practices have deteriorated over the past decade, the number of democratic countries has continued to climb, albeit more slowly than over the previous two decades, rising from 90 in 2008 to 97 in 2018. There are now democratic countries in all regions of the world.  

I can recall the world that lay before me as a young political science student in 1975. Nearly all of Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America were in the grips of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. In some democratic countries, many electors were voting for parties opposed to pluralistic democracy, and totalitarian ideologies were taking hold on campuses and in unions. U.S. democracy was shaken by the Watergate scandal. In 1975, the future of democracy seemed tenuous. Yet that was when humanity began the largest wave of democratization in its history. We must remember that era when we consider the difficulties of today.

Like many observers, I believe that an overly euphoric optimism swept in after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Cold War ended in 1991. While Francis Fukuyama’s famous prediction—that democracy will become the universal form of government—may one day come to pass, in the meantime, it will face stiff competition from undemocratic regimes and may lose ground in the most established democracies.

In short, the number of democracies is climbing but their quality seems to be deteriorating. Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary-General of International IDEA, sums it up like this: “Despite its current ills, democracy’s vitality should be acknowledged and celebrated.” He evokes both a sense of urgency and a sense of hope.

This hope relies heavily on countries like Lebanon and Tunisia, which, despite headwinds, are managing to maintain their democratic systems in extremely unstable regions. When we look at a map of the world, we must locate such democracies under pressure and consider how we can effectively support them amidst the squalls and turmoil.

Despite one of the worst economic crises in its history, despite the rampant corruption, and despite the sectarianism that is fragmenting its political system, Lebanese democracy must succeed. How discouraging it would be if this beacon of democracy in the Middle East were extinguished! Let us not forget that this democracy is fighting to survive in what International IDEA deems to be the least democratic region of the world. Nor should we forget that no other country on the planet welcomes a larger proportion of refugees, the equivalent of one third of its population, according to the European Union, in a country where roughly one out of three workers is unemployed. In a Canadian context, this would equate to about 12 million refugees; we Canadians, with our vast and wealthy country and strong institutions, cannot even imagine the colossal effort it would take to house so many refugees on our own land.

We are fortunate to have with us the First Deputy Governor of Lebanon’s central bank, Wassim Mansouri, who will address the Lebanese issue much better than I could. Allow me to simply say that Canada shall continue to listen to the Lebanese people, so we can further strengthen the support we are providing to that country’s democracy.

Speaking of hope, it would be difficult to exaggerate the hope that Tunisia represents for democracy in the world. Tunisia gave birth to the Arab Spring, and today it would seem that Tunisia is the only place where its seeds took root. We have an excellent panelist joining us who will speak to this, Dr. Wafa Zaafrane Andoulsi, a member of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. As an introduction to her remarks, I will say that we are all mindful of the fundamental challenge that this democracy is facing, which can be summed up by this question: How can this political success bear socio‑economic fruit?

The political success is relative, of course, but it is exceptional in this part of the world: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index ranked Tunisia 144th in the world in 2011, compared with 53rd in 2019, a spectacular rise. According to IDEA, Tunisia’s democracy is one of the best in Africa and the Middle East for protection of fundamental rights, integrity of elections, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press and civil society participation. The 2014 Constitution is recognized as the most progressive and inclusive in the Arab world. Tunisia has also started a process of decentralization of power by holding its first municipal elections in the country's history in 2018, with the addition of an obligation of equal representation between women and men.

This political success is fragile, and so must be finalized. The lack of a constitutional court is a deficiency that has long needed correction, especially as the crisis sparked by the COVID pandemic means that the prerogatives of Parliament, the government and the Presidency of the Republic are being bitterly disputed and fiercely debated. The highly proportional electoral system has produced a fragmented parliament, making it extremely difficult to achieve the majority needed to make difficult decisions, ensure stable and effective governance and implement reforms. The participation rate of legislative elections, which was 68% in 2014, fell to 41% in 2019, showcasing the disenchantment of the population, especially among the youth.

This disenchantment is evidently related to the country’s economic difficulties. Even before the economic contraction caused by health restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the COVID virus, Tunisia was struggling with a weak growth, high unemployment (14.9% at the end of 2019), especially among the youth, an informal economy estimated to be providing 40% of jobs, a public deficit equal to roughly 5% of GDP, serious socio‑economic and regional disparities, and large-scale emigration of its most skilled workers. One must also add serious security issues related to the persistent threat of terrorism and the proximity of armed conflicts in the region (Yemen, Iraq and Syria) and especially in Libya, which Professor Haykel Ben Mahfoudh will speak on. And then, we cannot forget that Tunisia is on the front lines of global warming, which is putting increasing pressure on already limited local water and soil resources.  

It will not be easy to fix these problems against the backdrop of economic and social instability amplified by the COVID pandemic and its ramifications, which are causing the health situation to deteriorate, hospital infrastructure to become overburdened, poverty to worsen, food prices to surge, tourism—the backbone of the economy—to dry up, and an overall economic downturn that is also hitting neighbouring Maghrebian and European economies.  

Canada is well aware that donor countries, which are grappling with their own economic problems, might reduce their development assistance and focus their aid on the more pressing needs related to the health emergency. Support for democratization risks being severely impacted. Canada is urging the community of democracies not to make this mistake. In recent years, we have strengthened our ties with Tunisian democracy, and we are resolute about continuing to do so. On June 17, 2019, Tunisia and Canada signed a Memorandum of Understanding that marks the deepening of relations on development.

Trade relations between Tunisia and Canada are expanding. Canada helped organize and finance the 2018 municipal elections. It provides assistance for counterterrorism security measures and maintains close military cooperation. Tunisia is one of the priority countries identified in Canada’s International Education Strategy. Canada welcomes more than two thousand Tunisian students every year. Our joint membership in La Francophonie brings us closer together and facilitates our dealings in all these areas. Our feminist foreign policy emphasizes ​​the promotion of women, the main lever for political, economic and social development.

In conclusion, I would say that by supporting the democratization of countries like Lebanon and Tunisia, who are under high pressure and are persevering under extremely difficult conditions, well-established democracies have the opportunity to learn about themselves and further their journey along the ever-perfectible path of democracy.

We will now hear from three of these courageous democrats.

Date Modified: