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  • Vijay Krishnarayan

Democracy is in Trouble. How can the Commonwealth Respond?

On the eve of Commonwealth Day, I was happy to be asked by the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy (CP4D) for thoughts on the outlook for the Commonwealth as a mechanism for democratic strengthening.

My views are informed by more than 20 years of participating in Commonwealth processes (I attended my first Heads of Government Meeting in 1999) with 13 years working in the belly of the beast at Marlborough House.


My premise is that the Commonwealth needs to change in order to respond to gradual but definite shifts in democracy’s tectonic plates. The Commonwealth needs to respond. It has the potential to respond. It needs to change to respond.


The Yearbook of International Organizations, in one of its first editions back in 1910 contained descriptions of around 150 international organisations. This year it included information on nearly 72,500 international organisations from 300 countries and territories. The editors estimate that on average 1,200 new organisations are added each year. My point is that the multilateral terrain has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. It is a crowded market, with a constant stream of new entrants that will continue to grow. To differentiate itself in that arena the Commonwealth can deepen its work on democratic strengthening – where it has a track record and can make a difference. But it needs to change.


The need for change was recently highlighted by the report that launched the new Centre for the Future of Democracy. The report looked at levels of public confidence in democracy and gathered data from 154 countries. It found that 2019 saw the "highest level of democratic discontent" since 1995. The authors stopped short of defining causes but did link discontent to economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises to new levels of civic dissatisfaction. The report did not filter its findings for Commonwealth countries but did point out that there has been an especially acute crisis of democratic confidence in “advanced” democracies (e.g. Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom). In these countries, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy has doubled since the 1990s, from a quarter to half of all individuals. Arguably, the prospects for the Commonwealth as a convener and facilitator of democratic strengthening processes have improved with what the authors of this report refer to as “The end of “Anglo-Saxon” exceptionalism.” We are all in this together and it calls for a discussion of equals.

Looking at the mechanisms available to respond to this crisis of democratic confidence, the Commonwealth can be part of the mix and has the makings of an influential player. It has an orientation towards governance in the round. Its architecture and conventions recognise the complexity of the governance terrain. Its combination of intergovernmental and non-governmental agencies and the normative Commonwealth Charter give it an orientation towards democratic strengthening. This is operationalised through an associative and collegial way of doing business. It’s a forum for exchange and learning, that can complement the work of treaty-based regional and international bodies.


But what was needed in 1965 is not what is needed now if the Commonwealth is to realise its potential to strengthen and deepen democracy. These three things need to happen.


The Commonwealth needs to make its peace with civil society. The Commonwealth still tends to define itself in terms of its intergovernmental status. The peak decision-making body is the Heads of Government Meeting with its attendant focus on keeping people out of the way – despite the best efforts of organisations like the Commonwealth Foundation, which aim to animate the agenda. It is true that the Commonwealth Charter makes reference to civil society as a development partner but you can imagine the drafter’s sense of afterthought as the relevant clause was added on at the end. Civil society is in the Commonwealth’s DNA. The institution needs to come to terms with that.


The Commonwealth needs to be more joined up. There are multiple Commonwealth organisations that are having an impact in the field of democratic strengthening in addition to the Commonwealth Secretariat. The UK funded CP4D brought the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) together and more of this kind of joined-up thinking is needed to make the sum of the Commonwealth parts count. For example, the Commonwealth Secretariat has organised observation missions for more than 130 elections in 36 countries since 1980. This is work of the highest quality and I have had the privilege of participating in it. But there is scope to deepen the impact for example by connecting it to post-election work that can be supported by CPA, CLGF as well as the Commonwealth Foundation.


The Commonwealth needs to redefine its understanding of civil society. Too often in Commonwealth circles, any acknowledgement of the importance of civil society to the institution begins and ends with the 80 organisations that are formally accredited. Many of these organisations pre-date the inter-governmental agencies and can bring technical specialism. But this Commonwealth universe is a small part of a wider civil society galaxy. Last year’s annual report of the Kenya NGO Board stated that the 3,000 plus civil society organisations that it regulates mobilised £1.2 billion for the public good. The Commonwealth needs to recognise the importance of civil society at the interface between democracy and development – and marshal its resources accordingly.

Predicting the Commonwealth’s future is a habitual pastime around Commonwealth Day. It’s also a fool’s errand. But the received wisdom on democracy is being questioned. The Commonwealth does not have all the answers but it has the potential. That potential will only be realised if it looks within, makes connections, and reaches out.

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