With voters' postures being questioned, delegates share the importance of multilateral efforts to strengthen democracy

March 29, 2023

The open forum of the Tokyo Conference 2023 was held in the afternoon of March 24. Following the opening session, heated discussions were held by representatives of distinguished think tanks from 10 countries in session two on the theme of "How Democracies Should Cope with Global Divisions and the Restoration of Democracy."

At issue is "legitimacy of democracy"

Rohinton Medhora, a distinguished fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Canada, who served as moderator of the session, kicked off the 90-minute discussion by calling on the delegates to ponder what think tanks could do to alleviate the plight of democracy and promote this style of governance that reflects the will of the people.

At the outset of the session, Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO (Japan), pointed to the results of the annual opinion polls on democracy that have been carried out for almost a decade. Kudo emphasized that "the legitimacy of democracy is being questioned" and insisted that as an invaluable humankind asset, democracy should be made to develop autonomously so that it can become firmly entrenched as a global system of governance.

Citing that as the spearhead of democracy, the strength of the United States has been diminishing in recent years, whereas China's clout has been on the rise, Kudo cautioned that according to the results of the opinion surveys, carried out by The Genron NPO and others in 55 countries last year, many people have serious doubts about the system of democratic governance imposed by their governments or political parties.

Kudo referred to the economic policies of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government, which he calls the "new form of capitalism," geared to double asset-based incomes and thereby build up the middle class, noting that the only way to resolve global issues and realize world peace is for everyone to collaborate with each other as "responsible bearers and owners" of democratic institutions.

The differences between free democracy and non-free democracy

Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), expressed his concern about the establishment of democracy. Referring to the assault on The Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 2021, Ong said that ASEAN countries are perplexed by what happened in the United States. Ong said his concern is what signifies democracy in Asia and what we should do to promote it.

He also asked what is the difference between "free democracy" and "non-free democracy," adding that we should question what kind of influence the Internet and digitization is having on the democratic process. He thus emphasized the importance of consensus-building by accommodating different opinions.

By the same token, Carlos Ivan Simonsen Leal, president of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (Brazil), admitted that it is difficult to define "democracy." Citing the case of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the style of governance could not be termed democracy unless the freedom of the press is guaranteed to ensure conflicting opinions can be expressed and people have the right to choose their leaders by means of elections.

He also said that it is important to nurture consensus. There are cases when it is not clear if talks are moving in the same direction, whereas negotiations aim to reach an agreement.

At the same time, Leal acknowledged that the advent of new media, such as Instagram and TikTok, and their impact on society deserve our close consideration.

How to engage with new media in transition

On the question of relations with media outlets, Creon Butler, research director of Chatham House (Britain), pointed to the fact that in Britain, tough regulations are imposed on public broadcasting services and TV stations. However, the Internet is left unchecked, adding that the modality of relations with new types of media is in a transitional period.

Regarding the relations with non-democratic nations, Butler stressed the necessity of working with them, by setting the priorities, in dealing with such issues as climate change, global pandemics and debt problems in developing countries.

Paul Samson, president of Canada's CIGI, pointed out that nobody knows whether it is true that a majority of people in a non-democratic nation like Russia support their leaders' decision to go to war, as in the example of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, Samson reflected on our own views and said he is not sure whether we represent the opinions of younger generations, adding that it may be worth examining substituting our thoughts with alternatives, using new technologies like the metaverse.

Agreeing with Samson's observations, Ettore Greco, executive vice president of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI:Italy), acknowledged that growing populist movements will have a significant negative impact on existing systems and institutions in a matter of several years.

But what is important is that principled governance must be promoted, he said, adding that Russia is tarnishing the European and U.S. governance models.

Greco cautioned that the European Union's relations with Moscow are undergoing changes not just because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine but because of several other factors. Moscow is attempting to cause changes to the relationship at grass-roots levels and these moves should not be underestimated, he stressed.

Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations (France), in reference to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine said that the situation democracy is facing is severe.

Citing the decline in voting rates and the spread of political apathy, he questioned whether democratic nations could withstand such negative trends. At the same time, he said he has found a ray of hope in the progress of technologies, which has ushered in an era when individuals could broadly communicate their opinions to others. Gomart thus emphasized that the discussions at the Tokyo Conference 2023 are of great significance in this respect.

Utilization of new technologies key to democracy's growth

Sunjoy Joshi, chairman of the Observer Research Foundation (India), noted that democracy is sometimes a source of anxiety. Asking himself what should constitute democracy and what should distinguish "free" from "non-free," Joshi drew attention to the new rules associated with the growth of technologies.

He said the impact of technologies deserves close consideration, adding that it is becoming important to realize what the privacy of data signifies and who is manipulating what data.

James M. Lindsay, a senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations (U.S.), presented his thoughts on how the growth of globalization and social media are impacting democracy. He said that artificial intelligence (AI) has almost been perfected and the big question is how it will engage with the democratic process in the absence of governing rules.

He also said the merit of U.S.-style democracy is the ability to make a course correction by people raising their voices. Regrettably however, the status quo tends to stay unchanged these days, even if U.S. President Biden repeatedly calls for a "Vote to Change," he said.

Nonetheless, democracy could give us better values and eventually better outcomes, Lindsay insisted.

After hearing the delegates' remarks, moderator Medhora asked how democracies should deal with the growth of technologies and AI, and how democratic countries had better accommodate with the situation.

In response, Stephen Meyer, a research director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Germany), said that one answer is to make our democracy much more attractive and to accomplish outstanding achievements. He thus implied that democratic countries could realize measures to cope with immigration problems and global pandemics more effectively than authoritarian states.

Incessant efforts needed to make democracy function well

Kudo of The Genron NPO responded by citing global warming, and other domestic and foreign issues. The problem is that the cycle for the resolution of agendas and challenges is not turning around, Kudo noted, thus emphasizing the important roles of politics, political parties, parliaments, media organizations, intellectuals and think tanks.

Referring to the world of the Internet, in which diverse social media tools are developing, Kudo pointed to the necessity of dialogue. According to Kudo, Genron is proactively organizing dialogue sessions with students at universities to create an environment for public discussions. While the fundamental stances of voters are called into question, the responsibility of intellectuals and media people is becoming much heavier, Kudo stressed.

Moderator Medhora concluded the lengthy discussions by admitting that we are engaged in such discussions because answers to the questions cannot be found easily. Our desired approach to countries, which are wishing to democratize, should be to deepen our efforts to make our democratic systems work well, he said.

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