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Renewing Democracy in the Era of Crisis

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The notion that crises have become the new normal is a thought-provoking perspective. When faced with a continuous stream of challenges such as pandemics, extreme weather events, and geopolitical tensions, it is natural to question how this constant state of crisis might impact democracy.

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the central topic of conversation was polycrisis – the cascading and interconnected crises we find ourselves in. One pressing concern that constantly occupies our minds is climate change, whose effects are evident worldwide, manifesting as smaller crises. From the devastating fires in Hawaii to droughts in Africa, climate change’s impact is felt across the globe, disrupting normalcy. On a larger scale, climate change will render large areas uninhabitable and create migratory pressures.

Simultaneously, our world’s polarity is shifting. Moving from the bipolar dynamics of the Cold War to the unipolarity of past decades, we are now witnessing the rise of multipolarity, as China and Russia are rising powers capturing global attention. This shift in power dynamics has played a significant role in the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has devastated us for the past year and a half.

Furthermore, our increasing interconnectivity and reliance on technology have profound implications. Computer scientists around the world have warned policymakers about the potential consequences of developing artificial intelligence that has the potential to surpass human capabilities. Additionally, our societal resilience is diminishing, as power outages and cyber attacks now have severe consequences, highlighting our vulnerability.

All of these crises are occurring simultaneously, influencing and exacerbating one another. Consequently, understanding their cause – whether man-made, caused by adversaries, or mere coincidence – becomes a complex challenge.

Stress-test for democracy

The question arises: How will crises impact our democratic governance? The decision-making process during stable times is cautious, considering diverse opinions and relying on carefully collected and analyzed data. However, as exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, decisions during crises must be made rapidly and are often entrusted to a single person, based on limited information.

In this era of crises, it is crucial to ensure that policymakers bear in mind the necessity of carefully considering all options and involving affected groups in making long-term decisions. This approach is not only important to guarantee the best possible long-term outcome but also to maintain public trust in government and democracy as a whole, as a lack of trust could potentially lead to yet another crisis. One solution to address this challenge is to improve the quality and availability of machine-readable data, as it serves as a powerful tool for enforcing transparency and accountability in decision-making processes, particularly during times of crisis.

Additionally, civil society plays a vital role as a watchdog, making sure that those in power are held responsible. Through monitoring resource allocation, exposing corruption, and demanding accountability, civil society safeguards the integrity and legitimacy of democratic systems in times of crisis. Moreover, civil society gives voice to marginalized and vulnerable groups, preventing further marginalization and promoting inclusivity. By amplifying their perspectives, it contributes to a fair and open dialogue between the state and its people.

Civil society as a watchdog for democracy

Strengthening our civil society will not happen miraculously on its own. Open governance is a practice that takes time to solidify. In Estonia, we created an open governance roadmap that emphasizes the responsibility of the public sector. Our goal was to create conditions for meaningful cooperation with different interest groups and improve inclusive decision-making practices. In short, we are cultivating a culture of cooperation during stable times to prepare for crises.

Furthermore, we cannot expect civil society to hold the public sector accountable without equipping them with the necessary tools. That’s why all government procurements in Estonia are made public, enabling anyone to scrutinize the process and expose any wrongdoing. The next step, which is currently in progress, involves making the law-making process publicly transparent for all parties. In other words, decisions cannot be made behind closed doors; instead, all comments and additions to various draft laws will be public and observable.

These are just a few examples of how transparency with the public can be easily achieved in the digital age. This transparency is crucial for maintaining an open dialogue with the public, and the time to implement it is now. Delaying open governance until a crisis occurs may prove too late. By strengthening civil society and fostering trust and transparency, we position ourselves to effectively confront crises while nurturing a society that is stronger and more resilient.