Here's how to save democracy

Martin Chungong of the Inter-Parliamentary Union says the future of democracy depends on parliaments that function well.

South African Parliament. Picture: GCIS.

Democracy today is widely seen as under siege.

We acknowledge this, but a distinction should be made between the principles, tenets and precepts of democracy on the one hand; and the institutions and practices of democracy on the other. It is the latter that the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) believes is under siege.

Democratic governance is eroding at the same time as public confidence in political leadership declines on an unprecedented scale.

Media outlets across the globe predict, on a daily basis, the demise of democracy, and ask what will happen if it does not survive in countries that are traditionally considered to be democracies.

This widespread narrative does indeed paint a dire picture of democracy’s future. At the IPU, we want to transform this narrative. We believe that democracy is resilient. Democracy is adapting to new political, economic and social realities brought about by advances in technology, climate change and globalisation.

We aim to change this narrative and focus instead on ways to strengthen democracy, including how it is institutionalised and practised.

Twenty years ago, the IPU’s Member Parliaments adopted the Universal Declaration on Democracy. This declaration outlines core elements and principles of democracy that any society aspiring to the mantle of democracy needs to respect and promote.

A fundamental principle of the declaration is that democracy is the only political system that has the capacity for self-correction. Democracy is constantly under assault, whether it be the challenges of world wars, cold wars or internal conflict, yet the strength of democracy lies in its ability to evolve and change.

Democracy’s capacity to self-correct ensures that it can adapt to the seismic shifts taking place today.


Parliaments as pillars of democracy are challenged. As key institutions of lawmaking, oversight and representation, parliaments are central to any democratic system.

Yet across every continent, in one way or another, parliaments are frequently - too frequently - attacked, denigrated or sidelined.

The unprecedented rise of inequality in the past three or four decades is at once a challenge to democracy and a direct consequence of a deteriorating political environment.

Parliaments have for years failed to engage youth in the parliamentary process or even address their concerns. Research by the IPU shows that only 1.9% of the world’s MPs are aged under 30.

Young people are therefore turning to other platforms, such as social media, to voice their concerns and ensure action on their priorities. Parliaments must address this issue robustly. Democracy is challenged to open up space for young people to articulate their views and contribute to more positive outcomes.

Moreover, according to IPU research, the gender gap in the number of women MPs is not closing as fast as desired. Successful parliaments should comprise representatives of a nation’s population of women, men, young people, minorities and indigenous populations.

The IPU has tracked women’s representation for 20 years and is seeing a slowdown in the growth of the number of women getting elected to parliament.

Since 2014, the worldwide average of women in national parliaments has increased by less than 2%. This stagnation underlines the need for more stringent efforts in order to achieve gender balance in politics.

The rising number of MPs whose human rights have been or are being violated is also of concern to the IPU. Most often these violations consist of arbitrary detention, lack of a fair trial, violation of freedom of expression, and unlawful suspension and loss of the parliamentary mandate.

The IPU has repeatedly spoken out and urged action against the growing trend to silence opposition voices within parliaments. Indeed, such violations are an attack on parliaments themselves.


At the IPU, we, therefore, believe that the path to stronger democracies is through stronger parliaments. This requires ensuring parliaments are representative, not only in terms of who sits in parliament but also in terms of the issues that are examined, the policies put in place and the decisions and actions carried out in the general interest. Parliaments are also challenged to be more transparent, accountable and accessible.

Parliamentarians must be allowed to freely exercise their lawmaking, oversight and representative prerogatives without fear of reprisals from the government or violations of their human rights.

Strengthening democracy means every level of government commits to mainstreaming in its work the basic tenets of democratic governance and principles as defined in the Universal Declaration on Democracy.

Strengthening democracy means working on ways to be more inclusive, ensuring people and their interests are at the heart of political dialogue and decision-making processes.

The future of democracy depends on parliaments that function well. To promote strong parliaments and democracy, the IPU has launched a global petition to promote and protect democracy with parliament as the centrepiece. We call on you to join our effort for stronger parliaments and stronger democracies.

Written by Martin Chungong, secretary-general, Inter-Parliamentary Union.

This article was republished courtesy of the World Economic Forum.