As delegates gathered in Mongolia for talks on ways to deepen democracy and shore up democratic institutions, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned today "the greatest danger today may be the weakening of the substance of democratic government, even as its outward forms appear intact."
Mr. Annan's remarks came in a message to the Fifth International Conference of New or Restored Democracies, held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and delivered on his behalf by Danilo Turk, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs.
"In many countries, people feel that decisions which affect their well-being are out of their hands, and even beyond the control of their elected representatives," the message said, noting that in several democracies, both new and old, there is an alarming decline in voter turnout. "As the world we live in grows increasingly complex and complicated, more and more decisions are taken by 'experts' at a technical level."
These are among the issues expected to be addressed by more than 100 national governments attending the meeting until Friday. Since the first Conference was held in 1988, the number of semi-democratic governments in the world has swelled to 140, but as Mr. Annan and international observers have noted, a toll has been taken on new and even some well-established democracies, including by ethnic, cultural and religious tensions, or by simmering regional and sub-regional political crises.
"It is essential that confidence in democracy is strengthened and this conference can make an important contribution," Mr. Annan said today.
His message also underscored the important role that civil society plays in good governance. "If there is no space for civil society, the simple casting of votes becomes an empty exercise," he said.
Mr. Annan also said that while democracy cannot be imposed from abroad, it can be encouraged and assisted through international efforts. "Let us not look at our work as the export of one form of government from one part of the world to another," he said. "Rather, let us focus on common challenges to governance in the 21st century, and ensure that democracy is at the heart of our solutions."