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Panel discussion in the annual seminar of the Oslo Center on 19 May

The Oslo Center Annual Seminar “Is democracy on the decline in Europe?”
19 May, 2015, Oslo

Opening statement by President Tarja Halonen in a panel


  • We Europeans tend to be pessimistic about the current state and the future of democracy in the world. However, it is important to remember that facts don’t always support this view. The independent watchdog Freedom House reports that from 1995 to 2015, the number of democratic countries has risen from 76 to 89. In the same time, the share of the world population living in democratic countries has doubled: from approximately 20 per cent to almost 40 per cent. This of course still leaves room for much improvement in many of the 195 countries covered, but the overall trend seems to be positive.


  • Having said this, our concerns are of course also valid. Several problematic developments are threatening democracy, both globally and regionally. Much of this is happening in or close to Europe. I only need to mention Turkey, Russia, and the chaos that has followed the Arab Spring as examples. In authoritarian countries power is increasingly centralized, and the people in power seem to be willing to use increasingly hard measures to maintain their power. In power vacuums, extremely violent groups like ISIS have taken advantage. In all cases, civil societies, NGOs and ordinary people – especially women and children – suffer as a result.


  • The developments in Russia of course worry us. I have been asked many times what I think of the situation and what I think President Putin is up to. My answer is that I have not met Putin in over a year, and the best way to learn about his thoughts is to ask him. I believe in communication. No world leader changes their behavior for the better if you push them into a corner. I neither think that President Putin would be succeeded by a Norwegian Social Democrat.


  • Turkey is concentrating on the Parliamentary elections that will take place in June. The elections will be very important. If the ruling party AKP, that has been in power for 13 years, wins a qualified majority (330 of 550 seats), it will mean radical consitutional changes and a move to a Presidential system in Turkey. As a matter of fact, President Erdogan seems to already be taking part in the work of the government. Dialogue with Turkey is now as important as ever.


  • It is important to note that the challenge to democracy in Europe, or even in the EU, is not only coming from outside. There are grave challenges to democracy within Europe also. See Hungary, which is quickly distancing itself from many of the core European values. Prime Minister Orban has even brought the death penalty into public discussion, which is unheard of in Modern Europe. European countries are reacting to this. From the Finnish perspective I can say that the private sector seems to be more cautious about the Hungarian markets because of political uncertainty. Ministerial level visits have also been on halt for over a year. However, constructive dialogue is ongoing. As has been famously said, I hope our “institutions will remember if people forget“. That is why our strong European democracy and human rights institutions and instruments are important.


  • But more often democracy in Europe is beginning to be questioned from below by the people. This is a result of the increased frustration with the democratically elected political leaders’ ability to give answers to problems in our everyday lives. This frustration helps populist movements across the continent.


  • Populist and extremist movements can be very clever in using democracy to gain power. However, many of these movements are very anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic, discriminating people based on nationality, ethnicity or sexual orientation. This is something that we in democratic societies need to address, seriously and urgently.


  • Old democracies in Europe need to find ways to tackle this challenge. I am convinced that it can be done without giving up the core principles on which democracies have been founded. These values are transparency, accountability, rule of law, freedom of expression, respect for human rights in general and the rights of minorities and women in particular. But somehow we need to strengthen democracies to aim for the common good, to achieve consensus through negotiation. Elections do not automatically produce a democracy if they are not free and fair, but even free and fair elections do not automatically produce a functioning democracy.


  • The values our democratic systems are based on are not only Western but universal. We should actively defend and reform our democracies in order for our model to inspire others also in the future. This does not imply being insensitive to other cultures or religions. We have much evidence of democracy working successfully in different ways in different parts of the world.


  • Recently, however, democracy and democratic values have been more openly attacked by authoritarian voices across the world. There is a real danger of a fundamental shift in the global balance between democracies and more authoritarian systems. This challenge must be taken very seriously. But we should be careful not to allow it to lead to relativism where we question our own core principles, not least from the perspective of global governance.


  • Let me also look at the future. We need also a global vision. In this context I would like to mention the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Framework that is being negotiated as we speak. It is a highly relevant process also for the future and quality of democracies. Peaceful societies that manage to combine social justice with inclusive economic growth that respects the environment and planetary boundaries tend to be more democratic and people in them tend to demand more democracy.


  • Let me end by saying that the best way to promote democracy is to start from home. Let’s make sure that our versions of democracy are in good shape and deliver results. Finland, Norway and the other Nordic countries are stable democracies, but none of us is immune to the challenges democracy is faced with. Populism and external disinformation campaigns are no strangers to us. But I have a strong belief in our citizens. The overwhelming majority of people want to live in peace, in a transparent society providing welfare and security to all of its members.