Yves Leterme is a well-known Belgian politician. Since 2014, he has been Secretary-General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). On the 12th of October 2015, BelConLawBlog celebrated its one year existence. For this occasion we welcomed Yves Leterme to give a lecture about the challenges to democracy in the 21st century. Karen Poppeliers, master student of the Advanced Study Constitutional Law (Ghent University), further discussed the topic with mr. Leterme, which led to a very interesting interview.

Could you explain in a few words your exact role at International IDEA?

As secretary-general, in accordance to the statute, I lead the secretariat and the staff. I’m accountable to the governing bodies, but essentially to the council of member states, for the implementation of what the council decides. Some years ago, the council decided about the strategy the institution would follow. We try to implement that strategy and we use funds to do so. I have to organize the use of those funds. Let’s say in short I’m responsible for the global leadership of the organisation and the accountability to the council of member states in the implementation of the strategy. Of course I don’t do of all that by myself, I have excellent people in Stockholm and spread all over the globe to help me. We have a management committee with a quite traditional distribution of roles and tasks, like corporate services, communications and so on.

International IDEA has existed for 20 years, in your opinion, what have been the most important accomplishments during that time?

I think the main accomplishments in the field of democracy are always reached by the initiative of the people of the countries themselves. I think that, be it IDEA, be it NDI, all kinds of democratic supporting institutes have that humility as a natural attitude. At the end of the day it’s always the civil society and the citizens of the countries concerned, that bring their country all together to a better stage of democratic development. The Nobel Prize for instance was awarded to four Tunisian civil society organisations and should indeed not be awarded to leaders or institutions that had an influence.  I think what International IDEA together with the other democracy supporting organisations has done is supporting the process. In some countries we have made a difference and we are still making a difference. Is that the decisive difference that in the end brings democracy? I believe that’s an overstatement. I do think IDEA has helped in terms of improving the electoral cycle, how it turns out, how elections are organised in improving the process of constitution building, in improving the political landscape, in terms of political actors, political parties, the parliaments… International IDEA has helped to strengthen their capacity and their performance.

Besides the publishing activities and reports that helped support the debate about democracy and the statistic resources we have on different aspects of democracy, I think International IDEA also played a role in terms of democratic governance of natural resources and the organisation of an economy.
I would add last but not least, and I forget lots of other examples, that our work in New York has helped to support the member states in achieving the fact that the democratic accountability objective is included in the new Sustainable Development Goals that were decided a couple of weeks ago. Obviously, promoting gender equality is an important aspect of our work.

Has the notion of what constitutes a “good” democracy evolved and if so, in what sense? Does this notion depend on territorial and cultural circumstances?

There’s a very important difference in how scientists, but also how citizens, the stakeholders in the democratic process, look at democracy. Thirty years ago, I was a student at Ghent University. When we talked about democracy in what was then called the “new states” (which were basically North-African states), this was much about the mechanics of democracy. Now in literature, but also in the practising countries and in democratic support, there’s a more holistic approach about how democracy functions. It’s about more than fair elections and transparency. It’s still about a good constitution and the rule of law, but in terms of country assistance and the research we do, it’s much more about the real practice and the quality of democracy. I think democracy supporting activities have followed a path to more quality-relating work. More and more attention is paid to the inclusiveness of political processes, working a lot about the gender balance and about minorities, groups that are underprivileged, the quality of elections, the quality of constitution building and representation and participation, the quality of governance over the economy and natural resources… Twenty to thirty years ago it was more about the mechanics, the essential roles etc.

How could democracy in Belgium be improved?

I think in its capacity to deliver. There’s a problem with the in-depth argumentation of the political debate and the way the democratic debate is organized. Maybe there should be more transparency, but I think that would need more institutional provisions. There could be more transparency and clarity about how a majority is formed, how a program for a government is built up and how this relates to the actual result. Some examples in Europe, for instance giving a kind of bonus to the biggest party as in Italy or Greece, are quite dangerous.

More specifically in Belgium, we have two big communities and no national parties. The fact that you would need at least four political parties and in most cases even five or six political parties, is really impoverishing the substance of the political debate and the clarity of the choices people are confronted with. The quality of democracy is linked to clear programmatic choices and that is something that could be improved. But there are some aspects which are very well-organized. For example the Belgian legislation in regards to the role of money in politics is one of the best regulations I personally know.

Is the current Belgian particracy at odds with a well-functioning modern democracy?

I think it’s very difficult to limit the power of the political parties in a federal system with only two big communities and with a lack of national parties. These parties are meeting points of different levels of governments. It’s in our system, with no hierarchy of norms, the only place where people have a little bit of leverage to decide what will be the point of view of a party or of a government. A federal government cannot impose anything to the community and the regional governments. The only people that can impose something to the governments are the boards of political parties.

Do you think constitutional referendums or popular initiatives could resolve the current democratic deficiencies?

I think that, excluding some issues, well-informed referenda are part of the tools we could use to improve the quality of our democracy. I’m a bit surprised that referenda are not used more often on the local level. I had one in my municipality, I think twelve or thirteen years ago. Since then there’s no single issue, and this is not only a phenomenon in my municipality. I think in the whole of Belgium and Flanders there are only rare examples. However, the Swiss mix of bottom-up federalism with strong provinces and a federal system that has to be legitimated with a rotating presidency, has a lot of quality. You can ask yourself whether this could function in a G20 country. Still, for a country of the size of Switzerland or smaller, I think this could be a good system. In terms of the quality of democracy the Swiss system has some very good characteristics, and still a capacity to act.

I would say the same in terms of economic performance. Take the example of Uruguay. A very important characteristic of the Uruguayan democracy is also this constant involvement of trade unions and of civil society in the decision-making process. For instance, now in Uruguay people are protesting against the fact that they don’t reach quickly enough the six percent of GDP that should be dedicated to education. This is a collective good for which people, ordinary citizens, are now petitioning. Uruguay is really a country where they also invest a lot in interaction and bottom-up political decision-making.

How do you think the vision of democracy will have evolved in a hundred years?

At least it should have given good answers to the challenges we just mentioned. How can you improve the performance, the outcome? How can you organize a better countervailing power to decision-making for citizens in a society?

I think about the use of ICT-tools. Democracy is one of the rare sectors where ICT-tools have been rarely used until now. I think in a hundred years there will be more and more use of these tools. Whether it will be good use or misuse, I don’t know. Besides that I believe democracy will definitely be more gender balanced. I also think there will be a kind of inclusive global governance in some domains. But it’s very difficult to say. When you read a bit of the history of the last three centuries you’re always impressed by how surprisingly fast things can develop themselves.

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