Towards a Global Democratic Revolution

1. The Limits of National Democratization
The peaceful mass protests of millions of Egyptians that toppled the repressive and corrupt presidency of Hosni Mubarak in the course of 18 days and the ouster of Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after massive civil resistance might turn out to mark an important milestone in the expansion of democracy in the world.* Over the last ten years the strong trend towards democratization that followed the end of the Cold War slowed down and at last it seemed that it might even reverse. In the five years from 1989 to 1994, the share of democracies in the world as counted by Freedom House in Washington D.C. jumped from around 40 to 60 percent. In 2005 and 2006, the share peaked at around 65 percent and then declined continuously until last year back to the level of 1994.1

International polls, however, have shown unabatedly strong popular support for democracy in all world regions, including, for example, an average of around 80 percent of respondents in the Middle East.2 In fact, democracy is now almost universally recognized as the only legitimate form of government. Even the most autocratic regimes are required to maintain at least a democratic façade. The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt inspire protesters and advocates of democracy in autocratically ruled countries and might trigger a domino effect. A successful democratic transition in Egypt, achieved by a democratic mass movement, would constitute a watershed in the region and beyond. This is at least the hope that lies behind comparisons with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

The revolt in Egypt is also an inspiration for all those who advocate a more democratic world order and the creation of a world parliament. The protesters in Egypt had enough of being condemned to being passive subjects that had no say in the affairs of their country. Many people have a similar feeling with regard to international affairs. Citizens are excluded from international decision-making as this takes place exclusively between government executives. At the same time, more and more subjects are negotiated and decided upon at the international level, for example the future of the global financial system or climate change mitigation. Globally integrated economic and financial markets and climate change have made the idea of democratic national self-determination obsolete. It is impossible, for instance, to escape from the impacts of rising food prices that result from the international commodity markets.

What at first glance seems like a loss of autonomy is at least in parts a method of governments to protect their agenda against societal interference and to weaken democratic accountability. As Klaus Dieter Wolf argues, “Intergovernmental governance offers states the opportunity of making mutual self-commitments of a kind that can remove certain issues from societal debate and also from any possible revision”.3 The political agenda-setting of the informal G-20 process is an example; another recent one is the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that has been negotiated over years in secrecy. National parliaments, except maybe the U.S. Congress, normally have no alternative than to accept unconditionally what governments have negotiated amongst themselves. From this perspective, the stark contrast between the alleged support of democratization in the world and the almost complete lack of action to democratize the international system is no surprise.

2. Transnational Democratization
Those who are engaged in building democracy in their countries and who are animated with a fresh spirit like in Egypt will have to ask themselves: What purpose does it have to build a democratic nation if it is embedded into an undemocratic and non-transparent international system? In a globalized world the confinement of democratic participation of citizens to the institutions of the nation-state is almost equivalent to disenfranchisement. True democratic emancipation cannot stop at national borders. As former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali explained, “Democracy within the state will diminish in importance if the process of democratization is not extended to the system of international governance as well.… This project includes the task of giving the world’s citizens a more direct say in global affairs. A direct link between global institutions and the people on the spot needs to be established.”4

In fact, there is another aspect of democratization that has not attracted much attention so far but which is no less extraordinary. There is a forceful and increasing trend towards stronger interaction of elected representatives across national borders and towards the creation of formal mechanisms for their inclusion into intergovernmental organizations. According to a recent study by Claudia Kissling, more than 100 international parliamentary institutions exist today, around 70 of which have been established since 1999.5 Most important are the formal parliamentary organs of international organizations such as the European Parliament, the Pan-African Parliament, the Parlamento del Mercosur or the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

This trend confirms the need and the merits of complementing intergovernmental cooperation with parliamentary representation. However, the trend has not yet reached global intergovernmental organizations. Neither the United Nations (UN) nor any of its numerous specialized agencies and programs, nor the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank Group possesses a formal parliamentary body, not even in an advisory capacity. This flaw is one of the main sources of the democratic deficit of global governance.

3. A Global Parliamentary Assembly
The existence of numerous regional parliamentary institutions makes it difficult to argue that in principle it would not be possible to create a global parliamentary assembly (GPA) that represents the world’s citizens at the UN, the WTO or the international financial institutions. Although for tactical and practical reasons it might be useful that such a body initially be created with limited scope as a consultative body of the UN General Assembly or as part of another organization of the UN system, the aim is that it eventually would be formally related to all major intergovernmental institutions that shape international governance. Permanent Committees, Sub-Committees and non-permanent Inquiry Committees set up by the assembly could deal with specific issues and become related to specific bodies and organizations. Committees could interact on cross-cutting themes and coordinate different approaches. At less frequent plenary meetings the outcomes of the Committees’ work could be combined and adopted. As a parliamentary umbrella of global governance, a GPA could help to overcome the fragmentation of the international system and international law. Although the body proposed here is widely known and advocated as a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA), using the term GPA fits better to stress this overarching approach.

A GPA should not be conceived as a mere extrapolation of the institution of parliament as it is known at the national level. It should rather be designed as a formally established and central platform for global deliberation that allows civil society to participate in its work. The assembly’s Committees for instance could act as platforms for broad deliberation and should allow for participation of experts and civil society representatives.

In contrast intergovernmental bodies such as the UN General Assembly, where appointed diplomats pursue their business, the voting members of a GPA would be elected representatives. Initially, the members could be elected by national parliaments, as in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In the long run, however, they should be directly elected as it is the case in the European Parliament since 1979.

The maximum number probably lies somewhere between 700 and 800 delegates. The assembly could emerge gradually from a much smaller structure. The Global Public Policy Committees suggested in the report of the panel on UN-Civil Society Relations in 2004 6 or the Global Parliamentary Group “which should develop an integrated oversight of major international organizations of the UN system, the Bretton Woods Institutions and the WTO” proposed by the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization in the same year7 could constitute a good starting point.

Population size is generally considered to be a main factor in order to determine the number of members elected per country. At some ideal point in the distant future, every human being should have an equal weight, regardless of the country of origin. In the meantime, a pragmatic system of degressive proportionality needs to be devised that ensures a balance between small and large countries, from China with 1.3 billion inhabitants to Tuvalu with 13,000. Some models developed by the Committee for a Democratic U.N. show that this should be possible.8

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