Kenneth Wollack

How Resilient is Democracy?

Air Date: October 15, 2016

National Democratic Institute president Kenneth Wollack talks about the prospect of civil society.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Furthering our commitment to the future of democracy, explorations like those with Annika Savill of the United Nations and Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry of the Commission on Presidential Debates, today we welcome the esteemed president of the National Democratic Institute, Kenneth Wollack. The institute is a non-profit, non-partisan organization working to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness, and accountability in government. Overseeing work in 65 countries to support democratic values, elections, civic engagement, women’s political empowerment, Wollack has led grassroots diplomacy over three decades, and our agenda with him today, the fate of the global citizen and the fate of democracy amid an unraveling of strongmen regimes and the rise of ISIS hotbeds that fuel anarchy. Wollack recently returned from revolution-decimated Syria, repressed Turkey, and turbulent Northern Africa, where securing the blessings of liberty proves ever doubtful though it is the challenge of a century. And I want to ask Ken today how democratic dialogue can sow the seeds of peaceful reform, especially in the most vulnerable and most populous regimes. Welcome today.

WOLLACK: Well I think we’re seeing a number of phenomena that take place. Um, first of all you have new democracies around the world, that are struggling to deliver for its people. New institutions, political institutions that for the first time have legitimacy among the people, but in order to succeed and sustain their democratic system, they have to deliver on quality of life issues for, for the entire population. And if those institutions don’t deliver in many of these new democracies that have emerged over the last forty years, uh, then you’re gonna see backsliding and people will either go to the streets or vote for a populist demagogue who promises to bring sort of instant solutions to their problems. And then in non-democratic countries, you have what is called authoritarian learning, and that is autocrats today that are smarter than they were before, uh, that are fearful of diffusion of political power, uh, fearful of losing power themselves. Um, and they are using uh, traditional means and new legal means in which to repress the population, prevent the emergence of civil society, and not to speak of opposition political parties. And then you have a situation that you see in a number of countries in the Middle East where you have a sectarian strife and conflict. Uh, but in all of these situations, what you find is democratic resilience. That people around the world basically want the same thing. They want to put food on their table, uh, they want to have jobs and shelter and they want a political voice. And that, those aspirations and those hopes, uh, and those desires as I said are universal, and if you look at public opinion polls around the world, uh, people do want to have democratic systems that allow them to participate in the political life of their country. And that is, we are in the optimism business, and we believe in people and I think that ultimately those efforts, um, will, will succeed. But they need a lot of support, they need backing, um, uh, in order for uh, some very brave and courageous people to, to move the democratic for—uh, process forward in some of the most unlikely places in the world.

HEFFNER: Well why don’t you talk about that optimism that you experienced from your recent travels that may be contrasted against the pessimism, the fear that by empowering the populace of some of these countries you were going to charge an anti-American sentiment that will go viral in effect, the Arab Spring has turned into this nightmarish vision of what can harm us.

WOLLACK: Uh, first of all I would say it’s important to, to understand that the Middle East is not monolithic. It’s more of a mosaic. Um, you have countries that have made the initial transition to democracy in a place like Tunisia, um, and that have passed a very democratic constitution where you have Islamist-based parties and secular parties that are coexisting. Um, you had enlightened leadership in the country, where you have had coalition governments and parties that have stepped down after losing elections. You have a vibrant civil society and active political parties and, and parliament that is functioning so…

HEFFNER: Albeit a smaller populace.

WOLLACK: A smaller population but uh, it’s, this was the birthplace of the, the Arab Spring in, in Tunis. Um, and also you have countries like Jordan and Morocco, um, that are monarchies but nonetheless are engaged in an important liberalization, uh, effort in those countries. Um, and Lebanon, despite all of the challenges, are countries that are trying to deal with, uh, with sectarian conflict and differences so, so it’s, it’s, it’s a region that, that is mixed. Um, I just came back from Southern Turkey, where we are engaged in Syria, in northern parts of Syria in what is called, uh, uh, areas where administrative councils, um, have taken over governance in liberated areas. We’re working in about 22 cities. Um, and what is remarkable under the most difficult circumstances, horrendous circumstances, you have democratic resilience. You have people who are actively engaged, um, to make the lives better for the citizens of those communities. You have civil society organizations that are identifying their needs. You have administrative councils, some of whom are elected, that are trying to respond to those citizen needs and demands. And what you see in a place like Syria, even a country that is engaged in, in, in violent extremism, a country that is with a brutal dictatorship that at the local level you see the creation of democratic subcultures, and hopefully that these can become the model for the future of Syria. And it is, it is extraordinary to see their efforts, to see their courage, um, and they stand up to uh, to jihadist extremists. Um, they push back on their efforts to create parallel structures in these communities and it gives you great hope that even in these unlikely situations that people do have, have the courage and they have the drive and, and the will, uh, to try to create uh, uh, democratic systems where they can participate in the governance of, of, uh, of the political system with which uh, they, they operate and live.

HEFFNER: How do those local tribunals overcome the ethnic division that really is the source of the tension and violence?

WOLLACK: What you see at the local level where, where you know, politics is not a spectator sport, um, that, that the sectarian differences are not as pronounced as they are at the national level. Uh, people cooperate with one another, they work with one another, and um, if you can engage the citizenry, um, in a, a concerted effort, um, they can provide the incentives and they can provide the, uh, the, the pressures and the advocacy that can bring various groups together, and that’s what we’re seeing in many of these communities. It isn’t easy and the outcome is not assured. But there are processes that are taking place in many parts of the country that give you hope that if this can serve as a, as a model, that it can get that, that, it can bring hopes that the different sectarian groups can, uh, can eventually emerge. But there requires a political settlement in the end. And it requires, um, unfortunately military action to confront, uh, both the, the brutality of the regime and the, the actions of the uh, jihadists.

HEFFNER: Well we’re speaking of Syria now. Why don’t we turn our attention to Turkey? As you were alluding to from the outset, there are authoritarians who are exploiting the means of the Arab Spring that created the possibility of freedom to actually repress journalists, hundreds it seems now thousands, tens of thousands of vocal opponents of the regime and in fact, if you are to believe that attempt of a coup in Turkey was legitimate, it was the prime minister who employed the internet as a backlash against the military uprising. Having recently been to Turkey, reflect on the democratic transgressions, and that is putting it politely in that country.

WOLLACK: Well I think that there have been a number of issues in Turkey. You have a uh, a ruling party that has uh, concentrated, uh, power, um, over the number of years. Um, now obviously it’s an Islamist-based party, uh, but the actions that are being taken by the regime are not necessarily religious-based, it’s, it’s based on uh, the typical actions of, of a ruling party that enjoys uh, sort of broad support in the country that, that further concentrates its power. And then in the light of terrorist actions that have taken place over the past years, you have even a number of the opposition parties that have joined with the ruling party, um, in order to combat, uh, that terrorist act and they have uh, been willing to accept a greater concentration of power in the hands of, of a single party and, and an individual. So it’s, you know it’s a bigger issue than a party, a bigger issue, uh, than an individual and then added to that, you have a coup attempt, um, and a, and the response to that was widely uh, uh, popular in the country. And I think what’s happening now is the government is taking advantage of insecurity in order to further uh, arrogate power to, to itself. At the same time that there are thousands and tens of thousands of, of individuals around the country, civil society organizations, political activists that are trying to push back on this effort and that…

HEFFNER: Why, why do you think, Ken, that there was resistance to an uprising that was promising greater accountability?

WOLLACK: Well I, I don’t think, I don’t think people, uh, support the idea of military coups. Um, there have been military…

HEFFNER: Even, even though that that country was being governed illiberally.

WOLLACK: Well, you know, you could, you could look, you could look at situations all over the world…


WOLLACK: Um, uh, where uh, democratic governance, um, is not as pronounced. That there is a concentration of power but the place to deal with that is through the ballot box.


WOLLACK: Place not to deal with that is through military coups and in most places, you find that military coup leaders ultimately are not the avenues…


WOLLACK: For a return to a fully democratic system. You can look at examples in Pakistan in 1999, you could look example in Chile in 1973, Cote D’Ivoire in 1999. All of those coups promised a so-called return to democracy, but ultimately the coup leaders stay in power and um, they rule brutally and quickly lose popularity among the populations. And I think the, the, the people of Turkey, um, felt that whatever, uh, problems there were in the country and there were significant problems, uh, they were not going to be resolved through a military coup, and I think that they are rightfully proud, uh, that they reacted in that way.

HEFFNER: I’m glad you mentioned Pakistan. We’ve wondered as a country, um, why so much foreign aid has been delivered to a nation that protected Bin Laden in his compound. We know now because of the tremendous populations of Indonesia, Pakistan, and yes, Turkey that diplomacy of, of soft power and developing on the goodwill of the population is critically important. Those seem to be the regimes, not the Qatars, the Saudi Arabias, the Irans, that have the potential to galvanize around democratic sustenance.

WOLLACK: Well I would say if you look at Indonesia, um, which is the uh, largest Muslim country in the world, that it has made tremendous democratic process and economic progress, uh, since the fall of Suharto and, which ushered in democratic elections in 1999. Um, that has really been a success story, an example not only for the reason but for the world, um, that this is a country that uh, had severe economic problems but a democratic government that came into power and successive governments have moved that country forward both politically and economically. Um, yes I do believe in places like Turkey and Pakistan. There is the infrastructure of, of democratic systems in both of those places. Um, there have been a, you know, decades of struggle between the military and civilian authorities. Um, there have been institutions that, that have been weakened as a result of that conflict between the military and, and civilian authorities. But over time, what, what is interesting in a place like Pakistan despite the, uh, the interference in politics by the military, political parties have survived and the population itself has pushed back against, against military rule. Um, so there is in all of these places I think, um, challenges, severe challenges that exist. But over the long term, it’s probably best to bet on the people of these countries, um, who have shown time and time again that they have stood up against autocratic leaders. If you, if you analyze the protests that have taken place around the world over the last two decades, most of those protests have not been demands interestingly enough for economic empowerment, um, and economic improvement. Most of those protests around the world, uh, uh, have been motivated by people’s desire to promote democracy or to protect democracy or to have better democracy in their countries. There have been political motivations behind people who have stood up to defend their fundamental human and political rights. And so in all of these places, they are very, very complex. We have many interests in these places, military interests, security interests, um, economic interests. Um, but in all of these things, the pursuit of democratic governance probably is the best way to secure those economic and security interests.

HEFFNER: The unanswerable question is when can there be a grand reconciliation among you know, disparate faiths within Islam? Is there a date to be determined? What, what has to be America’s role, uh, because there were advocates of a neoconservatism that led to an invasion and a costly pursuit of democratic reform in Iraq. That was one of the countries where the norms were probably more favorably positioned to create a civilian constituency…

WOLLACK: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: As opposed to, but then you had intervention from Iran and the neighbors so I guess the question is how can the allies of democracy foster a unified vision of Islam for the future?

WOLLACK: Right. Well I don’t think the, the, there will be an instant uh, reformation process, nor do I think, uh, the outside can try to um, uh, to create that happening. I happen to believe, and others do as well, that actually it’s the practice of democracy that’s going to be—bring about those changes. Um, usually what happens in places that are insecure is the people retreat to their community, to their sect, to their family, uh, to their religion. Um, you see this all over the world where there is conflict. And when you have peaceful settlements of these conflicts and the ability for citizens to communicate with each other, to interact with each other, uh, without fear of conflict, uh, and bodily harm, those are the situations that allow citizens to participate, uh, in the political process, interact with one another, and ultimately that is gonna provide, uh, the building up of what, what I would call the democratic center in these places. Most people are in the center. Um, the extremes, whether they’re the extremes of the left or the right or religious and secular, uh, those usually are the result of systems that do not allow people to participate in the process, so I think over time, providing people an opportunity to engage, um, and I think we can’t place our bet on um, autocratic regimes that may seem stable at the moment but usually these regimes are stable until they’re unstable. And when we put our bet on an individual party um, a, a sect uh, usually that is illusory and uh, and ultimately what will happen eventually is uh, a collapse of those regimes and then what you have is no institutions in the country that are able to fill the, the political void and that’s when you have these types of conflicts. So I think first and foremost by pursuing peaceful political reform in these places, which provide citizens an opportunity to participate, is the best way to secure long-term stability.

HEFFNER: I know that you are a perpetual optimist, otherwise you wouldn’t be engaged in this work, but do you think, um, relative to a decade ago, we are experiencing a democratic resurgence or a democratic recession?

WOLLACK: If you look at the last decade, um, I think you’re seeing a democratic recession. Um, I think you, you are seeing countries, um, that uh, uh, that were once democratic that are restricting political space today, um, in a way that didn’t exist, uh, 5 or 10 years ago. But if you stand back a little bit and look at the whole notion of the democratic movement over the past 30 to 40 years, you find that uh, uh, more than 100 countries have made some type of democratic transition. Um, so we’re seeing a situation now where as I mentioned before, you have authoritarian learning. Um, you have autocratic governments that are better able in u—employing different methods to, to curtail the, the activities of civil society and political parties and you’re finding new democracies that are struggling to deliver for their people. But at the same time, you know, people are demanding and, and ultimately they’re going to demand the type of government that best responds to their hopes and aspirations. If you look at the African continent for example between 1960 and 1990, there were only two African leaders who stepped down from office, uh, voluntarily or by losing an election. And between 1990 and today, that figure is over 40. So it’s a changing face of the African continent and it’s not just because you have enlightened leaders. It’s because people are demanding, um, democratic change in these places. And the leadership of these countries are responding to those demands.

HEFFNER: How vulnerable is a country, the most populous in Africa, right, Nigeria, to the pernicious influence of ISIS and Boko Haram and do you believe that that democratic recession could further enable a hostile ISIS takeover of regimes that we may not even be suspecting?

WOLLACK: Well I think you have large pieces of territory, um, in Africa, um, that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the, the Gulf that uh, that are ungovernable. And uh, that political vacuum and porous borders, uh, create a, a, an environment that allows for uh, extremism to thrive. Um, at the same time, you are finding countries and I would say democratic countries, uh, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, um, that are banding together with outside support, uh, primarily from the United States but from others as well that are confronting this challenge, uh, militarily as they should, but also there’s the challenge of governance in these areas that allow people in these areas not to, to, to find other avenues, uh, so jobs are provided, uh, political engagement is provided, particularly among young people because the youth bulge on the African continent is, is huge. Where a majority of these populations are under the age of 30. Uh…

HEFFNER: Let me ask you this last question Ken. It, it would appear that those Islamic powerhouses, if they did not have some underlying sympathy for the cause of radicalism, that they would be the ones carpet bombing, excising the patches of extremism. The inaction of these regimes to us as Americans means that there is some sympathy. You saw it in the 9/11 Commission Report in terms of Saudi influence and involvement in 9/11. Isn’t that fundamentally why these financially secure, stable countries won’t pull the trigger on ISIS?

WOLLACK: Well I don’t know what mo—motivates, um, motivates them. Um, I think there are a number of, of issues. I think that some of the wealthy regimes are paying off different people in order to protect themselves. Uh, but ultimately that will come back to, to bite them.

HEFFNER: You mean paying off extremist forces.

WOLLACK: Right, exactly. The, don’t forget the, you know, ISIS is not only an anti-western, uh, force but is also a force that is trying to topple, uh, the regimes in the, in the Middle East as well. Um, and so they draw strength and sustenance from those that are, uh, that are anti-regime in these places. So I think this requires a multitude of responses. Some of those are, are intelligence, some of those are military, but ultimately I think uh, you’re gonna have to deal with these issues through uh, uh, through a, a governance in these places that reduce the appeal uh, to uh, to young people uh, to, to extremist ideology. And, and best provide…

HEFFNER: But when you say young people, also people who are affiliated with the royal governance who may not be young, right? People—I mean people in the government who would have the power to assemble the tonnage of military force to defeat ISIS.

WOLLACK: Absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. Um, but I think what you f—

HEFFNER: And how do you get them? How do you get them to buy into…

WOLLACK: Right. Well they’re part of the problem too and so what I, what, what I think ultimately one has to do is convince them that their own survival is at stake in this as well. Um, those are the ones that are, that are maintaining a grip on power that’s feeding some of this extremist ideology and so ultimately, supporting those peaceful democratic forces in these countries I think ultimately is, is the best antidote to the ideology that is attractive to some, some young people, um, in this region and beyond.

HEFFNER: Ken, our time is up. Thanks so much for joining me today.

WOLLACK: Thank you very much, Alexander.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.