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Democracy at Bay

Is the democratic tide reversing? Little more than a decade ago, people spoke of the end of history, of the final, unchallengeable triumph of free markets and democracy. But public opinion in a number of countries now seems to be turning against democracy, argues Bronislaw Geremek, Poland's former foreign minister, and proposes ways in which this trend might be reversed.

Eight of the countries that will enter the European Union in May 2004 were until recently governed by totalitarian dictatorships and enslaved by another nation. The return of governments based on the will of the majority of their citizens seemed for decades an unattainable dream in these countries, much as it remains a dream for the citizens of Burma under the rule of its military junta.

Democracy has undoubtedly achieved success around the world. Yet, stunningly, support for democracy is eroding almost everywhere. The Pew Global Attitudes Project for 2003 highlights countries in which few people recognize the importance of elections: 28% in Jordan, 37% in Russia, 40% in Indonesia.

Given the choice between a democratic government and a strong leader, 70% of Russians, 67% of Ukrainians, and 44% of Poles and Bulgarians opt for the latter. (This choice is especially common among people in the lowest income brackets). In Latin America, only in Venezuela is support for democracy unambiguously dominant (79%). In other Latin American countries, support for a strong leader either is stronger or nearly as strong as support for democracy.