Mario Soares, the first civilian president of Portugal elected by popular vote, spoke Tuesday on the continuing spread of global democracy in front of a crowd of about 70 in the University Club.
“I want to emphasize one of the main attributes of democracy – its need for continuous and progressive improvement with a view to perfecting the functioning of democratic institutions,” said Soares, who was president of Portugal from 1986 to 1996. “Democracy is an evolving system, gradually enriched and fine-tuned by the changes occurred in each society that adopts it.”
Only a dozen democracies existed in 1941, but Soares said today “3.1 billion people live in democracy, while 2.6 billion are ruled by non-democratic regimes. Democracy has a future.”
He talked about the suffering and destruction the world experienced after it failed to fully implement Woodrow Wilson’s vision of democracy after World War I. Everything from the rise of Nazism and World War II to the four-decade long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union could have been averted if democracy had been widespread, he said.
But Soares also talked about how changes in modern technology impact democracy.
“Nothing allows us to accept that cybernetics and cyberdemocracy are necessarily a good thing when we see them short circuit representative democracy with their opinion polls and computer-assisted direct inquiries,” he said.
Ongoing developments in telecommunications and the Internet are resulting in a “global public opinion,” Soares said.
Democracy and free market economics did not necessarily have to go hand in hand, Soares said.
“It is not legitimate to identify democracy with market economics, nor necessarily establish a link between them. They are entirely different things,” he said.
He mentioned Chile under Augusto Pinochet as an example of a dictatorship that used free market economics, “but at the expense of terrible burdens imposed on the Chilean people.
“In Russia, there is a free market economy, but there is not a democracy – there is mafia,” Soares said.
“Democracy should not focus exclusively on its political, legal and institutional requisites,” he said. “It must do more and cannot ignore the basic economic, social and cultural conditions in which the people live.”
Before the speech, GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg presented the President’s Medal to both Soares and Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Soares’ speech was the final installment of the “Democratic Invention” series presented by the University and the National Endowment for Democracy.