Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Spring to Democracy opening speech Dr Melanie Sully Diplomatic Academy

Notions of Governance:  universal diversity

Prof Dr Melanie Sully, Diplomatic Academy 25.1. 2013

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I. There are many similarities but also differences between the Arab Spring and events eg that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequent examples of people power.

But as Oscar Wilde once noted “history never repeats itself, historians repeat each other”. Each event was different, cultures diverse, traditions varied.

Yet despite this a common thread or leitmotiv is the urge and surge for more freedom, to live in freedom from fear and freedom to do, without fear of reprisals. This is a universal aspiration but how to get there has many paths.

II. To the outsider or insider/outsider Austria is a remarkable success story, having travelled a long road and variously experimenting to paraphrase Karl Kraus with several political systems from Empire, fragile republic, corporate state, totalitarianism and an uneasy start with a new democracy.

Indices of democracy are well known: including

free and fair elections,

independent political institutions,

competition in a plurality of parties,

parliamentary democracy based on the rule of law

guaranteeing stability for economic and social relationships. etc

III. This is the software we have installed on the hardware of democracy which keeps our systems up and running. Sometimes we take it for granted because it has become so familiar and sometimes we complain about it because it is not fast enough.

In many mature democracies trust in politicians has collapsed. This is not just so in Austria. Increased transparency has brought with it more knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes and a modern media has played a role. Expectations are different and judgements for misconduct harsher than before.

In other words these democracies are in transition to democratic governance or quality democracy. The software needs an upgrade to ensure mistrust does not degenerate into cynicism.

Governance gives democracy that quality control, like the label on a bottle of wine it distinguishes plonk from the quality stuff.


IV The process of governance includes amongst other things, transparency, greater parliamentary scrutiny, parliamentary control of the executive eg in pre-legislative and post legislative scrutiny, opposition rights financial and parliamentary.

Parliament is not there just to pass laws and job done. It can see how effective the laws are or will be, engage in public consultations by the Internet, web page and with civil society and after implementation return to see if there are problems in application of the law.

In addition there can be mechanisms to ensure a peaceful transition of power eg before elections and consultations between the civil service and Opposition to review impact of policies.

V. From democracy to governance is not a straight line or consecutive development. New democracies can often combine elements of governance. Older democracies have to take a relook at the quality of democracy.

VI. Neither is it possible to parachute European models of governance or democracy in to other cultures, Political cultures have to be considered - the mind set - and as Hamlet said, “theres the rub”, for the mind set does not change as fast as political institutions, and a passive consumption of information hindering critical thought can hold back democratic development.

VII But political cultures must and do change or they become ossified or stagnate and eventually fall apart. A dynamic political culture is necessary for societal and political regeneration. This applies to both mature and newer democracies.

VIII. In all this talk there is the people, and what they want, a mysterious amorphous body of contradictions which sporadically comes together to press and call for change and then evaporates. But for that short time there is a sense of belonging together with common goals. Protest, demonstrations for that precious universal commodity of freedom, to live without fear, to travel, to speak out, to write, these transgress borders and time zones. How they are implemented will vary. The quality may be patchy but governance has many notions.

IX. In the transition from quantity to quality democracy and governance we look at -

not just how many laws are passed but the quality, (there can be less laws passed but they may be more complex, have multi-topics and have more pages) and we look at not rankings of MPs how often and how long they speak but content and quality of debates.

Good governance contains codes of conducts not just laws but aspirational codes to raise standards and consciousness both in politics and the media

In this the EU makes a contribution to governance and dissemination of values; applicant countries adapt before membership but this has to be lived and understood and not merely adopted because they believe it was what the EU wants and to “get in”.

To talk of governance, democracy and the Arab spring is much like mission impossible.

But to return to Oscar Wilde “nothing is worth doing except what the world says is impossible”.

Further Info

The Diplomatic Academy Student Initiative (DASI) is an international community of  students and alumni of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. Each year we select a  different topic and invite leading academics and practitioners in related fields to lead  us in discussion. The interdisciplinary nature of the conference provides a unique  forum for the exchange of ideas in addressing some of the most critical issues in  international affairs. All proceeds made will go to a charity chosen by the students. Further information can be found here.

The ‘Arab Spring’ heralded a series of upheavals and reforms in Middle East and  North Africa, yet its contribution to building democracy in the region is varied and  often ambiguous. We invite the participants to analyze the situation two years on: what  has changed in the region, what remains the same, and what does the Arab Spring  mean for democracy building in other parts of the world?  By connecting journalists, academics, and leading practitioners from both the public  and private sectors, we offer a dynamic platform to further academic and professional  discourse concerning the Arab Spring and democracy building. We hope that in this  exchange we may identify the key challenges in the transition process, examine the  idiosyncrasies and particularities of the regional actors, and explore how the  international community has and will react to these events on the global level.

Event Poster

DASI Conference Poster

Full schedule

DASI Conference Programme and here

The event was supported by the City of Vienna, the European Commission and Go-Governance and others.
The event was welcomed by the Director of the Diplomatic Academy, Ambassador Hans Winkler followed by Professor Dr Melanie Sully, head of Go-Governance and long time political scientist at the Academy. In her speech she addressed the need for quality control in government and administration. This includes codes of conducts, the fight against corruption and nepotism, patronage etc as well as better pre- and post-legislative scrutiny by parliaments. Not the quantity of questions answered nor the number and length of speeches in parliament should be the benchmark but rather the quality. Such an exercise is currently being conducted in the UK with an examination of the answers given by government ministries to check for quality. Not only is it necessary to have quality government but also quality civil society with which it can interact in public consultations.