Can regional organizations save democracy?

By David Bosco

Scholars have examined whether a country’s membership in regional organizations can impact its domestic politics. Jon Pevehouse’s 2005 book Democracy from Above made the case that regional groupings, in certain contexts, can help shape domestic politics and solidify transitions to democracy.

Two unfolding political crises will be notable further tests for the thesis. In Poland, the European Union is struggling to keep the Polish government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski from straying into authoritarianism. The European Commission last week expressed concern about the government’s moves to limit the power of Poland’s highest court:

Recent events in Poland concerning in particular the Constitutional Court have led the European Commission to open a dialogue with the Polish Government in order to ensure the full respect of the rule of law. The Commission considers it necessary that Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal is able to fully ensure an effective constitutional review of legislative acts.

The Commission’s criticism met with derision:

A day after the European Commission slammed some of the conservative government’s moves, which have paralyzed the country’s Constitutional Tribunal and triggered international censure and domestic opposition against the ruling Law and Justice party, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski poured scorn on the EU assessment.

“What right the Commission has to judge anything?” Waszczykowski said on state radio, just hours before meeting with EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini. “It is not binding for us. We treat this document that has arrived as an opinion, as a suggestion.”

A similar dynamic is unfolding between the Organization of American States (OAS) and Venezuela, a member state. Last week, the OAS triggered steps to debate that country’s worsening political and economic plight:

By invoking its Democratic Charter the organization effectively began a process of debate that could eventually lead to Venezuela’s suspension. But analysts say the more likely avenue initially will be a series of discussions to break the political stalemate between Mr. Maduro and his opponents who control the National Assembly.

As in Poland, the regional group’s criticism provoked an angry response from the Venezuelan government and its backers in the region. But these pyrotechnics are likely just early salvos in an extended struggle between these faltering democracies and the overwhelmingly democratic clubs to which they belong.

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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