Clifton B. Parker
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Indian politician Rahul Gandhi offered his perspectives on challenges to India’s democracy amid global transitions during a talk on May 31 at Stanford University.

“It’s in times like this, of great uncertainty and of turbulence, that you need acts of imagination,” he said during his address, "The New Global Equilibrium," which was sponsored by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), part of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

Gandhi highlighted global innovations in mobility, energy systems, and artificial intelligence and big data, or connectivity. “They’re going to affect everything” in India and elsewhere.

Gandhi is a former member of the Indian Parliament, who represented the constituencies of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, and Wayanad, Kerala in the Lok Sabha. He is a member of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, and was the party president from December 2017 to July 2019.

Gandhi reminisced about the ‘Unite India March,’ a democratic-inspired walk he led across the country that started with 125 people in September 2022 and ended with millions of people joining the 2,540-mile journey. And, although the ruling government had all the “force,” the instruments of control in society, the marchers were never stopped, he noted.

“This was a question that just kept rotating in my mind,” Gandhi said. “They have the force, but they don’t have power, and I realized that force and power are two completely different things. Most politicians confuse force and power, and they think they're the same thing. They’re completely different things. Power is an act of imagination, always in the present, and it is not linear. And power comes when you go close to the truth. That’s why we could not be stopped by force.”

Most politicians confuse force and power, and they think they're the same thing. They’re completely different things. Power is an act of imagination, always in the present, and it is not linear. And power comes when you go close to the truth.
Rahul Gandhi
Former President, Indian National Congress

He compared this to other moments of “power” in history, such as when President Kennedy said, ‘let’s go to the moon,’ or when Mahatma Gandhi stood up to the British Empire colonial powers in India, and when the American colonists created the Declaration of Independence to start separating from Britain.

Gandhi said acts of “force” did not drive these historical turning points; rather, they revealed the magnitude of the power of imagination that potentially exists among people to create a better, more just, and visionary world.

Such visioning needs to also inspire and transform the U.S.-India relationship, he believes.

“We already have a bridge between us, and it’s important that this bridge is not simply a bridge based on force, but that it is a bridge based on understanding of the realities of both our people,” said Gandhi, noting the software and technical skills of the Indian people in general match up extremely well with the leading-edge technology systems and markets in the U.S.

Dinsha Mistree and Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi (R) in conversation with CDDRL affiliated scholar Dinsha Mistree (L) during a speaking engagement at Stanford University on May 31, 2023. Basil Raj Kunnel

U.S. Relationship, Manufacturing, China

After his remarks, Gandhi engaged in an audience Q&A and conversation with Dinsha Mistree, an affiliated scholar with CDDRL. Gandhi elaborated that the political disconnect in India is attributable to a concentration of wealth, inequality throughout society, the current political system, and technology that’s outpacing the ability of social systems and people to digest and manage all the connectivity.

“With social media and technology, there’s a bit of a lag between the political system and technological progress, and I think democracies are struggling with that. I think evolution in the systems is going to take some time, but it’ll happen,” he said.

With social media and technology, there’s a bit of a lag between the political system and technological progress, and I think democracies are struggling with that. I think evolution in the systems is going to take some time, but it’ll happen.
Rahul Gandhi
Former President, Indian National Congress

On economics, Gandhi said that while China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project that aims to stretch around the globe and seems to promote prosperity, it’s ultimately a non-democratic and authoritarian vision of the world. More visioning needs to be done by leading democratic countries on what prosperity entails for societies that may not be as wealthy as others.

“What’s the counter vision? So that’s where I see the gap. Of course, there is military cooperation (with the U.S.). That’s important. But it can’t just be military cooperation,” he said.

As for China, their top-down manufacturing policies are a challenge for democratic countries like India. Gandhi recommends that India follows a more decentralized manufacturing process.

“You cannot simply ignore the manufacturing might of China. You have to compete with. I don’t think it’s an option. So, what does that competition look like? I’m not talking about conflict, I’m talking about competition. How do we create an alternative vision?” he said, adding that it was a “fatal mistake” for the U.S. to parcel out its manufacturing in recent decades to China.

In response to an audience question on India’s position of formal neutrality in the Ukraine-Russia war, Gandhi said, “We have a relationship with Russia, and we have certain dependencies on Russia. So, I would have a very similar stance as the government of India. I mean, it might not be popular, but it is what it is. At the end of the day, we have to also look out for our interests.”

A packed auditorium of nearly 600 people gathered to hear Mr. Gandhi speak
A packed auditorium of nearly 600 people gathered to hear Mr. Gandhi speak. Basil Raj Kunnel

Democracy and Political Opposition

Mistree shared in an email prior to the event that Gandhi believes that India and the U.S. could work together in better ways on trade and economics.

For example, Gandhi’s view is that India could become a manufacturing powerhouse, which is a departure from the current ruling party’s position, while the U.S. continues to innovate and turns to India for more of its manufacturing needs, Mistree said.

“There’s a lot of space for these two countries to work much more closely together,” he said, adding that the Indian diaspora in America represents the second largest immigrant group in the country right now, and both countries share common security challenges in Asia.

Larry Diamond, Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at FSI, noted that Gandhi is the leader of the most important opposition party in India.

“You can’t have a democracy unless you have a political opposition that is free to criticize the ruling party, and contest for power. He has also been questioning directly the concentration and abuse of power by the current government,” Diamond wrote in an email prior to Gandhi’s talk.

Diamond added that U.S. and India have important, economic and strategic interests that should move forward in partnership based on their own logic.

“We need to hear and take seriously the concerns of political opposition and civil society in India, and we need to make clear to the Indian government that violations of basic democratic standards present obstacles to the deepening of U.S.-Indian ties,” Diamond said.

We need to hear and take seriously the concerns of political opposition and civil society in India, and we need to make clear to the Indian government that violations of basic democratic standards present obstacles to the deepening of U.S.-Indian ties.
Larry Diamond
Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy, FSI

Gandhi was on a six-day visit to the United States to interact with the Indian diaspora and express his party’s commitment to democratic values in India and across the world.

He said, “There are difficult times, but there are also times of opportunity. I think there are times when acts of imagination and acts of true power will resonate and can transform the way we think of ourselves.”

Rahul Gandhi takes photos with fans following his talk at Stanford University
Rahul Gandhi takes photos with fans following his talk at CEMEX Auditorium. Basil Raj Kunnel

For additional coverage of this event, read "Rahul Gandhi emphasizes role of technology, imagining in India’s future," by Amina Wase in The Stanford Daily.

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Rahul Gandhi, an Indian politician and former president of the Indian National Congress, delivered a speech at Stanford University on May 31, emphasizing the power of imagination in overcoming challenges to India's democracy. Gandhi also discussed the need for a stronger U.S.-India relationship, addressed the impact of technological progress, and highlighted the importance of competition with China in manufacturing.

Nora Sulots
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The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law is pleased to announce the release of the third module of mini-lectures in our Solving Public Policy Problems massive open online course (MOOC).

Case studies like this are instrumental to the curriculum for both CDDRL’s Leadership Academy for Development (LAD) and the Masters’ in International Policy (MIP). They address a wide range of issues in developing countries and are designed to encourage you to think critically about key decisions that have led to policy reforms. This video refers to the implementation segment of the Problem-Solving Framework (module 1.3).

Case Study: Gifford Pinchot and Sustainable Forest Management

The year was 1909, and Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester of the United States, faced a terrible personal dilemma. He had discovered a pattern of corruption in the sale of public lands to developers and other private interests. But the new president, William Howard Taft, depended on support from western Republicans and had placed a gag order on the whole affair. Pinchot was outraged at this evidence of corruption reaching the White House, but he wanted to give Taft a fair hearing. The new president had, after all, vowed to support conservation and strong control over federal lands. Taft invited Pinchot to the White House, where he alternately implored Pinchot not to go public with the matter and threatened him with dismissal if he violated the gag order. Pinchot had in his pocket a letter that could expose the scandal. This case explores the dilemma of Pinchot, a mid-level bureaucrat dependent on a president’s good will, and the strategies available to him. It shows the power of a single leader and the similarities the United States once had with many developing nations struggling with widespread corruption.

Through this case, students will gain a better understanding of how good communication is important for persuading stakeholders that a reform objective is both achievable and beneficial.

You can read the case study here, access the full series on our YouTube page, and watch Module 3 below:

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Module 2 of CDDRL’s “Solving Public Policy Problems” Online Course Out Now

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Reimagining Public Policy Education at Stanford and Beyond

The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law is proud to announce the launch of a new free massive open online course aimed at providing participants with a foundational knowledge of the best means for enacting effective policy change in their home countries.
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This single-video module examines the case of Gifford Pinchot and Sustainable Forest Management. Through this case study, students will gain a better understanding of how good communication is important for persuading stakeholders that a reform objective is both achievable and beneficial.

The New Global Equilibrium, talk by Rahul Gandhi

Please join us on Wednesday, May 31, for a talk by Indian politician Rahul Gandhi.

Mr. Gandhi will offer his unique perspective on the changing world order and India's crucial role within it. Following his talk, Mr. Gandhi will engage in a conversation with CDDRL Affiliated Scholar Dinsha Mistree.

Registration is required. Please note that large bags will not be permitted into the venue, and all bags are subject to search.


Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi

Former President, Indian National Congress

Rahul Gandhi was a Member of Parliament from 2004 until earlier this year. In March 2023, he was disqualified from Parliament pursuant to a court verdict that is currently under challenge in a higher court. He last represented the constituency of Wayanad in Kerala in the Lok Sabha and, prior to that, served three terms as MP from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. In 2007, he was named General Secretary of the Indian National Congress in charge of the youth and student organizations of the Party. In January 2013, he assumed office as Vice President of the Indian National Congress. He was the President of the Indian National Congress from December 2017 to July 2019.

Rahul was born on June 19, 1970, to Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. He has attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Harvard College, and Rollins College, Florida, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts. He went on to receive an M. Phil. in Development Studies from Trinity College, Cambridge University. Thereafter, he joined the Monitor Group, a strategy consulting group in London, where he worked for three years.

In the past, Rahul was a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committees on Home Affairs, Human Resource Development, External Affairs, Finance and Defence and the Consultative Committees for the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Finance & Corporate Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs.

Rahul has championed the development of a self-help group movement and a non-profit eye care provider in North India.  He also serves as a trustee of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.

Dinsha Mistree

Dinsha Mistree

Affiliated Scholar (CDDRL), Research Fellow (Hoover Institution), Research Fellow (Rule of Law Program, Stanford Law School)

Dinsha Mistree is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he manages the Program on Strengthening US-Indian Relations. He is also a research fellow in the Rule of Law Program at Stanford Law School and an affiliated scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Dr. Mistree studies the relationship between governance and economic growth in developing countries. His scholarship concentrates on the political economy of legal systems, public administration, and education policy, with a regional focus on India. He holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in Politics from Princeton University, with an S.M. and an S.B. from MIT. He previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at CDDRL and was a visiting scholar at IIM-Ahmedabad.

Dinsha Mistree

CEMEX Auditorium (Stanford Graduate School of Business)
655 Knight Way, Stanford, CA 94305

In-person only. No streaming link.

Rahul Gandhi
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Turkey is bracing for what is expected to be a pivotal moment in its political history as the country gears up to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14, 2023. With a range of significant challenges facing Turkey — from the erosion of democratic institutions to economic instability and concerns about its foreign policy — the outcome of the elections is likely to have far-reaching implications for the country's future.

To shed light on the electoral landscape and the stakes involved, we sat down with Ayça Alemdaroğlu, Associate Director of CDDRL’s Program on Turkey, to discuss the key issues at play and what they mean for Turkey's trajectory.

Turkey will have two elections on Sunday, May 14. Can you talk about why these elections are important?

The upcoming elections in Turkey hold immense importance due to several reasons. The country has faced a multitude of challenges, including the erosion of democratic institutions, political polarization, and a struggling economy. Firstly, the government, led by President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party(AKP), has used its power to silence opposition voices, restrict the press, control the judiciary, and crack down on civil society organizations. These actions have led to fear and intimidation among citizens, creating an environment where dissent is not tolerated. In addition, the government's efforts to centralize power under the presidency have further weakened the checks and balances essential to a functioning democracy. This election is Turkey's chance to reverse the democratic decline.

Secondly, the two major earthquakes that affected 11 cities and millions of people in February exposed the decay in state institutions under the current government, causing significant human and urban destruction. When the current government is responsible for much of this destruction, it will be a mistake to let it lead to the urgent recovery needed in the earthquake region.

Thirdly, Turkey's economy is in disarray due to President Erdogan's erratic economic policies and mismanagement, leading to rising inflation rates, a weakened currency, and economic instability. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to these challenges, further impoverishing the people. In addition, the economic situation has resulted in an exodus of the most educated sections of society, causing a significant setback to Turkey's human development and economic potential. Therefore, Turkey needs a government that can fix these economic problems.

Finally, the elections come at a time when Turkey faces increased tensions with several international actors, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine adds to the existing pressures. The foreign policy stance of the next government will have far-reaching implications for global democracy and security, making it vital for Turkey to be governed democratically and to uphold the rule of law.

The outcome of the elections will decide how these issues will be addressed, and the re-election of President Erdogan and his AKP would further deteriorate the situation. On the other hand, if the opposition coalition wins, they plan to undo Mr. Erdogan's autocratic presidential system of government, shift back to a rational economic policy, release jailed opposition figures and journalists, and, most importantly, restore democratic institutions and practices.

Can you explain the political landscape in Turkey and the major political parties contesting the upcoming elections?

There are two distinct races in Turkey's upcoming elections — one for the presidency and the other for parliament. In the presidential election, four candidates are vying for the position, with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party Republican People's Party (CHP), being the strongest contender against President Erdogan. Muharrem Ince, the CHP's 2018 presidential candidate, is also running again. His few percentage points serve no one other than Erdogan in this closely contested race.

There are 26 parties and three election coalitions on the ballot for parliamentary elections. Erdogan's People's Alliance includes his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ultra-nationalist MHP, and two Islamist fringe parties. The main opposition coalition, known as the Table of Six or Nation Alliance, includes the CHP, the ultra-nationalist Iyi Party, and three other small parties with significant political personalities. The Labor and Freedom Alliance of Turkey's Labor Party and pro-Kurdish Green Left Party support Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race. Polls indicate that Erdogan will be unseated by a small margin and the opposition will win at least a parliamentary majority, which unfortunately may be less than what is needed to make constitutional changes.

What are the key issues and challenges facing Turkey in the lead-up to the upcoming elections, and how are the major political parties addressing these concerns in their campaigns?

Election security is the key issue. Turkey has been grappling with significant election security concerns in recent years. There have been allegations of voter fraud and irregularities in past elections. The independence of the High Electoral Board and the fairness of the electoral process are also of major concern. We have seen how the Board repeated the 2019 Istanbul elections when the ruling party candidate lost it.

In addition, there have been incidents of violence and intimidation at polling stations, which have led to questions about the safety of voters and the integrity of the electoral process. During the current election period, the government has made every effort to delegitimize the contender parties by accusing them of collaborating with terrorist groups. But the attack on the opposition is not just in words. Over the weekend, we saw a violent mob attack one of the opposition leaders, the Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, and his audience during a rally in the eastern city of Erzurum. Unfortunately, the police neither intervened to stop the mob nor arrested anyone afterward. Imamoglu responded well, calling his supporters to calm down and retreat and ending the rally prematurely. However, I worry that these violent attacks will ramp up in these last days before the election.

Finally, the upcoming elections are closely watched with concerns about potential interference and attempts to manipulate the results. It is a big question for me and many others if the opposition parties have adequate means and preparations to deter these manipulations. We will soon know the answer.

What critical issues and concerns are shaping the campaign discourse in Turkey, and how might they resonate with American voters?

The condition of the Turkish economy, growing inflation, joblessness, corruption and plundering of Turkey’s resources, and the decline of democratic institutions, freedom, and human rights are prominent problems that the opposition campaign addresses. The government alliance holds a negative campaign accusing the opposition of collaborating with terrorist organizations and portraying it as inept in solving Turkey’s economic problems. The discourse of associating the opposition with terrorism reached a new level last week when the Ministry of Interior declared that if Erdogan loses, they will consider the elections as a coup against the government. This issue would strike a particular chord with American voters.

More importantly, Turkey is the largest country by land area and population in Europe, with an important sphere of influence in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Turkey’s economy, despite its problems, is among the twenty largest economies in the world. Turkey has the second-largest military force in NATO and plays a pivotal role in regional security, as evident in the wars in Ukraine and Syria. If the US government worries about global democracy and security, it will be better off having Turkey governed not by a single man but with democracy and strong institutions, and that is what the opposition promises.

Ayça Alemdaroğlu

Ayça Alemdaroğlu

Research Scholar and Associate Director of CDDRL's Program on Turkey.
Full Biography

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In this Q&A, Ayça Alemdaroğlu, Associate Director of the Program on Turkey at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, discusses the key issues and their implications for the country's future.

2023 Nobel Prize Summit


You’re invited to participate in a citizen deliberation at the 2023 Nobel Prize Summit

The 2023 Nobel Prize Summit on Truth, Trust, and Hope has the goal of initiating new efforts to build a world where thoughtful deliberation built on trustworthy information can thrive, buffering our societies against the damages due to misinformation and disinformation. One key challenge of this work is to establish a shared sense of legitimacy for policies to manage the information landscape that are enacted either by the private or public sectors. As citizens, we need to be able to trust that such policies are not primarily tools for building political power or private profits. 

At this Nobel Prize Summit, we invite you to explore with us one possible participatory-democracy-based solution to this problem, representative citizen deliberation. We will run an exercise in large-scale group deliberation to help develop the capacity to democratically vet policy proposals concerning the information landscape — and all summit participants are welcome to join in. Although this will not be the statistically representative group required for the eventual legitimacy of such oversight activities, we will learn together about how to shape such deliberations for our larger societies – and also learn some of the issues around current proposed policies regarding online media platforms. 

For this activity, the 2023 Nobel Prize Summit, organized by the Nobel Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences, is working with the Deliberative Democracy Lab at Stanford University, a program with decades of experience in statistically representative citizen deliberations, having conducted more than 120 deliberations in 50 countries and jurisdictions on every (inhabited) continent. Their approach, called “Deliberative Polling,” has in recent years been made available in an online format, the AI-assisted Stanford Online Deliberation Platform, a collaborative product of the Deliberative Democracy Lab and the Crowdsourced Democracy Team at Stanford University. 

Participants will complete a confidential pre-deliberation survey, join the deliberations virtually in small groups of about 10 people, join a plenary session virtually with experts and policymakers, and complete a post-deliberation survey.  The pre- and post-deliberation surveys are about 15 minutes each, the small group deliberations and plenary sessions are about one hour and  fifteen minutes each. (This is not a full scale Deliberative Poll that usually lasts for a full day or multiple days.) We can report that the overwhelming majority of those who participate in such Deliberative Polling events have found the experience both meaningful and enlightening.  

At the end of day two of the Nobel Prize Summit, the Deliberative Democracy Lab will showcase the results of the summit deliberation and discuss the field of deliberative democracy and the future of Deliberative Polling.  

There are multiple opportunities to join this exercise: 

Join us on 25 May, 12:00 - 4:00 pm Eastern Time (9:00 am - 1:00 pm Pacific). This session is built into the 2023 Nobel Prize Summit programming. You can join the deliberations virtually whether or not you are at the summit in person. 

Or join this deliberation exercise before the summit: 

  • Asia 20 May 13:00-16:00 Hong Kong time 
  • Africa 20 May 15:00-19:00 Lagos time 
  • Europe 21 May  13:00-16:00 London time 
  • Americas 21 May  10:00-13:00 San Francisco time 

Note: All sessions are conducted in English. 

Register here for this demonstration of Deliberative Polling. We look forward to seeing you!

For any questions about this event, please contact:

About the Deliberative Democracy Lab, Stanford University  

The Deliberative Democracy Lab at Stanford University is housed in the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute. DDL is devoted to research about democracy and public opinion obtained through Deliberative Polling®. Deliberative Polling is a registered trademark of James S Fishkin, and any fees generated are used to support Deliberative Democracy Lab. The method of Deliberative Polling has been used in over 50 countries and jurisdictions around the world through over 120 projects at varying levels of government and society. To learn more about the DDL, visit:  

About the Crowdsourced Democracy Team 

The Crowdsourced Democracy Team at Stanford University is led by Ashish Goel and is housed in Management Science and Engineering. The mission of CDT is to scale up collaboration and decision-making. To learn more about CDT, visit:


Positive Peace Conference

The fifth Positive Peace Conference brings together diverse thought leaders from private industry, foundations, governments, and non-profit organisations to celebrate and learn from the latest advancements in the field of peacebuilding. Hosted by the international think tank, the Institute for Economics & Peace, the event is held in partnership with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law) and represents an exceptional learning, networking, and strategic planning opportunity for those working to strengthen the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain levels of peacefulness at local, regional and global levels.

Transport & accommodation | Venue location

Speakers Include:

  • Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, Director, Center for Latin American Studies, Stanford University
  • Alexander Njukia Ndung’u, Senior Technical Advisor, Interfaith and Peace Building, World Vision East Africa
  • Celia Ramirez, Director, Jalisco State Secretariat of Planning and Citizen Participation
  • Dan Baker, President and CEO, National Peace Corps Association
  • Don Chisholm, Director, USAID Center for Conflict and Violence Prevention
  • Irene Santiago, Peace Adviser, Local Government Academy, Philippines
  • Kathryn Stoner, Mosbacher Director, Stanford Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law
  • Lisa Broderick, Executive Director, Police2Peace
  • Liz Hume, Executive Director, Alliance for Peacebuilding
  • Michael Collins, Executive Director Americas, Institute for Economics & Peace
  • Neda Amidi, President, Plug and Play Tech Center
  • Patricia Shafer, Executive Director, NewGen Peacebuilders
  • Shaphan Roberts, Director, Online Programs Adjunct Professor, Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution Caruso School of Law
  • Steve Killelea, Founder and Executive Chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace
  • Sukhsimranjit Singh, Assistant Dean, Graduate Law Program, Pepperdine Caruso Law
  • Summer Lewis, Partnership Coordinator, Rotary International

Vidalakis Dining Hall (Schwab Residential Center)
680 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305

Gi-Wook Shin
News Type

This essay originally appeared in Korean on March 4 in Sindonga (New East Asia), Korea’s oldest monthly magazine (established 1931), as part of a monthly column, "Shin’s Reflections on Korea." Translated by Raymond Ha. A PDF version of this essay is also available to download

In early January, I spoke with my colleague Francis Fukuyama about a range of global issues in an exclusive interview for the Munhwa Ilbo, a major Korean newspaper. Looking back on 2022, he said it was “a very good year.”1 I was rather surprised by this assessment, given the ongoing political turmoil at home and abroad.

Elaborating on his answer, Fukuyama explained that “the Russians got completely bogged down” in Ukraine. Moreover, “China experienced mass protests, and there were protests also in Iran.” In the United States, “pro-Trump forces failed to make gains” in the November midterms. Fukuyama concluded that we may “look back on 2022 as the year when this democratic recession that has been going on for over 15 years finally bottomed out.”2

Though I agree that the democratic recession has bottomed out, it is too early to tell whether we will see a recovery. History tells us that we could remain stalled in the status quo for a while. Even after Hitler, Stalin, and Mao disappeared from the scene, Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism remained. Juan Perón (Little Hitler), Nicolae Ceaușescu (Little Stalin), and Pol Pot (Little Mao) emerged in different parts of the world. Trumpism could remain a potent political force despite Trump’s loss in 2020. Politicians may continue to model themselves after Trump. A democratic recovery will be a long and arduous process, requiring a great deal of attention and effort.

Yoon Suk-Yeol’s election halted Korea’s democratic decline. . . [However,] anti-pluralism pervades Korean politics, and polarization only continues to worsen.
Gi-Wook Shin

Whither Korea’s Democracy?

Just as the United States turned the tide on democratic backsliding with Biden’s victory, Yoon Suk-Yeol’s election halted Korea’s democratic decline. The Yoon administration entered office trumpeting liberal democratic values and calling for a politics of common sense and fairness. However, it failed to live up to its rhetoric during its first year. Anti-pluralism pervades Korean politics, and polarization only continues to worsen. The ruling and opposition parties are locked in a vicious cycle of mutual hostility. This begs the question of whether Korea’s democracy can set itself on a path to recovery.

I first raised concerns about Korea’s democratic decline in an essay in the May 2020 edition of Sindonga magazine, entitled “Korean Democracy is Sinking under the Guise of the Rule of Law.”3 The Moon Jae-In administration was in its third year at the time.

In that essay, I noted that the Moon administration, intoxicated by a sense of moral superiority, regarded the opposition as a great evil with which there could be no compromise. It showed no qualms about deploying populist tactics, regarding itself as the champion of the ordinary citizen in a pitched battle against the establishment elite. Moreover, it politicized the courts and undermined the separation of powers. It was weakening Korea’s democracy “under the guise of the rule of law.” If political actors recklessly violated democratic norms and ideals, no amount of procedural legitimacy would be enough to sustain Korea’s liberal democracy. I warned that Korea’s democracy could gradually erode, just as one could “become soaked by a drizzle without noticing.”4 The essay was an earnest plea to prevent an unsettling tragedy—that a generation of politicians could dismantle the democracy that they had passionately fought for as pro-democracy activists in their youth.

This diagnosis formed the basis for South Korea’s Democracy in Crisis (2022), which I co-edited with Ho-Ki Kim, a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.5 This edited volume includes essays by progressive and conservative academics from Korea and the United States. It explains how and why Korea’s hard-won democracy entered a state of crisis, and it points to illiberalism, populism, and polarization as the main reasons. As we approach the first anniversary of President Yoon’s inauguration and look toward the future, it is timely to reassess the current state of Korea’s democracy along those three dimensions.

President Yoon repeatedly stressed the importance of freedom. However, he has failed to move beyond rhetorical gestures. Korea’s citizens are still waiting to see what an emphasis on liberal democratic values looks like in practice.
Gi-Wook Shin

Let us begin with illiberalism. The Moon administration, which wielded a Manichean logic of good and evil and stoked chauvinistic anti-Japanese nationalism, is no longer in power. As if in reaction to these trends, President Yoon repeatedly stressed the importance of freedom. In his inaugural address, he put forth a vision of value-based diplomacy centered on solidarity between liberal democracies.6 However, he has failed to move beyond rhetorical gestures. Korea’s citizens are still waiting to see what an emphasis on liberal democratic values looks like in practice.

Moreover, the logic of political tribalism continues to overwhelm liberalism. Article 46(2) of Korea’s constitution declares that “members of the National Assembly . . . shall perform their duties in accordance with conscience.”7 However, many members are afraid to speak their minds for fear of angering their own side. Government officials are still indicted for “abuse of authority” over decisions they made while implementing policy measures. The core democratic norm of forbearance remains a distant prospect. There are serious concerns that wide-ranging prosecutorial investigations against Moon administration officials are descending into yet another campaign to “eradicate deep-rooted evils,” which was one of the Moon administration’s political priorities.8

Next is populism. In its 21st-century form, populism does not simply appeal to popular sentiment. It has two defining characteristics: anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. The former takes aim at the elite establishment, while the latter rejects coexistence with different groups. Anti-elitism manifests itself as hostility toward party politics, and anti-pluralism provokes a hatred of opposing political forces. Furthermore, technological advances and the dissemination of social media platforms enable populist leaders to communicate directly with their supporters. This form of direct interaction is another key characteristic of contemporary populism. In Korea, there are populist forces on both the left (Moon-ppa, gae-ddal) and the right (Taegukgi brigade).9

Ideological attacks against the elite have subsided since Yoon entered office. However, the administration’s policy against the so-called “new” establishment, including labor unions, runs the risk of veering toward populism. It is necessary to address corruption in labor unions and correct imprudent practices, such as the emergence of a “labor aristocracy.” While doing so, the Yoon administration should refrain from taking a politically motivated approach that appeals to conservative voters.

Populist leadership is also a problem. In the weeks leading up to the People Power Party’s (PPP) national convention in March, where the ruling party elected its new leader, President Yoon and his office showed a heavy-handed approach by openly throwing their weight behind Kim Gi-Hyeon. On the other side of the aisle, Lee Jae-Myung, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), is currently the subject of ongoing prosecutorial investigations. Lee’s response to these investigations has not been befitting of a political leader in a pluralist democracy. Both Yoon and Lee hew closer to a “strongman” style of leadership that values boldness and the ability to achieve results, even at the cost of democratic norms such as compromise and mutual understanding through communication. Though they represent opposing political parties, Yoon and Lee share a similar political style that, in turn, reinforces mutual hostility between the two sides.

Korean politics has degenerated into a raw struggle for power between warring tribes. It no longer fulfills its most basic function—to gather a wide range of differing opinions and to seek compromise.
Gi-Wook Shin

Last is political polarization. After the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye and the election of Moon Jae-In, political polarization in Korea has further deteriorated due to the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic and widening socioeconomic inequalities. Even outside the political sphere, there is growing mutual distrust between individuals and between communities. There is no space for moderation or nuance. Instead of agreeing to disagree, as would be the norm in a pluralist society, everyone is compelled to choose a side. As political fandoms come to the fore and politicians amplify gender issues to “divide and conquer” the electorate, Korean politics has degenerated into a raw struggle for power between warring tribes. It no longer fulfills its most basic function—to gather a wide range of differing opinions and to seek compromise.

Mutual toleration, coexistence, and compromise are becoming increasingly rare in Korean politics, which is defined by a winner-take-all electoral system and a powerful presidency. The extremely narrow margin of victory for Yoon Suk-Yeol over Lee Jae-Myung—a mere 0.73 percentage points—is a sobering portrait of just how polarized Korea has become. Since the DPK still holds a legislative majority in the National Assembly, cooperation across the aisle is a lost cause. The Yoon administration and the PPP are pressuring the opposition with prosecutorial investigations. In response, the DPK has called for the appointment of a special, independent prosecutor to investigate allegations surrounding not only Lee, but also Yoon and First Lady Kim Keon-Hee. The DPK appears to be opposing only for the sake of opposing.

The National Assembly has abdicated its most basic responsibility of passing laws to improve the lives of Korea’s citizens. According to the National Assembly’s Secretariat, 13,198 pieces of legislation were pending review across 17 standing committees at the end of 2022. This is an average of approximately 776 per committee. This figure is significantly higher than 8,957 (527 per committee) in 2021, and only 4,023 (237 per committee) at the end of 2020. Political polarization has worsened since the transfer of power to the PPP last year. Unfortunately, the future of Korea’s democracy is anything but bright.

Based on the three metrics of illiberalism, populism, and polarization, Korea’s democracy is unlikely to return to a path of recovery for the foreseeable future. The transfer of power to the conservatives may have prevented a further decline, but Korea’s democracy is stuck in a quagmire with no exit in sight. There is also a growing mistrust in politics among the Korean people.

In my column in the May 2022 edition of Sindonga, I reviewed the five years of the Moon administration and outlined my hopes and expectations for the incoming Yoon administration. I noted that Korea’s democracy had been “drenched in a heavy downpour over the course of this year’s presidential election.” I was one of many who resolved to “keep a close eye to see whether Yoon Suk-Yeol will be able to save South Korea’s democracy from the impending thunderstorm.”10 As the Yoon administration approaches the end of its first year, it is time for a clear-headed assessment of where Korea’s democracy stands. The downpour has stopped, but the skies are still overcast. There is no telling when we might see sunshine again.

The End of Strongmen—or Not

I have argued that Korea’s democratic decline must be understood as part of a global phenomenon. Democratic backsliding remains a topic of great concern among Western intellectuals. According to Freedom House, the proportion of democracies in the world surpassed 50% in the mid-1990s as a result of the “third wave” of democratization that began in the 1970s. After reaching a peak of 62% in 2006, this figure has declined for 15 consecutive years. It has now fallen below 50%. This trend is reminiscent of the 1930s and 40s. Back then, the United States and the United Kingdom defended democracy from fascism and communism in World War II and the Cold War. During the past decade, however, even these two countries have experienced a crisis of democracy.

As noted above in Fukuyama’s assessment, there are signs that the global decline in democracy has indeed bottomed out. Putin is mired in a crisis, and Xi is also facing an uphill battle. Because the two leading authoritarian powers are facing difficulties, the political landscape has become more favorable for democracies. At the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many anticipated that Putin would win an easy victory. However, the war has become a global proxy war between democracies and authoritarian powers. Russia’s military is floundering, and some analysts even argue that this war could lead to Putin’s downfall. Xi has consolidated power to secure a third term as president, but public discontent is building over COVID-19 policies and economic stagnation. Researchers at Cambridge University have reported that, in general, the power of authoritarian leaders has weakened over the course of the pandemic.

Most of the political leaders highlighted in Gideon Rachman’s The Age of the Strongman—Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Rodrigo Duterte, and Jair Bolsonaro—have exited center stage in their respective countries. Erdoğan’s leadership in Turkey has also taken a hit due to the recent earthquake. In his book, Rachman warns that the emergence of strongmen since the 2000s posed a threat to democracy across the world. It is thus an encouraging sign that their political influence appears to be largely waning. One of the reasons why pro-Trump forces failed to gain ground in last November’s midterms is that American voters chose to defend and restore democracy.11

Even so, it is unclear whether we are in the midst of a “fourth wave” of democratization. Illiberalism and populism continue to cast a shadow in many parts of the world. The underlying socioeconomic conditions that gave rise to illiberalism and populism have not improved, with inflation and income inequality creating serious difficulties. Moreover, political polarization shows no sign of improvement. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, the global average barely changed from 2021 (5.28) to 2022 (5.29).12 In the United States, while Trump’s political clout has shrunk, he is still a major contender for the 2024 presidential race. Trumpism is alive and well. Many pro-Trump politicians who claim that the 2020 election was stolen have been elected to Congress.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt observe in How Democracies Die that democratic decline in the 21st century has often occurred as a result of elected leaders gradually dismantling democratic institutions. Military dictators or communist revolutionaries forcibly toppled democracies in the past, but democracies are now under attack from politicians who entered office through free and fair elections. Since the democratic recession is a global phenomenon, a democratic recovery will also require international cooperation.

How Korea’s Democracy Can Recover

Korea is not immune to global trends. While these trends will determine the prevailing winds, there are steps that Korea can take on its own. To set itself on the path to a robust recovery, Korea’s democracy must undergo major surgery in multiple areas. It is necessary to reform institutions and establish a different political culture. There must be a new style of political leadership, and there must be a concerted effort to address underlying socioeconomic conditions.

Institutional reform can wait no longer. There is broad agreement that the institutions created by the 1987 constitution, referred to as the “1987 regime,” have outlived their historical purpose. Political calculations, however, continue to stymie efforts to overhaul these institutions. The 1987 constitution created an extremely powerful presidency with a one-term limit, giving rise to a host of negative repercussions. All but 47 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly are filled through winner-take-all elections in single-member districts. Constitutional reform is required to address the former, and electoral reform is needed to fix the latter.13 Anonymous voting should be eliminated to protect the autonomy of each legislator, while also holding them accountable for their decisions. Although the details must be negotiated between the ruling and opposition parties, the overall objective should be to facilitate compromise and alleviate political polarization.

Korea’s political culture also needs to change. Politicians must learn to tolerate different opinions, and political parties should openly communicate with one another to find solutions. Demonizing the other side is unacceptable. It is only natural for there to be a wide variety of opinions in a pluralistic, democratic society. Those who hold different views should be able to respectfully engage in dialogue with one another, as long as these views align with the fundamental values outlined in Korea’s constitution. Divisive identity politics and insular political fandoms have no place in a healthy democracy.

Political parties must also change their internal culture. During the recent race to elect its new leader, the PPP was overtaken by a controversy about who truly qualified as a “pro-Yoon” politician. This show of allegiance is more reminiscent of an authoritarian regime than a democracy. There are also problems on the other side of the aisle. In late February, the National Assembly narrowly rejected a motion to allow the arrest of Lee Jae-Myung over corruption charges.14 Because the votes were cast anonymously, some DPK supporters vowed to hunt down “traitors” who did not vote against the motion. Once again, such actions have no place in a healthy democracy.

It is vital to work toward an economic recovery and to rebuild a robust middle class. . . . [Inflation and economic turmoil have] worsened economic inequality, fueling the fire of political polarization.
Gi-Wook Shin

Moreover, it is impossible to reduce political polarization without addressing the underlying socioeconomic factors. It is vital to work toward economic recovery and to rebuild a robust middle class. The pandemic, Sino-U.S. tensions, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have brought about inflation and economic turmoil. This has worsened economic inequality, thereby fueling the fire of political polarization. Political reforms alone will not solve the problem. In this vein, the Yoon administration should address labor unions from the perspective of labor policy, not as an ideological issue.

Above all, it is necessary to establish a style of political leadership befitting of a liberal democracy. Authoritarian leadership is built on charisma, patriarchal authority, a strict vertical hierarchy, unity of purpose, and efficiency. In contrast, leadership in a liberal democracy consists of open communication, horizontal relationships, respect for diversity, and forbearance. Korea’s democracy will move one step forward when it moves beyond strongmen to embrace a style of leadership that shows respect for democratic norms and values.

Joseph Nye was an early advocate of the importance of soft power in international politics. “Soft power” refers to the ability to persuade through attraction instead of force or coercion. In The Powers to Lead, Nye argues that successful leaders require two “hard power” skills and three soft power skills. The former refers to managerial skills and political acumen, while the latter includes communication, vision, and emotional intelligence.

By this standard, President Yoon took positive steps in terms of his leadership style upon entering office. He put forth a clear and timely vision that stressed fairness, common sense, and the restoration of liberal democratic values. By moving the presidential office to Yongsan and directly engaging with reporters every morning, he showed a desire to improve communication and respond to public sentiment. Mistakes were made, but he was initially headed in the right direction. Credit should be given where it is due.

Freedom, Fairness, and Common Sense

Since then, however, Yoon appears to have returned to a strongman style of leadership. There are fewer efforts to communicate with the opposition and empathize with public sentiment. Instead of relying on political acumen, his administration is wielding the law as a political tool. It bears repeating that the rule of law is not sufficient to guarantee a liberal democracy. We witnessed all too clearly how the Moon administration eroded Korea’s democracy while ostensibly appealing to the rule of law. A liberal democracy ultimately rests on respect for democratic norms and values. It cannot be sustained without a vigilant effort to safeguard these norms and values. To protect freedom, which President Yoon repeatedly mentioned in his inaugural address, it is crucial to tolerate the other side and demonstrate forbearance. Prosecutorial authority must be exercised with great caution, and his administration must show patience in persuading the opposition and the people.

Yoon vowed to restore fairness and common sense in the face of injustice . . . . The Korean people elected him to the highest office in the land, and he has a responsibility to uphold democratic norms and values.
Gi-Wook Shin

The failures of the Moon administration stemmed from its heavy reliance on a tight-knit network of former pro-democracy activists. It did not keep its eyes and ears open to public sentiment. There were no checks and balances to detect and correct mistakes. Similarly, there are now serious concerns that the Yoon administration could follow the same path by exclusively relying on a super-network of prosecutors. Consider, for example, the failure to appropriately vet Chung Sun-Sin, a former prosecutor, before he was appointed as the head of the National Office of Investigation in February. Chung, who previously worked under Yoon at the Prosecutor’s Office, resigned after reports emerged that his son had bullied a high school roommate. When he resigned from his role as prosecutor general to enter politics, Yoon vowed to restore fairness and common sense in the face of injustice. He should remain true to that vow. The Korean people elected him to the highest office in the land, and he has a responsibility to uphold democratic norms and values.

International cooperation is also vital on the path to a global democratic recovery. Recall how the free world, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, joined forces in the struggle against Nazism and communism. Recognizing the importance of multilateral cooperation, the Biden administration has organized the Summit for Democracy. The second summit, held in late March, was co-hosted in Korea, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the United States, and Zambia. In effect, Korea represented Asia. At this summit, it was announced that Korea would host the third summit.15 These events are opportunities for the Yoon administration to present a detailed strategy for how Korea can play a leading role in the resurgence of democracy across the world.

One possibility would be to create and support an international forum to discuss relevant issues. In the United States, the National Endowment for Democracy, funded primarily by Congress, supports a wide range of activities across the world to promote democracy. Shorenstein APARC is currently in discussions with the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies to host an annual dialogue, called the “Sustainable Democracy Roundtable,” for Korean and American experts and practitioners to explore the topic of democratic recovery. This dialogue will also involve young scholars and students, with the aim of nurturing future democratic leaders. Through convening similar international forums, Korea could play a leading role in promoting international solidarity among liberal democracies by fostering connections between private citizens as well as governments. 

Next Korea: Beyond a Zero-Sum Society

As I thought about how to conclude this series of essays, I was reminded of The Zero-Sum Society (1980) by Lester Thurow, which I read during my time in graduate school. In a zero-sum society, one person’s gain is another’s loss. The overall sum of gains and losses adds up to zero. Thurow used this concept to explain why it was difficult for American society to address environmental and energy issues in the 1970s as it faced economic stagnation. The clashing interests of different groups in society impeded problem-solving.

The most serious problem of a zero-sum society is that any kind of reform or change will meet heavy resistance. Close-knit interest groups will fiercely protect their own interests. This helps explain why social conflict is intensifying in Korea today, and why it is so difficult to bring about change. Political leadership is needed to transform a zero-sum society into a positive-sum society, in which the sum of gains and losses is greater than zero.

Consider the two predominant forces in Korean politics: those who achieved economic development through industrialization, and those who fought for democratization. These two groups must cease their zero-sum struggle. They must resist the temptation to demonize each other as “descendants of dictators” or a “pro-North Korean fifth column” respectively. It is time to honestly reflect upon each side’s successes and shortcomings, so that they can work together toward a positive-sum future for Korea. There is no time to lose. Inter-Korean relations are in dire straits, and Sino-U.S. tensions are intensifying by the day. Korea’s aging society presents formidable obstacles to economic growth. As the late Professor Park Se-Il of Seoul National University argued, Korea must move beyond industrialization and democratization to become a global leader.

Over the past year, I explored “Next Korea”—Korea’s vision for the future—and sought to outline a roadmap for how it might be achieved. This series of essays, which addressed politics, economics, society, culture, and foreign policy, was intended to convey my thoughts and reflections on how Korea could advance to the next stage of its development. I felt that having an outside perspective allowed me to see the “forest” of Korea’s path toward the future, even if I cannot see the trees in great detail.

By any measure, Korea has made remarkable achievements in a short period of time. It has overcome war, division, and authoritarian rule to become a country with the 10th largest economy in the world in only seven decades. Its soft power is sweeping across the globe, and Korea has world-class talent in every field. This is truly a miracle, and Koreans have every reason to be proud. The challenge now is to take the next step. Korea stands at a critical crossroads. Will it settle for the status quo, or could it leap into the top five?

Steve Jobs closed his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford with two words: “Stay hungry.” This was at once a call to action for the ambitious Stanford graduates in the audience and a reminder to himself to keep moving forward. Korea must also “stay hungry” if it is to move higher and leap toward the future. I will be watching with great hope and anticipation to see how Korea will flourish in the years to come.

1 Kim Namseok, “A Resurgence of Democracy? A Conversation with Francis Fukuyama on the Challenges of a Changing Global Order,” Freeman Spogli Institute, January 12, 2023.

2 Namseok, “Resurgence of Democracy?”

3 Gi-Wook Shin, “Korean Democracy is Sinking under the Guise of the Rule of Law,” Shorenstein APARC, April 1, 2020.

4 Shin, “Korean Democracy is Sinking.”

5 For more details about the book, see “South Korea’s Democracy in Crisis,” Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

6“Inaugural Address by President Yoon Suk Yeol,”, May 10, 2022.

7 Ministry of Government Legislation, “Constitution of the Republic of Korea.”

8 Shin, “Korean Democracy is Sinking.”

9 For a more detailed discussion of these political groups, see Gi-Wook Shin, “In Troubled Waters: South Korea’s Democracy in Crisis,” Shorenstein APARC, May 3, 2022.

10 Shin, “In Troubled Waters: South Korea’s Democracy in Crisis.”

11 For example, see Josh Boak and Hannah Fingerhut, “VoteCast: Inflation Top Concern, but Democracy a Worry Too,” Associated Press, November 8, 2022, and Zack Beauchamp, “The Midterms Showed American Democracy Won’t Go Down Without a Fight,” Vox, November 9, 2022.

12 Economist Intelligence Unit, “Democracy Index 2022,” accessed April 17, 2023.

13 One proposed solution is to create multi-member districts. It will also be necessary to prohibit “satellite” parties that defeat the purpose of the mixed-member proportional system that was created during the Moon administration. For a more detailed discussion, see Shin, “Korean Democracy is Sinking.”

14 Sitting National Assembly members cannot be arrested without a consenting vote of the National Assembly.

15“South Korea to Host Third ‘Summit for Democracy’ – Joint Statement,” Reuters, March 29, 2023.

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