Zambia’s President, Hakainde Hichilema, knows the rough edges of an imperfect democracy from his years spent in opposition, including 15 stints in jail on charges of treason. However, as his nation co-hosts the 2023 Summit for Democracy in Washington D.C. alongside the United States, South Korea, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands, two paramount questions must be addressed to protect and rejuvenate the democratic process worldwide.

First, what measures can countries take to improve democracy within their borders? Second, how can the international community create the conditions necessary for democracies to flourish globally?

In Zambia, a national conversation is taking place about democracy, a young multiparty system that is still forging its path. With an average age of 18, the nation’s citizens are also young, and few remember the struggle for a multiparty system. It is crucial for Hichilema’s generation to understand what democracy means to them.

In the past, Zambia’s two predecessors took an authoritarian turn, suppressing rights to retain control as mismanagement destabilized society. Dissent was quashed, and protests were dispersed, making it challenging to overcome election rigging in 2021. To restore the people’s civil liberties, Hichilema’s government shored up the right of assembly, challenged free speech-defying defamation laws, and abolished the death penalty.

However, Hichilema recognizes that economic stability is crucial to retaining the people’s consent, particularly in young democracies. When multiple administrations fail to provide economic relief, disillusionment with the process can grow.

In late 2020, at the pandemic’s height, Zambia became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt, with debt skyrocketing to 120% of gross domestic product. Food inflation had topped 30%, annual inflation was at 25%, and over 40% of adults could afford only one meal a day. Reckless borrowing and corruption had gutted the economy, and the former president’s pork barrel overdrive further exacerbated the debt crisis.

Although initial progress was made to restructure Zambia’s debt after the election, talks have since stalled. The International Monetary Fund has warned that the impasse poses a threat to the economy and democracy. Hichilema argues that if citizens do not see democracy improving their lives, the system will feel the strain.

Zambia has implemented reforms in anti-corruption, transparency, and public funds management to restore credibility. However, the cumbersome and bureaucratic format of the Common Framework, established by the Group of 20 to deal with debt restructuring complexities, is causing delays that put pressure on the local currency, raise prices, and block much-needed international investment.

The debt run up by an autocratic predecessor is stymying a democratic government’s ability to provide economic security for its citizens, damaging democracy in the process. The United Nations Development Programme reports that 54 countries are experiencing severe debt stress, with 25 of them in Africa. A swift and comprehensive mechanism is required to replace today’s ad hoc, slow, and messy process.

Hakainde Hichilema said democracy is delicate, and we cannot let debt damage it in the tumult. We cannot merely parrot lines about how democracy is beneficial for citizens. It must be felt. Without reprieve, many democracies will face existential pressure from their people, leading to widespread dislocation and instability. The dangerous prologue to democratic unraveling is a call for a firm, steady but autocratic hand.