Political Systems Democracy: Whom Does It Include?
Nowadays most countries in the world have a democratic constitution, on paper at least. But how democratic are the democracies of today? And what does it even mean: democracy?
International politics often acts like a big family – whenever problems and crises crop up, the (family) spokespeople are summoned up and gathered around the table: Let’s have a meeting, we need to talk. As a case in point, international meetings are held on a regular basis because of climate change, and it was the same in the financial crisis in 2008 when the special summits came thick and fast. In December 2021, during the global covid pandemic, US President Joe Biden even invited delegates to a virtual democracy summit. Of the world’s 195 nations, 110 were asked to participate – all the countries believed by the USA to be established democracies.
This selection caused a lot of trouble: why was Poland included – the country that some time ago received harsh criticism from the EU Commission because of a judicial reform that curtailed the independence of judges? And Brazil at the time with its right-wing populist president Jair Bolsonaro? Why was NATO partner Turkey not among the participating nations? China had accepted not being invited in its own right, but Taiwan’s involvement – that was going too far.
Who thinks who is democratic seems to be a point of conflict. That’s how it’s been right from the start, and how it still is now. Democracy is a process, not a product – and this process is always in progress.
A People’s Government – But Who Are the People?
Democracy is a process – over the centuries they have renegotiated voting rights multiple times: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963 in the USA, whose participants demanded, among other things, equal voting rights for all. | Photo (detail): © Unseen Histories/Unsplash
The first step – from today’s western perspective – was taken by Greek statesman and nobleman Solon around 2,600 years ago when he overthrew the Athenian ruling class and instead granted rights to the wealthy via the Council of the Four Hundred, including commoners. Admittedly that was still far removed from today’s definition of democracy in which governance comes from the people – at this point the poor, women and slaves were not involved. And Solon’s idea of handing over more power at least to a proportion of the people already existed elsewhere too: at around the same time, the West Germanic ethnic groups already had a people’s assembly of armed men as an important political entity.
Nevertheless, since that point Greece has been considered the cradle of democracy, which is now widespread as a political system. In the 19th century US President Abraham Lincoln described it like this: “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people.” However he didn’t include women in those people – they didn’t have a right to vote until the 20th century.
The Essence Is the Values
Democracy has steadily become differentiated in form and content: how the will of the people is determined can vary widely across the globe. The most common form is representative democracy – the people elect an individual, who is granted power and who should form the government. That might be a parliamentary system such as they have in Germany, with its parties and the mighty Bundestag, or a presidential system like the one in the USA, where an elected president holds most of the power. Diverse hybrid forms exist alongside these.
But the form alone doesn’t make a country into a democratic state, not by a long chalk. If the people use this model and subsequently elect an autocrat who then limits the people’s basic rights, then the outcome is not a democracy but an elected dictatorship instead. The truth is, the essence of a democracy is its values, its principles.
Free and fair elections are a fundamental aspect of this. Separation of powers continues to be essential, because creating a distinction between legislature, executive and judiciary is meant to prevent abuse of power. A functioning constitutional state is part of this as well – laws that everyone must follow, including the politicians. Furthermore it’s vital to have a free press, the so-called “fourth branch of government”. Human rights are a high priority – and respecting them.
But there isn’t a universally applicable standard formula here either. If media are state-funded, as they are in Belgium and Switzerland – does that still mean they’re independent? If a nation has people tortured, that infringes human rights – so is the USA really democratic with its Guantanamo Bay prisons? Or do we take the principle that a constitution exists, like the German Basic Law, and thus a binding framework for the state and its citizens? In this context it’s worth stating that the UK, despite not having a codified constitution like almost all other democracies, does rank amongst the democracies according to the Democracy Index – incidentally the same applies to the USA, Belgium and Switzerland.
The Most Democratic Country in the World
Elections alone do not constitute democracy: since the Trump era, the USA is considered a “flawed democracy” in the Democracy Index. | Photo (detail): © Samantha Sophia/Unsplash
An index like this, which provides guidance on the categorisation of political systems, was first compiled by British magazine The Economist in 2006. It isn’t the only index of its kind, but it’s widely distributed and published every year. 167 countries are analysed in regard to a wide range of democratic principles: Are there free and fair elections? Does media freedom exist? Is there an independent law system? Depending on the number of points accumulated, countries are categorised as a full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.
Top of the table here – and in other indices – is Norway. It’s considered the most democratic country in the world. But Norway also has a king, and is therefore a parliamentary monarchy. In the 2021 ranking, Norway is followed by New Zealand and Iceland. Germany is in 14th place, while Afghanistan brings up the rear.
This index also observes which countries have improved or worsened with regard to democratic values. The findings are sobering: although almost half of the world’s population lives in a democracy (45.3 per cent) – only eight per cent live in what’s defined as a full democracy. Almost forty per cent of the world’s people live in an autocracy. Development is stagnating, laments the Economist Intelligence Unit, author of the index.
More Democracy, Not Less
In fact even in Germany experts are observing with concern that belief and confidence in democracy as a political system are on the wane. At the start of the 1970s, election turnout in Germany was still 91 per cent, at the most recent Bundestag election it was around 77 per cent. The rising number of violent attacks, especially from the right wing, the new popularity of right-leaning parties, the lack of trust in the traditional media – all these are indicators of such erosion and set alarm bells ringing for politics. According to a study by the social democratic Friedrich Ebert Foundation, less than half of people are happy with the way democracy operates here. The lack of confidence is particularly pronounced amongst people who are financially disadvantaged.
However you would be wrong to believe that survey respondents would prefer an autocracy instead. If anything they want the opposite: more democracy, more direct co-determination in politics. It’s the representative form that’s facing criticism – by contrast the idea of direct democracy, be it through referenda, citizens’ councils or participatory budgeting, is a top priority for many people.
This crisis of democracy is not just happening in Germany. In Europe, several established democracies are struggling with the emergence of right-wing parties – examples are France and Italy. The USA has lost out big time in the Democracy Index because of the Trump era, the country is considered a “flawed democracy”.
But is that a reason to abandon democracy? Certainly not. At the conclusion of President Biden’s Summit for Democracy in 2021, several nations pledged to ramp up their commitment to democratic institutions. The USA itself plans to invest millions of dollars in its own country to support such initiatives. And the next democracy summit is scheduled for March 2023.