Democracy and elections
The arguments for democracy
'Democracy' is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'a form of government in which people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives'. Democracy is most obviously manifest through elections which enable people to choose representatives. However 'democracy' is not an absolute category, whereby if a country has an election it can be regarded as 'democratic'. Instead, a state's democratic credentials involve assessing many, if not all, aspects of governance and the political system. There is much debate over what constitutes democracy both in theory and in actuality.
In one classic definition, by Robert Dahl, democracy requires 'not only free, fair, and competitive elections, but also the freedoms that make them truly meaningful (such as freedom of organization and freedom of expression), alternative sources of information, and institutions to ensure that government policies depend on the votes and preferences of citizens' (Dahl 1971). Thus democracy is not just about majority rule, but requires political freedoms so there can be debate and independent decision making. Commonly recognized essential components of democracy include: multi-party electoral competition, freedom of association, freedom of movement, independent media, and the rule of law. Achieving such freedoms may be a staggered process in which there are different patterns of democracy.
It is widely suggested that democracy enables people to fulfil a basic human interest and need to participate in civil and political life. The Inter-Parliamentary Union comment in their Declaration on Criteria for Free and fair Elections ( http://www.ipu.org/english/books.htm): 'Recognising the right of everyone to take part in the government of his or her country is a crucial factor in the effective enjoyment by all of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Democracy is argued to benefit the society as a whole, as dialogue enables relevant issues to be addressed and the best solutions to be found based on informed and considered choices, and those in governance are kept responsible and accountable and under a limited mandate.'
It is argued that democracy increases the chances of peace within a state and with other states - for more information on the Liberal (Kantian) contention that democratic states are less inclined to go to war with one another, see Brown (1996). Democracy is also thought to reduce the likelihood of political repression and to increase the chances of stability and economic growth. Amartya Sen points out one dramatic example of this indivisibility of civil-political and socio-economic rights in identifying that 'no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent democratic country with a relatively free press' (Sen 1999). The American non-governmental organization, Freedom House, in its 2002 global survey concluded 'the GDP of Free countries stood at $26.8 trillion, while the GDP of Not Free countries was $1.7 trillion' ( http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2002.htm).
The European Union comments in its 2000 Communication from the Commission on EU Election Assistance and Observation ( http://europa.eu.int/comm/external_relations/human_rights/eu_election_ass_observ/index.htm ): 'The promotion of genuine democracy and respect for human rights is therefore not only a moral imperative: it is also the determining factor in building sustainable human development and lasting peace. Actions in support of democratization and respect for human rights, including the right to participate in the establishment of governments through free and fair elections, can make a major contribution to peace, security and the prevention of conflicts … [the EU] considers the protection and promotion of human rights as well as support for democratization as corner stones of EU foreign policy and EU development co-operation.' Thus democratic functioning is commonly a fundamental consideration/component of peace agreements, trade arrangements, aid packages, etc.
Holding multi-party elections is an indisputable and concrete requirement of democracy. However, history has many examples of 'elections' which are far from 'free and fair'. Rather than facilitating political participation, such elections may provide a false legitimacy to unrepresentative governments (Serbia in the 1990s being a recent example). Larry Diamond notes that 'the distinction between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism turns crucially on the freedom, fairness, inclusiveness, and meaningfulness of elections' (Diamond 2002).
Elections provide a basic measure of a state's democratic credentials, and thus good elections can acquire value as a means for gaining international validity and standing. Therefore there is a growing emphasis on domestic and foreign observation of elections, in order to provide independent assessment of the legitimacy of the electoral process. This requires thorough examination of a state's laws and practices, using criteria such as independent and politically balanced electoral administration, universal suffrage, the independence of the media, access to campaigning, party organization, transparent procedures, secrecy of the ballot, lack of intimidation, and effective appeals and complaints procedures.
The applicability of democracy
The American political scientist Samuel Huntington has written of democracy's 'third wave', in which, following the recent transition of many countries' political structures, democracy now dominates the global political map (Huntington 1991). Such democratic growth is often taken as evidence that democracy is a universal value with universal benefit. The 2002 Freedom House survey found that:
'The number of countries rated "free" has more than doubled from 30 years ago. The highest-ever proportion of the world's population is living in freedom today.' According to the annual survey, 89 countries are now 'free', up from 43 in 1972. Their inhabitants enjoy a broad range of rights. 56 countries are considered 'partly free', an increase from 38 in 1972. Political rights and civil liberties are more limited in these countries, in which corruption, dominant ruling parties, and, in some cases, ethnic or religious strife are often the norm. The survey finds that 47 countries fall into the 'not free' category, down sharply from 69 in 1972. Inhabitants of these countries are denied basic political rights and civil liberties. 'The dramatic increase in the number of free countries points to the broad and growing appeal of democracy among the world's many peoples and cultures', said Freedom House Co-Vice Chairman Mark Palmer. 'This underscores the universality of democracy and its basic principles, including freedom of speech, religion, and thought', he said. There are 121 electoral democracies in the world today, out of 192 states (63 per cent). In 1987, 66 countries were electoral democracies out of a total of 167 (40 per cent). However, only 89 of today's 121 electoral democracies have an environment in which there is broad respect for human rights and stable rule of law. The remaining democracies fail to provide systematic protection for all basic civil liberties. ( http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2002.htm).
Sen argues that during the twentieth century, 'democracy became established as the 'normal' form of government to which any nation is entitled - whether in Europe, America, Asia or Africa … in the general climate of world opinion, democratic governance has now achieved the status of being taken to be generally right' (Sen 1999).
However, there are criticisms of theories of democracy's 'natural expansion'. Firstly, measurements of democratic functioning are crude and controversial and what one person may qualify as an electoral democracy, may be regarded by another as a competitive authoritarian system, a hegemonic-party system, or a semi-democratic hybrid regime (see Diamond 2002). Secondly, expansion of democracy may be due less to democracy's inherent value and attraction, and may be more to do with the agenda and requirements of Western governments. As Ricardo Blaug and John Schwarzmantel comment: 'there arises the possibility that the ideals of democracy are "universal" merely because the Western liberal-democracies have been so effective in exporting - or imposing - their own values' (Blaug and Schwarzmantel 2000).
In particular, the disproportionately low number of states with Muslim majorities with democratic government raises the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy. The 2002 Freedom House survey comments: 'Despite the lack of progress in large parts of the Islamic world, especially its Arabic core, the survey analysis finds no inexorable link between Islam and political repression. Indeed, it shows that the majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims lives under democratically elected governments, in countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Turkey. The overall lack of progress on democratic reform within specific Muslim countries can be attributed to high degrees of military influence, the persistence of monarchies and personal authoritarianism, and the influence of radical ideologies such as Baathism and jihadist Islamism. All have helped give birth to tyrannical regimes and violent movements in the region' ( http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2002.htm). It is also argued that research 'demonstrates the pitfalls of focusing only on the problems for democracy related to Islam, while neglecting the overall socio-political, military, ethnic, economic, and international contexts' (Stepan 2000).
Analysts, such as Abdou Filali-Ansary identify other reasons for the apparent lack of democratic Muslim states. 'Muslim confrontations with European colonial powers in the nineteenth century gave birth to some great and lasting misunderstandings, as a result of which Muslims have rejected key aspects of modernity (secularization and, to some degree, democratization) as an alienation and a surrender.' Filali-Ansary also argues that democracy now enjoys popularity and prestige within contemporary Muslim societies (Filali-Ansary).
Adrian Karatnycky points out that 'if one examined the political map of the world at the beginning of the 1950s, one might have observed the singular absence of democratic governance in countries with Catholic majorities … Similarly, someone looking at the European political landscape in the late 1980s might have pointed to the fact that the Orthodox Christian states seemed resistant to democratic practice' (Karatnycky 2002).
A recent survey based on 1,890 interviews in Kazakhstan and 1,964 interviews in Kyrgyzstan found people of Muslim faith to be as pro-democracy as other citizens. 'Evidence from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, countries that are geographically close to centres of Islamic fundamentalism, shows that being a Muslim does not make a person more likely either to reject democracy or to endorse dictatorship … In both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there is very little difference between Muslims, the Orthodox, and non-believers … an absolute majority in each category of observance endorses democracy. In short, neither nominal religion nor the degree of religious observance has much influence on democratic values' (Rose 2002).
Such research indicates that democratic interest can be found across cultures. Sen comments that 'As democracy has spread, its adherents have grown, not shrunk.' He also argues that 'A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy … that universal consent is not required for something to be a universal value' (Sen 1999). Thus there is the view that in the twentieth century democracy has become a 'universal commitment'. The following section examines how the right to democratic governance has become enshrined in international law, agreements, and practice.
- Blaug, Ricardo and Schwarzmantel, John (eds), Democracy: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
- Brown, Michael E. (ed.), Debating the Democratic Peace. Boston, MIT Press, 1996.
- Dahl, Robert, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
- Diamond, Larry, 'Elections without Democracy. Thinking About Hybrid Regimes'. Journal of Democracy, vol. 13, no. 2, April 2002. http://www.journalofdemocracy.org
- Filali-Ansary, Abdou, 'Muslims and Democracy'. Journal of Democracy. http://www.journalofdemocracy.org
- Huntington, Samuel, The Third Wave. Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
- Karatnycky, Adrian, 'Muslim Countries and the Democracy Gap'. Journal of Democracy, vol. 13, no. 1, January 2002 http://www.journalofdemocracy.org
- Rose, Richard, 'How Muslims View Democracy: Evidence from Central Asia'. Journal of Democracy, vol. 13, no. 4, October 2002. http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/
- Sen, Amartya, 'Democracy as a Universal Value'. Journal of Democracy, vol. 10, no, 3, July 1999. http://www.journalofdemocracy.org
- Stepan, Alfred, 'Religion, Democracy, and the "Twin Tolerations"'. Journal of Democracy, vol, 11, no. 4, October 2000 http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/