Democracy, yes or no?

By Mahira Qadeer Khan

Governance refer to structures and processes that are designed to ensure accountability, transparency, responsiveness, rule of law, stability, equity and inclusiveness, empowerment, and broad-based participation. Governance also represents the norms, values and rules of the game through which public affairs are managed in a manner that is transparent, participatory, inclusive and responsive. Governance therefore can be subtle and may not be easily observable.  In a broad sense, governance is about the culture and institutional environment in which citizens and stakeholders interact among themselves and participate in public affairs. It is more than the organs of the government.

International agencies such as UNDP, the World Bank, the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and others define governance as the exercise of authority or power in order to manage a country’s economic, political and administrative affairs. The 2009 Global Monitoring Report sees governance as ‘power relationships’, ‘formal and informal processes of formulating policies and allocating resources’, ‘processes of decision-making’ and ‘mechanisms for holding governments accountable.’

Democracy and Dictatorship are two types of governance over a nation. Both show difference in terms of their methodology and perception. There are lots of salient differences between the two notions. It is just about the distribution of power and who holds it.

Democracy is said to be the purest form of government. Democracies are elected by the majority of the people. It is based on the idea that all citizens are equal and treated the same under the law. This form of government is made by people, hence they have the right to choose what laws to create, implement and enact. People can also keep and manage their own property. Democracy is more about letting people make choices which are better for them and not someone else. This government displays more of a freer society with options. This helps people to create changes and social reforms, so that the majority can be happy.

Today,  for  the  first time  in history,  there  are  more  democratic  states  than  non-democratic  states.   Indeed,  some  view  the  rise of democracy  as perhaps the most  important  event  to  have  transpired in the  20th  century. The 2001 – 2002 survey  of  Freedom House—Freedom in the  World— reports that about 65 percent of the world’s population lives in free or partly  free states that afford  their  citizens some  degree  of  basic rights  and civil liberties. The  Survey  also showed that of the  world’s 192  countries, 121 (63 percent) were “electoral democracies”. This is significant change  from 1987 when only  66 out of 167 countries (40 percent) were in this category. The Freedom  House survey  goes on to  point out that human  liberty  has steadily expanded throughout the  20th  century  and,  “when  viewed from the perspective of the  century  as  a whole, democracy  and  civil liberties have made important and dramatic progress.” The United Nations studies  show that since 1980, “81 countries have taken significant steps in democratization, with 53 military regimes replaced by civilian governments”. Globalization has been an important  factor  in  accelerating  democracy’s  growth  in  recent  years but  it  has also created as many  challenges as it has addressed.  In  a globalized world, the rapid development and global proliferation of new technologies and telecommunications, and integration of the world economy  through  trade and investment, have  increased  the  role  and power  of  regional  and  global institutions  that do not have to respond to the democratic control of  citizens.

Scholars  have pointed out that older,  Western democracies tended to have  three  things  in their  favor that  facilitated both transition to and consolidation of democracy.   These were  economic prosperity  and  equality (enhanced by  early  industrialization); a modern and diversified social structure in which a  middle class plays  a  primary  role; and  a  national  culture  that  tolerates  diversity  and prefers accommodation. Today,  however, many  countries—particularly  in the developing  world—are struggling  to consolidate  democracies born out of  popular revolutions that reflect the will of  the people, but in very  poor  and sometimes ethnically  divided  countries  where the pre-conditions of the older democracies do  not prevail. This is not to say  that  democracy  is inapplicable  to these  newer transitions.

Indeed, as Safty points out “from Poland  to Yemen,  from  Bulgaria  to Taiwan  (province), from Mauritius to Guatemala,  and  from Albania to Nigeria, democratization seemed  to respond to a universal human  yearning  for  freedom and life with dignity,  undiminished by  our  cultural diversity  and ethnic differences.” It  is merely  to point out, rather, that newer democracies face many challenges their older siblings  did not and to point out the fact that, indeed, democracy  has proven to be a  flexible and adaptable system under a variety  of  circumstances.  Guiseppe di Palma  lists  four aspects that  he feels influence the success of a modern democratic  transition.   These are: the quality  of  the finished product (the democratic rules and  institutions  that are chosen);  the  mode  of  decision making  leading  to the  selection of  rules and institutions (i.e., pacts and negotiations versus  unilateral action); the  type  of  alliances  and coalitions forged  during  the transition; and the  timing  imposed  on the  various tasks and stages  of  the  transition.xxiii

On a related issue, simply  because  a democracy  is  old does not  mean that  it  is  any  more  likely  to be stable or permanent. Przeworski found that “it  is not  true that democracy  is more likely  to be around if it has been around a long  time,” rather  sustainability  is more  a  function of  income and human  development having  improved, and the  stakes  in the  process having  risen over  time.   In  addition, long-established democracies face their own unique challenges.  In  consolidated democracies, there  is  a  growing trend  of  apathy  and disillusionment among  voters, particularly the  young,  with respect  to politics whereas in  emerging  democracies  voter turnout tends  to be high  and many  democratic movements are led  by  youth. A 1999 survey by The Economist found that in 11 of 12 established democracies, public confidence  in  political leaders  and institutions has declined  steadily  over the  past few decades. Similarly,  in her 1999  book, Pippa Norris found that  that there is  an “increased tension between democratic values, which seem  to have  triumphed  across the  globe,  and …  the  erosion of  confidence  in the institutions of representative democracy.”

Democracy,  therefore, is  “a  form  of  governance  of  a state”  and becomes  consolidated  in political  situations where  it is “the  only  game  in town”  i.e. those competing  for power play  by  its rules. There are as many  different  permutations of the definition of democracy  as there are paths to achieving  it. Despite  the  many  differences  in how  democracy  is  defined—be  it in maximalist or minimalist terms, or be it in terms of institutions, processes or  outcomes—one can  argue  that there are two fundamental  underlying  rationales of  democracy—namely, that all people are  equal (equality)  and that all people are free  (liberty).

Different scholars have  come up  with different  answers  to the question  of whether democracy stimulates economic growth or vice versa. Adam Przeworski and Fernando  Limongi conclude that they  “do not know  whether democracy  fosters or hinders economic growth.” On his own and more  recently, Przeworski has said that  while  the  jury  is still out on  whether  democracies generate  economic  development  or vice versa, “democracies are much more likely  to  survive in wealthy  societies.” Robert Kaplan, on  the other  hand, concludes that certain prerequisites are needed in a society  before democracy  can take root, including  a certain level of employment, economic  stability  and  civil peace. As he  put it,  “Africans  wanted  a better  life  and  have instead been  given the  right to vote.”

In  Kaplan’s  view,  economic  development first will increase  the chances that  a  democracy  will be  sustainable.   Still other  scholars, such  as  Tom Carothers, aver  that  political  and  economic  development are synergistic and must not  be artificially  separated or sequenced. The argument for “sequencing”  is seen  by  many  as  artificial and nothing  more  than  a  thin veil  for authoritarianism.  According  to this view, it is the poor, and indeed all citizens of  a society,  who must decide whether they  prefer to eat or to vote or to do  both.  This  is a choice that they  and no one else  can make.  And it is only  through the exercise  of democracy  that  such  a choice  can be  made. While it is often claimed that authoritarian regimes are better at bringing  about economic development, comprehensive statistical analyses  do not back up this hypothesis. First,  as Przeworski found, wide-ranging  statistical  analyses  confirm  that no linkage  can be  drawn between  authoritarian regimes and  economic development.  Second, the recent economic crises in South East Asia proved that poor governance  and lack of accountability  and transparency  can derail economic progress. And third, even if non-democratic  governance were proven to promote economic growth, democratic  governance  has an intrinsic human  development value in that it enables political and social participation.  This is because human development is a measure  of  far  more than just  economic  well-being.   It  is  a process  of enhancing  human capabilities in a  way  that  expands choice  and participation. In  this way,  democracy  and its values go  to the very  heart of human development.   Indeed, as Amartya  Sen has pointed out, “since  democracy  and political  liberty  have  importance  in themselves, the  case  for  them  remains untarnished.”

Amartya  Sen has long  argued  that poverty  should  be defined in terms of  capabilities absolutely and in terms of  commodities only  relatively.   This  shifts the  focus then  from what  people have  to what they  can do.   In  other words, “people are poor when they  can do less and they  can do it less well… Poverty  is  in one  sense  a lack  of  capacity  to achieve well being.” By  defining poverty in terms of the inability  to  choose, to participate or  to have  a voice  in decisions that affect one’s life,  as  well as  in terms  of  material  wealth, bolstering the  human  rights inherent in democratic systems is an obvious means towards poverty  alleviation.  The democratic process  is superior, Dahl points out,  in three different ways.  First, the democratic process promotes individual and collective freedom better than  any  other alternative regime; second, it promotes human development, in the capacity  for  moral autonomy  and personal responsibility  for one’s choices; and third, the democratic process, though not perfect, is the best way  by  which people can protect  and advance  their  common interests and  goods.liii   In short, while  it  may  be  unclear  whether  democratic  governance  enhances  economic  growth, it is. The democratic process  is superior, Dahl points out,  in three different ways.

First, the democratic process promotes individual and collective freedom better than any other alternative regime; second, it promotes human development, in the capacity  for  moral autonomy  and personal responsibility  for one’s choices; and third, the democratic process, though not perfect, is the best way  by  which people can protect  and advance  their  common interests and  goods. In short, while  it  may  be  unclear  whether  democratic  governance  enhances  economic  growth, it is clear  that democratic  governance  enhances human development.  Thus,  to explore the merits democratic  governance  from the  perspective  of  economic  growth alone  is to miss the  forest for the tree. Flowing  from the above is  the lesson that poverty  alleviation strategies can  only  be sustained  and effective in the long  term  where the  affected  group is involved at all levels of the decision making  process.   Although  many  types of  regimes including  non-democratic ones—such  as present-day  Cuba or Chile under Pinochet—have  been able to reduce poverty  in the short-term, they  have not  been able  to  sustain such efforts.   This  can only  be done  through the  effective participation of the poor in decisions that affect their lives, and this  participation is most completely  realized  through democratic  regimes. This lesson has been reinforced  with many  examples from developing  countries themselves.

In Thailand, for example, local communities are planning  their own development projects and mobilizing  their own resources to bring  them to fruition.  In  Bangladesh,  entire villages, rather than just “the poor” segments, are mobilized to  combat poverty  through home-grown collective projects.   In  Bulgaria, local civil society  organizations have trained unemployed  workers in harvesting  and  other  skills. These  are all  examples of local  government  structures  and civil society  organizations, operating  through the principles of democratic  governance, directly impacting  on the  quality  of  life  of  disadvantaged  communities. Even though  democracy  is not a “cure  all” for  human development  and  poverty  alleviation, it holds more potential for  achieving  these  goals than any  other system of government. Democracy creates opportunities and  enhances capabilities of the poor and underprivileged. As such, it has an intrinsic human  development value.   Moreover, most stable democracies tend to  have  lower levels of poverty,  and, on  the flip side, democracies that let their citizens remain in protracted poverty  tend to be short-lived.

Democratic  governance  has three distinct  advantages over  authoritarian regimes. First, democracies are  better  able  to manage  conflicts  and avoid violent political  change  because they provide opportunities for  the people to participate  in the political process of  the country. Second, democracies are better  able  to  avoid threats to  human survival  because  the checks by  the opposition parties, uncensored criticism of public policies and the  fear  of being  voted out of office. Third, democracies lead to  greater  awareness of social  development  concerns including health, primary  health care  and rights of  women and minorities. In  the aftermath of the  September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, a debate is taking place in the United States and indeed  the whole world about the determinants of the rise of extremist and fundamentalist movements within  some of the  Islamic countries. Though the causes of  national  and international terrorism are  highly  complex,  one of  the predominant  views being  expressed is that  the  lack  of  effective  democratic  institutions and processes in many  of  the muslim countries leads  to exclusion and foster  extremist organizations because their  members do not have  adequate opportunities to participate  in  the political process in the country.  The 2001-2002 survey  by  the  Freedom House, for example, showed the “democracy  deficit” in the  Islamic World, especially  in the  Arab Region.

The concept of governance like, Democracy is overrated as mentioned below. Democracy was introduced into Russia without any adequate protection for human rights. And many human rights were protected in 19th Century Britain long before the emergence of anything that we would call democracy. In the Middle East today, we find parties standing for election, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which regards an electoral victory as the opportunity to crush dissent and impose a way of life that for many citizens is simply unacceptable. In such circumstances democracy is a threat to human rights and not a way of protecting them.

And the lessons that they learned need to be learned again today, as our politicians lead us forth under the banner of democracy, without pausing to examine what democracy actually requires.

Mahira Qadeer Khan is a lecturer at the University of London 

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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