Democracy, a form of government in which people are given the privilege to choose their government legislators, guarantees human rights and an independent judiciary. Seen as a way of fair judgement, many countries such as Iceland, Finland, New Zealand and plenty others, have begun to integrate democracy into their nations.
History of Democracy
The concept of democracy is believed to have originated from Athens, Greece in 508 BC. However, there has been exceptional evidence proving that the democratic system of government may have been implied long before that time, in other parts of the world, but on a smaller scale.
In Athens, a noble by the name of Solon had laid down the foundation for democracy, furthermore introducing a new constitution based on the ownership of property. Solon did this by wholly eliminating debt slavery and dividing Athenians into four separate classes. Majority of the offices had been restricted from entering the upper class, with the lowest class having virtually no official role.
Though Solon had set the layout of democracy for the people of Athens, it would be exceptionally inaccurate to label him a democrat. Yes, he had helped the people, by implying structure within their society, but he was fundamentally aristocratic — an individual who belongs to aristocracy, people of the upper class, such as nobles. Ultimately, the conflict amongst the four classes had grown so strong, it led Athens to the brink of a civil war. This was the downfall of Solon’s constitution.
The Athenian leader, Cleisthenes, stepped up in order to guide the people, furthering democracy, and instituting the new constitution called the “demokratia” or in other terms “rule of the people”. This system became renowned as the world’s first known democracy.
The Spread of Democracy Around The World
In the past two decades, there has been an astronomical spread in the implementation of democracy all around the world, fluctuating from just 44 democratic countries as of 1985 to 140 countries amongst 200 as of the year 2000.
A notable part of the explanation is that the majority of the main alternatives to democracy, whether of ancient or modern descent, have suffered political, economic, diplomatic, and military failures, thus heavily lessening the appeal of these non-democratic systems. For instance, with the victory of the Allies in World War 1, the ancient system of monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy ceased to be real. Following the defeat of the Italian and German military in World War 2, the new alternative of facism had been significantly discredited. Similar failures had contributed to the eventual disappearance of the military dictatorship in Latin America.
As the economic wellbeing, especially of large segments of the world’s population, has greatly enhanced throughout the years, the likelihood of newly democratic institutions flourishing and succeeding has highly increased as well. Overall, the widespread prosperity of the economy in a country greatly increases the chances that the democratic governments will succeed, whereas widespread poverty would substantially increase the chances of the country’s failure.
There are 2 main ways in which modern democracy differs from early democracies. Firstly, there is now a greater emphasis on the election of leaders compared to the past. In modern democracy, rather than obligating leaders to frequently seek popular input, such as in the early democracies, the people have now chosen to elect government leaders for a certain period, then allow them to govern and finally decide whether or not they should be reelected to administer the state once again.
Secondly, through broad suffrage, as time has passed, democracy has extended its rights of political participation to marginalised groups such as women and those without property. Modern democracy has come to mean that all adult citizens are obligated to have the right of political participation.
According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy is made of 4 main elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections, having active participation of the people as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens, and the rule of law, in which laws and procedures apply to all citizens equally.
Holding free, fair and frequent elections is mandatory to sustain a democracy. In addition, democracy requires effective ongoing citizen participation and political equality of citizens, such as in voting procedures, where we need to apply the principle of one vote, one person.
“A healthy democracy requires equality, accommodation, mutual regard among citizens, dissent, and consent.”
Advocates of democracy value education, particularly civic education, the study of theoretical, political and practical aspects of citizenship, as well as its rights and duties. Also, as having an enlightened understanding of the citizenry, these are critical criteria for a democracy.
Citizens can acquire a civic education while engaging in public discussions, debates, deliberations and controversies. However, it is not good for a democracy, when its people shun public engagement with fellow citizens on matters of public policy and when they do not seek to gain access to contrasting sources for information when thinking of alternative public policies.
Is Democracy Really Democratic?
Over the years, it has become conventional to associate democracy with being a good, if not the best, government system, that secures the power of the people. However, no government system is flawless. What are the threats that are causing an overall decline in democracy in our world today? And more importantly, is democracy really democratic?
To seek answers to these questions, allow us to delve further into the threats to democracy. In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman broke down the propaganda model of communication in their book Manufacturing Consent. To put it simply, the information that citizens receive through mass media is regularly filtered and selected to present only what the political and corporate elites want the public to know. Ultimately, most citizens consent to the status quo, one which has been manufactured by the people in power. Therefore, how are we supposed to discuss or vote on things that are not even disclosed to us in the first place?
As we are on the topic of the media, another increasingly notable threat to democracy is the rise of the digital age. With the rapid advancement of technology comes the existence of e-democracies, where democracies use information technology in governmental procedures. While this may encourage greater participation in important processes, like the prospect of e-voting, this poses several threats. As the Internet is an open space for dissemination of news, the spread of misinformation can greatly undermine democratic institutions, amplify online hate speech that represses the individual’s voice, and much more. On a personal note, what could be the most detrimental downside is how the digital divide will hurt participative democracy, as those with the insufficient technology would not be able to raise their voices about certain views.
Another activity that questions the authenticity of democracy is lobbying. Lobbying is an attempt made by an interest group to influence decision-makers in government. Such actions are prevalent in many countries, especially in the UK, the USA and Australia, where lobbying has become a multi-billion dollar industry. It is undeniably true that lobbying can be used by NGOs, interest groups and trade unions to press for political change for the betterment of the citizens. However, the implications of lobbying are clear: it more often than not causes an unfair representation of ideas and thus undermines the voices of citizens who are not given the opportunity to participate in decision-making. Democracy calls for the participation of the public as a whole, and lobbying contradicts this aim almost altogether.
The term ‘gerrymandering’ may sound familiar to some, and this is common practice in several democracies, such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. Gerrymandering means to manipulate the boundaries of electoral districts, a move made to benefit political parties. Politicians draw new lines to benefit their own parties by getting a majority of their voters in as many districts as possible. This greatly affects electoral results, for example in the USA, where the newly drawn districts shifted 59 seats in the House of Representatives during the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections. It makes us question yet again if such a move is beneficial to us (the people), or to them (the party)?
These are only a fraction of the practices threatening democracy. From this, it’s clear to see that democracy might not be as democratic as we make it out to be.
The Prominence of Pro-Democracy Movements Across the Years
The recent years have witnessed a surge in pro-democracy movements worldwide, for example in Hong Kong, Algeria, Thailand, Myanmar and more. As Larry Diamond puts it:
“We’ve not seen anything like this in decades, and we don’t know where it’s heading. We don’t know how serious it is.”
The situation is indeed alarming, and its implications can shed light on where democracy is moving towards.
For instance, one of the most notable fights for democracy in recent times would be the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The citizens, who were against an extradition bill being signed that would hand China more power over Hong Kong, began to protest in 2019. Across the expanse of two years, peaceful protests conformed into violence as police cracked down on the demonstrations. At the end of February 2021, as many as 47 democracy advocates were charged with violating national security law, and as of March 2021, new measures for the country’s electoral system have been imposed by China, creating a major electoral shakeup for Hong Kong and leaving the promises of democracy in tatters.
This comes at a time when Myanmar is facing an increasingly violent fight against the military, and the pro-democracy movement in Thailand is losing momentum with at least a hundred activists arrested by the authorities. Overall, it is a steep, uphill battle in the fight for democracy.
What we can take away from these protests is this: democracy is fragile. All the strength and effort put into building up and sustaining democracy can be crushed under the foot of any political party that chooses an authoritative approach in their positions of power. Still, from this we can learn that we must always stay resilient in the face of adversity, to protect our rights and our freedoms. Democracy is fragile, vulnerable even, but it can be saved — so long as we stand together.
“The idea that democracy itself is always vulnerable, that it has been and can be lost, should awaken us all from our political slumber. This awakening can become creatively efficacious when our grief for what has been and could be lost motivates us to deepen the democracy that remains, to extend and enliven it by practicing it more fully, wherever and whoever we are. Resilient democracy is a theory of democracy for an uncertain world.”
The Future of Democracy
It can well be said that the mask of democracy is shattering. It is also interesting to tie this in with the global effects of Covid-19. Against the background of a pandemic, democratic nations have increasingly turned to not-so-democratic actions in attempts to curb the impact of the pandemic, or to even make use of it in the government’s own favour.
As we are entering the 15th consecutive year of deterioration in worldwide freedom, we begin to question the future of democracy. Can a true democracy ever be attained and sustained? Or will we be left rocking on the high seas and eventually overturned by the tide of a government system that might choke us of our freedom?
On a personal note, we strongly believe that a true democracy, which guarantees the rights of every individual and gives everyone an equal, unbiased voice, may never be achieved; if it ever did, it would be deeply subjected to tyranny and fragility. We think it’s necessary for us all to realise that democracy is not equal to perfection, and never will be.
Yet, we must also remember that democracy offers us what other government systems do not: freedom. Freedom in voting in elections, freedom in participating in political and civic rights, freedom of using our voices to address issues pertaining to our countries for a better future, for generations to come. Democracy is not doomed, for it has remained resilient in several countries. For example, in Malawi, judges made a democratic move to change the electoral system after their incumbent president had won the rigged elections and protests had consequently broken out across the nation in 2020. After a rerun, the opposition presidential candidate Lazarus Chakwera won the elections fair and square.
“Democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated. Its enduring popularity in a more hostile world and its perseverance after a devastating year are signals of resilience that bode well for the future of freedom.”
Only time can tell where the future of democracy lies. We may hold our misgivings about this flawed system, but we can stay optimistic that democracy can be maintained in our world of today, tomorrow and the future.
[Written by Stefanie and Chien Wen]