Growing up, we were always presented democracy as a golden system of governance, a free and fair system that empowers people, in sharp contrast to archaic monarchies or brutal dictatorships. Yet, we see countries across the world that have a democratic system give way to chaos, social, political and economic unrest and a general feeling of restlessness. Has the democratic experiment of the world failed?
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Literally meaning the rule of people, democracy is a system of governance wherein all eligible people exercise power, usually through their elected representatives. It has been an understanding that as a middle class emerges – created through wealth, education and other civic amenities – they would demand greater social and political rights, thereby creating and maintaining this system. In 2005, more than half of the world’s population was under a democracy for the first time.
Nicholas Maduro (Source- AFP)
Yet, many countries seem to have been heading away from democracy post this supposedly golden time of 2005. Many elected leaders have turned autocratic (such as Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela), and coups d’état continue to happen (such as the one which shifted the balance of power in Thailand). And not all of these happen without public approval. Though Western media continues to label Russia as non-democratic and criticize the Putin administration, the current Russian government is usually perceived positively within the country, and only 16% of Russians stated that democracy was important in a study conducted by International Policy Attitudes.
Why are democracies failing across the world, and is this failure in turn making the world less free?
A major pattern noticed across countries is that when popularly elected leaders slide into autocratic rules, people end up supporting non-democratic means to oust them from power rather than to engage in democratic, ballot-based warfare. Analyst David Silverman found through data collected from the Middle East, Latin America and Asia that majority of military coups have the support of urban middle classes during the agitation, and post the coups’ success.
Here comes a more simple understanding of human behaviour. When a democratically elected leader fails to deliver, or worse, becomes power-grasping, the faith not only leaves him/her, but also the system under which they came to power. Seeking quick change, relief of political, social and economic problems, and hoping to put and end to protests and chaos, many end up supporting non-democratic means.
Democracies are also often facades for, or end up facing severe restriction and opposition from, social elites. A number of political analysts believe that democracies are only an illusion that hides the oligarchies of wealth that control the government. Ample evidence of this can be found in many places, including America.
Minorities also find it had to secure adequate representation. The simplification of democracy to ‘majority rules’ means that they often remain marginalized and unheard. Special reservations for them in the system often invite protests and criticisms from the majority. This majority-minority conflict is also just one of the many factors that contribute to the instability of democracy, the other major factor being the periodic shifts of power. Even when a single party holds power for a long time, media and the public and make seismic changes.
Even the international arena has become incapable of maintaining or promoting democracy. China’s economic power means that political pressure is not easy to apply, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons deter not just military action, but also ideological shifts.
But perhaps the greatest flaw of democracy, and the one that contributes to its failure, is that makes certain assumptions about the world that simply don’t (and possibly can’t) exist. A rational vote, who votes with complete information and solely on the basis of facts. An educated public that has uniformity in opinions about what constitutes development and public good. A slight influence of the naïve idea that economic and social factors cannot corrupt the process of choosing one’s leaders.
Considered to be the world’s largest democratic experience, India in itself offers a compelling case study. Free and fair elections have been held since its independence in 1947, and the results have been by and large accepted, even by the losing parties. Peaceful transition of power took place despite sudden vacancies of position, and the movement of the country through Emergency and Congress dominance to a multi-party coalition system is a testament of its evolving governance structure. Yet at the same time we continue to face communalism and regionalism, the influence of powerful economic forces and clout of elites, and the general restlessness that comes with unfulfilled potential.
Democracy as a system may not have failed yet, but it has surely let people down. Where the fault lies is a matter of a case-by-case analysis, and subjective opinions.