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Democracy: its forms and failings

By Maggie Hall

Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama. Here she considers some of the different forms and qualities of democracy in this bumper year for global elections.

This year is remarkable for the unusually large number of elections taking place globally. At least 76 countries are due to hold national elections, representing more than half of the global population.

When thinking of “democracy”, most of us, at least in the West, think of a system of government mandated by the people by means of free and fair elections. The recent so-called “democratic” election in Russia, which surprised no one in returning Vladimir Putin to presidential office, illustrates how loosely that definition may be interpreted. A state which holds elections may consider that it is entitled to call itself a democracy, even though the “free and fair” element is not very apparent.

There are a surprising number of political systems that may be described as democratic. They all seek a mandate from the people, most by means of elected representatives as in the UK, Europe and the US, for example. However, there are also examples of “Direct Democracy”, where the population votes directly on specific issues of policy without the intervention of representatives. This kind of democracy has its roots in antiquity (see my article in the April 2021 edition of Humanistically Speaking, pp17), the earliest well-documented example being in Athens in the fifth century BCE.

Direct democracies divide into several sub-categories of systems that can be applied nationally or locally. The best-known national direct democracy is Switzerland, which is a participatory democracy, using a rigorous system of referendums. These are held on a wide range of issues: local, cantonal and national. Certain constitutional changes and international treaties require a national vote and all laws proposed by the legislature may be subject to a referendum. Swiss citizens may also propose a constitutional amendment or the removal of an existing provision, known as a popular initiative, whereby a target of 100,000 signatures must be received on a petition for the proposal to go to a ballot.

Even in countries with a representative form of national government there are often more direct forms of democracy at local level. In the New England region of the United States, towns in some states decide local affairs through a direct democratic procedure known as the town meeting, the oldest form of direct democracy in the United States. However, the original founding fathers were not in favour of direct democracy, fearing the “tyranny of the majority”. James Maddison, who later served as the fourth President (1809-1817), in his essay known as Federalist No. 10, the tenth of the Federalist Papers series of essays published in 1787, opined that: “[A] pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

A form of direct democracy which has been used in recent times at national, regional and local government level, and by some other bodies, is the Citizens' Assembly (discussed in more detail by John Coss in this edition). They are being used with increasing frequency in the UK, especially by local government, but have also been established at national level and by the devolved administrations. They are an example of democratic decision-making via sortition, a method of appointing participants by random representative selection. There are indications that the Labour Party may set up a number of citizens' assemblies if they form the next government.

Illiberal Democracies

Representative democracies vary enormously as to their efficacy. Some, like Putin’s Russia, for instance, where all his serious political opponents are either in prison, exiled or dead, would seem quite undeserving of the name.

I happened to be in India in 2014 during the election in which Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Unfortunately, my lack of Hindi prevented my following all the political ranting that seemed to be happening on TV, but even so, watching various middle-aged and older Indian men (no women that I can remember) and particularly Modi himself holding forth, along with what I read in the English language press, made me feel very uneasy about a possible victory by the BJP, a party which champions Hindutva, an ideology that privileges the Hindu majority over religious minorities, thus undermining a basic principle of democracy, the equality of all citizens. Early on in his premiership, the country’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, saw mass violence and killings of Muslims by Hindus, who accused them, in most cases falsely, of cow-killing. The state’s judicial system, headed by enthusiastic Hindu partisans, failed to prosecute any of the perpetrators. Modi was re-elected in 2019 and his party has continued to degrade the channels of secular democracy mandated by the Indian constitution, harassing the free press and revoking the special status written into the constitution for India’s sole Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir. 

Quality of democracies

The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index measures the quality of democracies across the

world. It groups them under four main categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

Year 2023

Full democracies

Full democracies are defined as those which respect and enforce fundamental political freedom and civil liberties, with a well-functioning system of government subject to governmental checks and balances, an independent judiciary and an independent media. The UK is ranked as a full democracy, with a ranking above France and Spain but below Germany.

Flawed democracies

Flawed democracies are defined as nations which hold free and fair elections and uphold civil liberties, but where there are such problems as interference with media freedom, some suppression of opposition and critics, low level of participation in politics and unsound functioning of governance. In 2017, the United States was downgraded to a flawed democracy. 50 democracies are currently listed in the Index as flawed.

Hybrid regimes

There are some regimes which combine elements of democracy and autocracy. For instance, so-called democratic elections are held but never result in a change of power (Russia again), all media broadcast the government’s point of view and the opposition party votes with the ruling party. Often, hybrid regimes are in the process of transitioning from a democracy to an autocracy, or vice versa. The index lists 34 hybrid regimes. The Democracy Index defines hybrid regimes as having the following characteristics:

  • Electoral fraud or irregularities occur regularly

  • Pressure is applied to political opposition

  • Corruption is widespread and the rule of law tends to be weak

  • Media is pressured and harassed

  • There are issues in the functioning of governance

Authoritarian regimes

These are nations where there is little or no political pluralism, often dictatorships or absolute monarchies. If elections take place at all they are not fair or free or are merely sham elections. The media is likely to be state-owned or controlled indirectly by the ruling regime. There is no independent judiciary and opposition or criticism is commonly suppressed. Censorship is common. 59 nations are classified by the Index as authoritarian regimes.

The website introduction to the latest EIU Democracy Index, published in 2023, describes last year as “an inauspicious year for democracy with the average global score falling to its lowest level since the index began in 2006. Less than 8% of the world’s population live in a full democracy, while almost 40% live under authoritarian rule – a share that has been creeping up in recent years. The increasing incidence of violent conflict has badly dented the global democracy score and prevented a recovery after the pandemic years of 2020-22”.

The full report is downloadable from the EIU website (see below). It makes interesting, if depressing reading. In the section headed “What to Watch in 2024: an election bonanza”, the report says “…Based on the number of elections and potential voters, 2024 will be the biggest election year since the advent of universal suffrage”. But it also warns, “Whether this voting extravaganza will bring more democracy is another matter”. Not an observation that exactly fills one with optimism.

References and further reading

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