“Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Winston Churchill’s well-known quote from his speech before the British House of Commons in 1947 hits the nail on the head. We often, and rightly, criticise democratic structures but would we really want a different system? Populists promise alternatives and have managed to gain electoral successes across Europe. Politicians from across the spectrum accuse each other of being undemocratic. Is democracy really under threat?
Only 4.5 percent of us live in a “full democracy”. Everyone else, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, lives in a “flawed democracy”, “hybrid regime” or “authoritarian regime”. This Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. According to the index in 2018, Norway was the most democratic country in the world, while North Korea ranked last. The picture for Western European democracies is also mixed, with the democracies in countries such as France, Belgium and Italy classified as “flawed”.
What do our readers think? Reader Zorica believes that democracy is about more than just elections. She’s not worried that European countries will give up holding democratic elections – it’s the other bits of democracy she’s worried about. Is she right to be concerned?
We asked Anna Lührmann, Deputy Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute and Assistant Professor at the University of Gothenburg:
Yes, totally. This is clearly what our research shows. There are more and more countries holding multi-party elections, particularly in Europe but also in other parts of the world, even improving parts of the elections such as registration and the technicalities around it.
What is under attack is everything that makes these elections meaningful. When I say that I mean really, really important civil liberties such as the freedom to express oneself, to get information that is pluralistic and has a variety of different perspectives, the freedom to form associations, to demonstrate and to criticize the government. We see that this is under attack in several European countries, such as Hungary and Poland. We also see varying tendencies in the quality of the public debate. The debate becomes much less respectful in many European countries.
For another perspective, we also posed Zorica’s questions to Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish MEP:
Democracy is about more than just elections. It’s about day-to-day planning, decision making, policy formation, strategic development and so on. To me, democracy is very important but it isn’t altogether perfect. One could ask the question, like Zorica, of whether it is under threat at this particular time. To my mind, we do see the rise in extremist parties and populism and that does lead to some concerns, particularly around the rhetoric that we see in the media. At the same time, we hear a lot about the rise in citizens activism – ground-up, grassroot lead activism. I find that very heartening because that’s where you see citizens engaging.
I think the role of the European Union is to engage with citizens, to create a platform so that democracy is strengthened. Sometimes I think that with the rise in populism, it’s the fear-mongering that closes people’s minds. We have to have open engagement and recognise that we’re living in a global economy. We need people to engage and when people are engaged in voting, they have an expectation that they want something back.
It’s therefore important for the elected members, be it on a local level, a council level, a national level or a European level, that we, the public representatives, are seen as people who are available to engage with the citizens, in order to promote and strengthen democracy. We are living in this big global, shared world so it’s really important that we have a strong, democratic system and the European Union, to my mind, is that but it needs to be protected and minded and the citizens need to feel that they can engage with it.
Is democracy threatened in Europe? Are free elections sufficient for a functioning democracy or do we need more? Should, for example, public debate be conducted more respectfully? Tell us what you think and we will take your comments to politicians to answer.