When thinking about democracy, it is a common perception that we tend to think of an ultimately ideal governance system. It is, in essence, practical; everybody in a country has a say of what goes on in a country and how it will go on. Authoritarian power is limited and the people determine the direction a country is headed in. When looking at a big proportion of the world’s biggest industry titans, such as Japan and the United States to name a few, we find that those countries are democracies as well.
Hence, democracy is commonly attached to the stigma of being the better governance system and this leads us to wonder why some countries remain non-democratic. What possible reasons and factors could hold certain countries back from embracing democracy? Can these reasons and factors be changed and modified accordingly so that non-democratic can in fact, eventually turn into democracies? This essay aims to evaluate and discuss the sentiment that every country could be a democracy. In addition to this, this essay also aims to evaluate the feasibility of a country’s ability to maintain democracy after obtaining it.
It is first helpful to explore what democracy truly entails. Democracy is a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. A common characteristic in all democracies is existence of an election; whereby citizens of the country can exercise their rights to express their preferred choice of political actors. However, this is not the only characteristic, as the study of political science has made expansive research on how a democracy is actually determined. For instance, The Democracy-Dictatorship Measure by Cheibub, Gandhi and Vreeland (2010) serves as a dichotomous measure of where a country stands in terms of its system of governance. A country is a democracy if it elects its chief executive, if it elects it’s legislature, if there is more than one party competing in the elections as well as if alternation in power has taken place. More popularly is the use of the Polity IV score, which is calculated by subtracting a country’s Democracy score to its Autocracy score (democracies generally score a +6 to a +10). Different countries practice democracy differently; for instance, some democracies practice a parliamentary system, whereas others adopt a presidential system, but in the end, the power is in the people.
To evaluate the feasibility of all countries becoming and remaining democratic, we have to analyse certain controversial factors and opinions that have been brought up by political scientists around the globe. Some political scientists do not hold on to the opinion that all countries could become democracies. This is because of factors such as culture and religion that are thought to reduce the probability of a country becoming democratic. Why this is so is because of the perception that democracy just is not suited for certain cultures and religions and in extension, the lifestyles of people who practice them. Certain scholars hold primordialist arguments that treat culture and religion as something that is objective and inherited. This basically means that cultures and religions are unable to go through any form of modernization that allows to it adopt democracy. In relation to this, Almond and Verba conducted an interesting research on the existence of a particular “political culture”, in particular, a civic culture. A civic culture reflects a cluster of attitudes that include the belief on the part of individuals that they can influence political decisions, positive feelings toward the political system, high levels of interpersonal trust and preferences for gradual societal change. Almond and Verba believed that for a country to be democratic, its citizens needed to have a civic culture. Besides this, there are also arguments that state that specific religions just do not have the ideal grounds for democracy. Take Islam for example; it is believed that the rules and ideals in Islamic culture is incompatible with the ideals of a democratic nation. For instance, Islam’s obdurate unequal treatment of women (Fish 2002; Norris and Inglehart 2004). In Islam, men as husbands and as fathers are generally dominant figures. This culture and way of life is believed by some to create a culture more suited to authoritarianism. There are also claims that the social marginalization of women leaves the respective Muslim society more susceptible to dictatorship as men hold attitudes that are more conducive to domination.
On the other hand, it is important to note that this point is not entirely true. Culture and religion do not entirely stop certain countries from adopting democracy. In the case of Islam, although it possesses elements that are incompatible with democracy, Islam was also one of the first religions to practice the shura, which is when the Messenger of Allah consults with his people with regards to Earthly matters. Islamic concepts such as ijma (consensus of the community) and ijtihad (reinterpretation) also can be said to provide a basis for Islamic forms of parliamentary governance, representative elections, as well as religious reform. (Esposito 2003).
Another factor that can be taken into consideration when observing the sentiment that every country could be a democracy is the factor of a country’s history. This refers to a country’s personal favourable or unfavourable history and experience with democratic practices. Case in point is countries such as Turkey and Peru, which both have undergone unfavourable history in regard to democratic proceedings. Turkey for instance, underwent a tumultuous road to the multi-party democracy that it was today. Peru on the other hand, transitioned to democracy from a period of strong military rule. Conversely, Switzerland serves as an example of a country that went through a favourable period of history. Switzerland is known to have democratic historical, cultural and civil societal backgrounds because of its ability to incorporate citizen’s rights into its governance from the 1830s.
One of the ways a country’s past history affects its ability to become democratic and sustain democracy is because of the lack of institutional framework left behind for these countries to follow once they have obtained independence from their colonizers or when they transition to democracy from a dictatorship regime. As a country which has a common history of utilizing its military to mediate political conflict, Turkey did not have a proper institutional framework to follow once it transitioned to become a multi-party democracy, and the same goes for Peru. On the other hand, Weiner (1987) has observed that the British colonial model of tutelary democracy has aided a lot in smoothening democratic transitions, besides from sustaining democratic institutions in newly democratic companies. Weiner is a proponent of the fact that once an institutional framework for democracy has been successfully installed, it can create conditions for the country to persist its own democracy by itself. To further strengthen his point, we can observe countries such as Malaysia, which was once a British colony. Prior to Malaysia’s independence in 1957, Britain implemented the concept of shadow cabinets and shadow elections to train and prepare Malaysian political actors on how to run a country along the lines of democracy. Fast forward 62 years later and Malaysia still successfully retains its democratic position, even more so now with alternations in power from the recent 2018 General Election.
Furthermore, in countries with history where antidemocratic forces were present, its people will know that overthrowing a democracy is possible. Hence, possibly undermining the stability of that country’s democracy due to possibilities of social uprisings. For instance, the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, that was described as the “definitive deathblow to democracy in Guatemala”.
The study conducted by Diskin et al in 2005 looked into how a country’s history affects its compatibility with democracy and found that countries with unfavourable histories do in fact produce unstable democracies. So, yes, according to this factor, all countries can in fact turn into democracies, even with unfavourable histories. However, the outlook on maintaining and upkeeping the state of democracy for that respective country is thought to be grim when it has an unfavourable history.
Finally, the economic conditions of a certain country can help to tell if it can adopt democracy as a way of governance. So far political scientists have researched certain economic variables in relation to a country’s ability to take on democracy. Some of these variables include the relation between GDP per capita and democracy, income inequality and democracy, as well as studied the modernization theory to see how economic sectors in certain countries industrialise and modernise, setting the perfect stage for a democratic nation.
The modernization theory is a theory that believes that all societies pass through the same historical stages of economic development. Przeworski (2000, 88) stated once that as countries develop and modernize, they become more complex and hence require a more sophisticated system such as democracy to ensure the smooth running of the country. This is then backed up by Boix and Stokes (2003) when they graphically showed how this theory expected increased income to affect the probability of transitioning to democracy and dictatorship.
As seen in Figure 1, the it is obvious that as wealth of a nation increases, the probability of a transition to democracy is increased. Hence, it can be established that once a country modernizes and industrialises and in extension increases its national income it is more likely to embrace democracy. However, to maintain democracy, a country needs to consider its rate of income inequality. Cheibub et al. (1995) stated that democracy is much more likely to survive in countries with a steadily declining rate of income inequality. In his study, he found that expected life of democracy in countries with shrinking inequality is about 84 years, while the expected life of democracy with rising income inequality is 22 years. He noted that these findings contradict any notion that distributional pressures threaten the survival of democracy (possibly due to threat of social uprising and revolutions from lower class in a country). Instead, he believes that people expect democracy to reduce income inequality, and hence, democracies are more likely to survive when they do.
In conclusion, the sentiment that all countries could be a democracy is true to the extent that there are factors countries can modify and look into in order to accommodate democracy. The real challenge, however, comes in the form of maintaining and consolidating democracy after transitioning. However, even with this being said, I still believe there are still more questions to answer regarding the overall state of democracy as governance system. For instance, is democracy really the ideal governance regime? Are there ways to improve democracy as a whole? It is hoped that when political actors and scientists answer these questions by further studying and innovating the study and manifestation of democracy that citizens all around the globe can experience improved lifestyles and greater outlooks on their future with an even better sense of empowerment that supersedes the one that current democracy provides.
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