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What is democracy? — A procedural approach

In a previous post responding to an article in The Atlantic which argued that Australian democracy was at risk, I wrote that “democracy is a process, it is not a set of values”. I note here that, in the earlier post, I did not actually define what I meant by democracy beyond this assertion. The (since lost) responses on Medium to that post challenged this assertion. This post intends to clarify.

I accept in that post I was not exactly precise as to what I meant by democracy so — for clarity, when I spoke of democracy in that post — this is what I meant:

A democratic regime is one where the legislature and executive hold office by consequence of elections contested by multiple competing factions (or parties). Where the country has had a government that has held office for at least two consecutive terms, it is democratic where that government lost an election has yielded power to a new government.

This is a two-sentence summary of the definition originally laid down in a journal article titled Classifying political regimes authored by Michael E. Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, Adam Przeworski, and Fernando Limongi. The co-authors later went on to write Democracy and Development (2000), a quite famous book in political economy which challenged (among other things) the then-common hypothesis that economic development and democratisation were intertwined.

This approach is a procedural approach. That is to say that it is an approach only concerned with the observable procedures of forming a government and whether those procedures actually matter when they appear adverse to the ruling party. It is not concerned with whether a given society has what many consider to be democratic rights such as free expression.

The second part of the above definition is intended to carve out actual dictatorships which may occasionally stage elections as well as potential dictatorships from proven democracies. In their paper, Alvarez et al. give the example of Botswana, a country often argued to lead the African continent in the area of human rights, but which has only had governments led by the same Botswana Democratic Party since independence from Britain in 1966. Botswana has all the liberal freedoms we associate with democracy and elections contested by multiple parties, but the BDP has not yet lost an election. Unlike other countries where there have been decades-long running governments (such as Japan), we simply don’t know what would happen if the Botswana Democratic Party were to lose an election. Would the BDP yield to the opposition, or would they cling on to power some other way? We can certainly guess, but can’t know for sure until another party wins.

Another example —the Russian Federation has multiple opposing parties and elections for both the Duma and Presidency but the people elected into the government at the national level have largely been from the same political faction. The current president, Vladimir Putin was his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s chosen successor and prime minister while Putin’s temporary successor, Dmitry Medvedev, was a senior minister in Putin’s cabinet. We do not know what would happen if Putin or his movement’s candidate lost a presidential election. It is for this reason that we can call it a dictatorship under the above definition.

In a since-deleted voluminous back-and-forth, one commenter criticised me for saying (in another comment, also lost) that the Middle East has “virtually no democracies” (virtually meaning almost — there are democracies in the Middle East, but not many). The commenter gave Syria as an example of a democracy that I had supposedly written off because it had multiple parties and it holds elections. This may be true, but there has (at least since the 1960s) not been a change in government in Syria resulting from an election.

Common measures of freedom, such as Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, are also frequently used as measures of democracy. But these are not necessarily the same. Only a small part of Freedom House’s methodology is concerned with the formation of a given country’s government and, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it can be flawed in this regard. The rest of Freedom House’s variables are concerned with various political and economic freedoms which may or may not exist in a democracy as defined above. For example, Australia has no national-level explicit legal protection for freedom of expression but is widely viewed both by the above definition and by Freedom House as a democracy. 

It can be the case that, as I argued in my previous post, that a government can be democratically elected and adopt, possibly illiberal, temporary policies to ameliorate crises. These policies may restrict the freedoms that Freedom House measures. In such a circumstance, as long as the people are — at the constitutionally required time — given the genuine choice of a government that either continues the policies as are claimed to be needed or which repeals them as undesirable infringements, it will remain a democracy. Without that choice, a government is not a democratic government.

As I said in the original post, Australia’s freedoms may have (temporarily) been restricted as a result of the various governments’ responses to the pandemic, but these have not yet affected how government is formed. Even in Victoria, the state which imposed easily the harshest restrictions on movement in 2020/21, local elections were still being held (albeit by mail) and no election in Australia has yet been delayed or cancelled. The South Australian state election, whose date is fixed in the state’s constitution, is being fought by various opposing political parties as I write. Despite conspiracy theories insisting that Morrison will imminently summon the silks, there are no visible signs that the federal government plans to cancel or otherwise unconstitutionally delay the election due in May. For these reasons, we can say with a high degree of confidence that Australia is still a democracy.

This post, I hope, clarifies the position I took in the previous posts for the various people who have made long-winded comments challenging these positions.

Header picture: © Australian Electoral Commission (CC-BY-ND)

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