Democratic governance is about more than calling elections and it is about more than casting votes. Democratic governance encompasses a wider landscape of rights including factors such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, accountability of institutions and transparency of elected leaders. And when it comes to elections, it also includes the freedom to vote for your preferred candidate without fear of recrimination from the state.
In the UK, we accept these conditions as standard. A quick glance through history and indeed a quick glance around the world today, reveals that we stand among the privileged.
The former Soviet Union countries held elections for decades. Invariably these elections produced the same results. As John Feffer points out, the Communist Party candidates—or their close allies—won the elections often by farcical margins of 99.9%. Feffer observes the near-upset in 1980 when the Party in Hungary won with only 99.3 per cent of the vote!
While holding elections is a vital ingredient of a healthy democracy, it is only part of the whole recipe. This is evidenced by countries such as Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Sudan, and Kazakhstan, all of whom hold elections but none of whom are categorised as full and free democracies. Despite these exceptions, elections, when they are genuinely free and fair, represent a vital pillar of the democratic system.
The Freedom in the World report by Freedom House ranks nations on the condition of political rights and civil liberties. In their 2014 report, Freedom House categorise 48 countries as “Not Free”. This represents a quarter of all countries in the world and includes nearly 2.5 billion people, or 35 percent of the global population (though Freedom House point out that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China).
The good news is that the number of electoral democracies around the world has risen over the last 25 years. This year, the number of electoral democracies stood at 122, four more than in 2012. The four countries that achieved electoral democracy status were Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan.
And so, while one-third of the world’s population do not benefit from the right to self determination, many of those who do seem to take it for granted. In the UK a huge number of the electorate has disengaged with the electoral process. At the last general election in May 2010, voter turn-out was 65% meaning that over one-third of eligible voters were so unmoved by the choices before them they opted to stay at home instead of exercising their right to choose who governs them.
Voter apathy is no doubt linked to the behaviour of our elected politicians who must bear some, if not most, of the responsibility. The expenses scandal followed by some high profile criminal cases such as that of Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne caused a lot of damage to politicians’ already fragile reputations. While it is true to say that the vast majority of British MPs from all parties are honest, committed, and hard-working, public perception is undoubtedly swayed by the exceptional cases.
So how should we respond? Today is election day in the UK—local and European. One way to respond is to re-engage with the democratic system. When respect for the political process falls, the best response is to pick it up and hold it high. We can blame politicians if we want. We can even try to blame the system itself. But in a democracy it is us, ultimately, who have the power to make a change. And that is what makes democracy by far the best form of governance ever devised.
Or to consider the same from the opposite angle, as Winston Churchill famously observed: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
**********This post first appeared on the Legatum Institute blog: http://www.li.com/blog/legatum-institute/2014/05/22/elections-matter Graph source: Freedom House