What Makes up an Actual, Working, Modern Democracy?

By Duff Conacher | 2012-10-01 12:00:00

How can you assess the degree of democracy of a particular country or province? It’s not a simple question. It’s more complicated than you might think.

Everybody’s doing it, or so it seems. The number of organizations that measure whether democracy exists in countries around the world keeps growing, raising the question of what they are measuring, and what are their standards. What makes up an actual, working, modern democracy?

Having examined many of these democracy-rating processes, I can tell you that most of them are just scratching the surface of the tip of the iceberg of what makes up democracy.

The Economist magazine promotes its Democracy Index as if it is a goldmine of information about the state of democracy worldwide, but in fact it is no more than a brief summary that misleads as much as it informs.

Freedom House has improved

The US-based Freedom House, which evaluates more countries annually than any other organization, has improved its measuring process since a decade ago when it had one person per country, in secret without any peer review, rate the state of freedom in countries using only 10 very general indicators. However, they still use too few criteria and assume that freedom equals democracy, including in highly questionable areas such as the freedom for everyone to donate and spend as much as they want during election campaigns (which most observers would argue has perverted and fundamentally undermined democracy in the US, among many other countries).

The United Nations organizations, and other international organizations (OECD, World Bank, IMF) almost always apply similar criteria to Freedom House’s, usually declaring elections as “free and fair” without examining the source (domestic or foreign) or amount of financing for the various political parties in any country. And, even worse, these organizations usually declare that a country is a democracy after just one so-called “free and fair” election has been held.

The NGO Transparency International has its own National Integrity System (NIS) assessment system, which it admits provides a framework for evaluating only the ethics/anti-corruption systems of governments. It also maintains a database on its website of more than 300 other anti-corruption assessment processes. Most of them lack details and effective standards.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) issued its first Global Parliamentary Report in 2012, but instead of being a detailed assessment of parliaments worldwide, it was instead a comparison and summary of some, but not all, best practices. It had no definite conclusions in most areas as to what are actually the best practices.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance published the very-extensive Assessing the Quality of Democracy: A Practical Guide in 2008, which runs to more than 300 pages. It provides likely the most comprehensive set of indicators (76 in total) for democracy measurement (with citations of many other assessments around the world).

The 76 indicators are divided into the following 14 categories: nationhood and citizenship; rule of law and access to justice; civil and political rights; economic and social rights; free and fair elections; the democratic role of political parties; effective and responsive government; the democratic effectiveness of parliament; civilian control of the military and police; integrity in public life; the media in a democratic society; political participation; decentralization; external influences on the country’s democracy, and the country’s democratic impact abroad.

However, the problem with International IDEA’s guide is that the 76 criteria are set out as general questions, some of which are so general that it is difficult to determine what the measurement standard is and what systems would fulfill the criteria. The guide is only a framework that leaves many questions unanswered.

This is not to say that it is easy to prove that one system is better than another to, for example, guarantee the equality of civil and political rights for all citizens (which is the standard in one of the International IDEA’s categories). Different constituencies in different countries have, of course, different ways of doing things, including protecting rights, making decisions, and ensuring that decision-makers are accountable.

However, International IDEA, and many other international organizations, try to keep all of these different systems in their frameworks for democracy measurement – so much so that, I think, they dilute their standards and undermine any meaningful determination of whether a country (or state/province or municipality) is democratic, of whether it actually has the rules, enforcement systems, and penalties needed to make everyone follow democratic principles.

To be fair, some democracy-measurement questions remain difficult even if specific criteria are applied. For example, voter turnout – if it is low it raises questions about the legitimacy of the mandate of the government, but low turnout can also simply indicate satisfaction with the ruling party’s actions and dissatisfaction with the proposals of opposition parties. So how do you set a voter turnout standard that is clearly based upon democratic principles?

You can’t measure secret deals

Also to be fair, some democracy issues are not measurable. The rate of secret donations/bribes, secret lobbying, secret deals, and secret invasions of privacy by police and security forces cannot be accurately measured anywhere in the world, no matter how strong the rules and enforcement system. These secret activities are impossible to track or stop, and will always undermine every country that tries to be a democracy. Hence all democracy measurements should be taken with a grain of salt (especially those that claim to measure the actual levels of corruption in any society).

However, what can be measured is whether specific key rules are clear, strict and free of loopholes, and whether enforcement systems exist that can usually ensure that violators of the rules will be caught and penalized.

Thus many agencies that claim to be assessing whether democracy exists in any country really have no excuse for the lack of comprehensiveness and detail of their assessments.

Beyond the problem of rubber-stamping countries that hold elections as democracies, many of these assessment organizations either don’t recognize, or don’t want to recognize, how governments can lie, cheat and steal from the public by failing to have accountability systems and by delaying accountability. (For example, they may ensure that challenges of government decisions take so long that another election occurs before a court produces a ruling, or that when the information is finally disclosed it is no longer politically costly.)

Responding to the vagueness of democracy-measurement processes, the US-based organization Global Integrity took an important step forward when it launched its Integrity Indicators Scorecard in 2004. By 2008, the Scorecard included 320 specific indicators, aimed mainly at measuring the ethics enforcement systems of national governments, but also covering democracy areas such as the rights and freedom of the media, voters and citizens and NGOs generally.

So while Global Integrity’s Scorecard does not cover every area of whether a society is democratic, it at least sets out many specific standards. Whereas many organizations judge whether government information is accessible on the basis of the number of disclosure exemptions, Global Integrity’s indicators also cover whether information can be obtained quickly, at low cost, and whether decisions to keep information secret can be appealed quickly and at low cost to an agency that can order the release of information and penalize violators. Global Integrity’s indicators are detailed and practical.

Unfortunately, Global Integrity has only been able to raise enough funding to assess about 100 countries in the past eight years.

As the lead researcher for the Global Integrity Scorecard for Canada for 2007, 2008. and 2010, I discovered that the Scorecard missed some key indicators that, in my experience as coordinator of Democracy Watch from 1993 to 2011, I consider essential to democratic good government. The Scorecard does not assess whether there are effective systems in place to ensure honesty in politics, ethical behavior by political staff, disclosure of lobbying and restriction of unethical lobbying activities, and real public consultation.

As a result, Democracy Watch and its charitable partner group Democracy Education Network (DEN), have recently launched the Canadian Democratic Good Government Audit Project (CDGGAP – www.democracyindex.ca), as the most comprehensive assessment ever undertaken of Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments’ democratic good government laws and enforcement processes. With more than 1,000 indicators (about 600 questions asking what laws and enforcement systems exist, and about 400 asking whether the laws and enforcement systems work in reality) it is the most comprehensive assessment ever undertaken of the state of democracy worldwide.

It takes 1,000 criteria

It is also the first such assessment in the world undertaken via an open Wiki, welcoming submissions from anyone (moderated for accuracy by Democracy Watch and DEN). We want many people to participate in the audit and to issue a report card on each Canadian government with an overall grade, and grades for categories and sub-categories so that governments can be compared across the country.

When any government changes in either a positive or negative way, its report card grades an be updated.

The 14 sections of the CDGGAP assess whether there are legal enforcement systems to ensure: freedom of association, expression and responsi- bility? Free, fair, and democratic elections? Fair, transparent, democratic, and ethical political financing, support, gifts, and spending? General democratic governance? Meaningful public consultation (including referenda)? General government, legislature, and public service accountability (including an ombudsperson)? Honesty in politics? Ethics by politicians, appointees, and political staff? Democratic hiring, promotion, and ethics of public servants? Lobbying disclosure and restrictions? Transparency of political institutions? Whistleblower protection? Transparency, fairness, and ethics safeguards in government procurement, spending, and sales? Judicial independence, ethics, fairness, and citizen access to justice? Conflicts of interest safeguards in law enforcement?

The criteria cover whether the detailed rules (statutes or court rulings) exist to ensure democracy in that area, whether an independent and well-resourced agency exists to enforce the rules, and whether, in practice, it ensures that the rules are always followed and violators are penalized.

The criteria are not restricted to standards for parliamentary democracy; terms such as “prime minister” and “cabinet” can be replaced by the words “president” and “executive.”

To show how details must be assessed to determine whether democratic, good government is undermined, here are some of the criteria in the CDGGAP section appraising ethical decision-making by cabinet ministers and their appointees:

No gifts, please!

Everybody must blow whistles

And then this section of the CDGGAP continues with the questions above, and more, restated as “In practice” questions —questions that assess whether ethics rules and enforcement standards and practices are actually effective.

Duff Conacher is the coordinator of Your Canada, Your Constitution, a founding board member of Democracy Watch and Democracy Education Network, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and director of GoodOrg.ca Consulting.

Most Recent Scorecards for Democracy

(97 countries, in rank order, with year). Source: Global Integrity Index

  1. South Korea (2009) 88
  2. Argentina (2010) 87
  3. United States (2007) 85
  4. Bulgaria (2010) 84
  5. Latvia (2007) 84
  6. Israel (2006) 83
  7. Japan (2008) 83
  8. Indonesia (2011) 81
  9. Peru (2010) 81
  10. Spain (2007) 81
  11. Colombia (2011) 80
  12. Ireland (2011) 80
  13. Poland (2010) 80
  14. Benin (2008) 79
  15. Costa Rica (2007) 79
  16. Romania (2010) 79
  17. South Africa 79
  18. France (2007) 78
  19. Germany (2011) 78
  20. Italy (2008) 78
  21. Macedonia (2011) 78
  22. Chile (2008) 77
  23. Kosovo (2011) 77
  24. Brazil (2009) 76
  25. Canada (2011) 75
  26. Georgia (2011) 75
  27. Albania (2010) 74
  28. Czech Republic (2010) 74
  29. Lithuania (2008) 74
  30. Moldova (2010) 74
  31. Hungary (2010) 73
  32. Malawi (2011) 73
  33. Serbia (2011) 73
  34. Slovakia (2009) 73
  35. Uganda (2011) 72
  36. Liberia (2011) 71
  37. Russia (2010) 71
  38. Rwanda (2009) 71
  39. Bangladesh (2010) 70
  40. Ethiopia (2010) 70
  41. India (2011) 70
  42. Vanuatu (2007) 70
  43. Bolivia (2010 69
  44. Papua New Guinea (2007) 69
  45. Kenya (2011) 68
  46. Mexico (2011) 68
  47. Namibia (2007) 68
  48. Pakistan (2010) 68
  49. Tajikistan (2011) 68
  50. Turkey (2010) 68
  51. United Arab Emirates (2009) 68
  52. Ghana (2011) 67
  53. Nepal (2009) 67
  54. Belarus (2008) 66
  55. Tonga (2008 66
  56. Guatemala (2010) 65
  57. Senegal (2006) 65
  58. Thailand (2007) 65
  59. China (2011) 64
  60. Fiji (2008) 64
  61. Kyrgyz Republic (2008) 64
  62. Ukraine (2011) 64
  63. Armenia (2011) 63
  64. Azerbaijan (2011) 63
  65. Sierra Leone (2011) 63
  66. Bosnia-Herzegovina (2011) 61
  67. Burkina Faso (2011) 61
  68. Mongolia (2011) 61
  69. Ecuador (2008) 60
  70. Nigeria (2010) 60
  71. Mozambique (2007) 59
  72. Solomon Islands (2008) 59
  73. Sudan (2006) 59
  74. Tanzania (2010) 59
  75. Venezuela (2011) 59
  76. Sri Lanka (2007) 58
  77. Timor-Leste (2007) 58
  78. Jordan (2011) 57
  79. Nicaragua (2011) 57
  80. Philippines (2010) 57
  81. West Bank 57
  82. Montenegro (2008) 56
  83. Morocco (2010) 56
  84. Zimbabwe 56
  85. Kuwait (2008) 55
  86. Algeria (2011) 54
  87. Egypt (2010) 54
  88. Iraq (2008) 53
  89. Lebanon (2009) 53
  90. Malaysia (2010) 50
  91. Cambodia (2008) 46
  92. Tunisia (2008) 45
  93. Vietnam (2011) 44
  94. Angola (2010) 43
  95. Somalia (2010) 34
  96. Yemen 33
  97. Syria (2009) 29
Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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