There is no consensus on how to measure democracy. Definitions are contested and there is an ongoing debate on the subject. Although the terms “freedom” and “democracy” are often used interchangeably, the two are not synonymous. Democracy can be seen as a set of practices and principles that institutionalise and thus ultimately protect freedom. Even if a consensus on precise definitions has proved elusive, most observers would find parity in the fact that, at a minimum, the fundamental features of a democracy include government based on majority rule and the consent of the governed, the existence of free and fair elections, the protection of minority rights and respect for basic human rights. Democracy presupposes equality before the law, due process and political pluralism.

Within this context, the last 18 months has been an exceptionally turbulent year politically, highlighted by sovereign debt crises and seemingly weak political leadership in the developed world which led to rising social unrest. Added to that is dramatic conflict leading, in certain cases, to dramatic regime change in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, the last year and a half has featured important changes in democracy, both in the direction of unexpected democratisation and a continuation of decline in democracy in some parts of the world.

The seismic events in the Middle East and North Africa which resulted in the Arab Spring have been groundbreaking in many respects. The citizen-led uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt just over a year ago came suddenly and unexpectedly and occurred in seemingly traditionally infertile territory. These grassroots-based uprisings overturned a host of dogmas and preconceived presuppositions about the Middle East and North African region.

But it was not only the Arab world which revolted. In 2011 and at the start of 2012, confidence in political institutions continued to decline in many developed world countries. The US democratic model continues to be negatively affected by a deepening sense of polarisation of the dominant two-party political scene which has resulted in partisan political brinkmanship and led to paralysis in many government institutions. As a result, problems in the functioning of government have become more prevalent.

Across the Atlantic, much of Europe has also experienced growing civil unrest and protest. The most telling explanation for this trend has been the erosion of sovereignty and democratic accountability associated with the effects of and responses to the Eurozone crisis. Most dramatically, in Greece and Italy, democratically elected leaders have been replaced by technocrats who have been tasked to steer their respective nations out of the wilderness.

The overall short-term political outlook for Europe is disturbing. The Eurozone is under serious threat and disputes within the EU are ever sharper. Harsh and growth crippling austerity, a new recession in 2012 and high levels of unemployment across the continent will severely test the resilience of Europe’s political institutions. Although extremist political forces in Europe have not yet profited from economic dislocation as might have been initially feared, populism and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise.

In Asia and Australasia, segments of the region, including North Korea, Laos, Vietnam and China, are still entrenched authoritarian regimes. However, over the past few decades the spread of democracy in the region has grown, as is currently being experienced in Myanmar. Over the past decade, some 20 Asian countries have held elections, and many have undergone peaceful transitions in government. Despite its problems, India remains the world’s most populous democracy. Yet even in these democratic countries, there are often significant problems in the functioning of political systems.

In Latin America, most countries experience free and fair elections. However, a recent 2011 United Nations Development Programme report found that the sustainability of democracy in the region is being endangered by variables such as the over-concentration of power, the world’s highest social and economic inequalities, and mounting insecurity and violence.

Closer to home, within the sub-Saharan African region, the pursuit of democracy has become a normal occurrence. Since the late 1990s the number of coup d’états has fallen precipitously, contrasted by the fact that the number of elections in the region has increased. However, it must be qualified that many elections are rigged and defeated incumbents often still refuse to accept defeat. Only six countries within the region, including South Africa, have elections which are judged to be both free and fair. Other countries include Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius and Zambia.

Progress in democracy in the sub-Saharan African region has been slow and uneven, but improvement continues to grow incrementally over time. Since the year 2000 between 15 and 20 elections have been held each year. Although the process of elections has become commonplace, not all ballots pass the test of being “free and fair” and many have been charades held by regimes clinging on to power.

The global track record in democratisation since the start of the so-called third wave in 1974, and acceleration after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, has been promising. However, there has been a steady decline in democracy across the world in recent years. The decades-long global trend in democratisation has come to a halt in what Larry Diamond has referred to as a “democratic recession”. The dominant pattern globally over the past five years has been backsliding on previously attained progress in democratisation.

History has proved that it’s not easy to build a sturdy democracy. Even in long-established ones, democracy can corrode if not nurtured and protected. It will be intriguing to observe how the events of the rest of 2012 and beyond will impact democracies and regimes around the world – specifically within the context of growing economic distress and its causal relationship to political upheaval.


Lee-Roy Chetty

Lee-Roy Chetty

Lee-Roy Chetty holds a Master's degree in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he...

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