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27 January 2024

Democracy Under Assault

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics
This week I attended a seminar as part of a programme of Oxford University Alumni Events, organised by the University, together with the Blavatnik School of Government. The subject was Democracy Under Assault, a panel discussion examining the challenges facing democracy in 2024. The event was chaired by Tom Fletcher, Principal of Hertford College, joined by expert speakers from the Blavatnik School of Government: Calum Miller, Senior Fellow of Practice in Public Management, Maya Tudor, Associate Professor of Government in Public Policy and Eniola Soyemi, Departmental Lecturer in Political Philosophy and Public Policy. There is no question that democracy does appear to be under threat in many parts of the world. And this is becoming under greater focus in 2024 because of the sheer number of general elections that are scheduled to take place affecting many countries and about 40% of the world's population.

However, Maya made the point that elections are not enough. There needs to be a clear right to dissent for citizens and groups of citizens. Academics assign 100 points in grading democracies of which just 40 are for elections. the other 60 are for other important rights. India was downgraded from its established position as the largest democracy in the world to a hybrid model. Elections do happen there, but the state Is systematically reducing the status of citizens. In Maya’s judgement in this year we are too focused on elections and not spending enough time looking at the state of democratic decline, even in the UK where, for example, freedom of speech is under pressure.

Eniola suggested that there is too much emphasis on one major definition of democracy. But there are indeed many. The ancient definition which was probably first developed in ancient Greece was ‘Rule by the People’. And that indeed is a literal translation of the word democracy. But the question is: How? What are the practises that need to be protected? It is not enough to simply concentrate on that piece of paper that every few years citizens over a certain age can put into a ballot box. At the very least there needs to be the subsequent opportunity to hold Governments to account. Not just in the sense that, well, we can get rid of them next time.

Calum found that for democracy to thrive there needs to be consent to be governed. He observes considerable pessimism In many parts of the world which suggests a lack of trust in those in government. To be practical there needs to be evidence that listening is taking place. So, his advice is that we should at least get involved. We need to understand how we can defend the institutions that safeguard our democratic rights. We need to develop an agreement that we are in an environment where disagreement is OK. With the various moves that we now have covered by the word ‘woke’. all of this is under threat. We've long since observed the House of Commons behaving as if it is OK to disagree. But that's not really what they're doing. They’re simply shouting at each other and objecting for the sake of objecting. That is very much the two-party political system. Democracy should be a participation sport, not a spectator sport.

Having made the point that there is too much focus on the 2024 elections, the panel then were asked to say which of the elections in 2024 was the most significant and could have the most impact on democracy. Tom, who posed the question, thought the key election is the one due in November in the USA. He feels that if Trump wins despite everything, that will harden the autocracies. Their interest Is in seeking to undermine democracy where it is practised so that they can explain to their own citizens to see what happens when you have democracy is how much things go wrong. This is contrary to the truth as despite the problems facing democracy., those countries that have enjoyed long periods of democracy have become more prosperous, with better health, longer lives, and indeed, arguably with greater rights. But we should not be complacent about this.

Maya thought that India is the key election. She had already made the point that India has been downgraded from being regarded as a democracy because it has much more of a hybrid approach. Individual rights have been severely reduced there and she proposed the concept of an ‘illiberal democracy’.

Eniola who focuses principally on African nations thought that Sudan was the most significant, though she admitted that there isn't actually a sign of an election there yet. The situation in Sudan is indeed dire, but there’s no evidence that I can see that there is a movement for democracy. However, Eniola made the interesting point that Mahatma Gandhi did not want elections. He thought there could be other ways. She further explained that democracy is not just citizens and their relationship with government. It is first citizens’ relationships with each other.

Calum identified the UK as a concern particularly if it may follow the US. He was further concerned about the role of social media and data in forthcoming elections as undoubtedly malefactors will seek to use them to influence attitudes with false or exaggerated information and spreading of rumours and other invented threats. He was concerned that the UK government may be seeking to drop control of GDPR which could further underline this threat.

Calum expressed concern that there is no longer a consensus about how democratic governments should behave. There was a time when parties would fight to win the argument and get people to vote for them. But once in government they accepted that their role was not just to govern for the benefits of those who voted for them, but also for the entire population. It seems now at least some elected governments no longer feel they have to govern for the people. And that is certainly what it looks like if Trump became president again.

Questions were then taken from the floor. Here I list the questions with a brief comment on each one.
  1. Which is better, first past the post or proportional representation? The panel thought there was no simple answer to this as there are many cases where proportional representation produces weak government. Some countries in Europe like Belgium have gone years without a properly functioning government because there were no clear winners and various representatives could just not reach agreement among themselves.
  2. On the question of whether democracy essentially has a record of being a better system of government. It is clear that despite the current problems, over the long-term democracies do better in objective measurement standards in education, health and economic performance.
  3. Was there ever a golden age of democracy? That was an excellent question, but in attempting to answer this the panel suggested if you asked everybody in the room this question you will probably get a different answer from each person there. My own thoughts on that are you would also get a different answer depending on to what degree you were looking at groups of countries.
  4. Could compulsory voting help strengthen democracy. Members of the panel mentioned Australia as one country where voting is mandatory, which is generally supported by the population. It's believed that rather than voting being a right, it is seen as a duty, and it certainly encourages participation and may lead to improvements in candidates. There are numerous other advantages, but there are many concerns as well. About 20 countries in the world still have some form of mandatory voting, and at least as many have given it up. The first country in the world to introduce mandatory voting was Belgium in 1893, and they still have it. But there are moves to change that and around half the population do not believe that it is the right solution. I lived in Chile for a while and Chile had mandatory voting for many years, but in a Constitutional amendment of the 1980 Constitution in 2012 this was reduced. Usually, those countries that do have some form of mandatory voting will make exceptions. E.g. people who are illiterate.  Some are concerned to criminalise people for expressing their point of view. If the penalty for not voting is a fine that is more likely to penalise the poor than the rich.
Overall, I found the panel discussion quite stimulating. But it is such a big topic that in just an hour it probably wasn't possible to really go into all the detail. In fact, even one of the panellists admitted the amount we actually know about this subject is minuscule. It is such a vast and complex subject reaching most corners of the world. Indeed, the single word ‘democracy’ is being asked to work too hard in my opinion, as it covers such a wide range of activity.

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