Democracy and Democratic cut-offs

In the period since the end of the Cold War (c. 1991), there has been an upsurge in the number of states around the world that define themselves as ‘democracies’. So too this has been the case in Southeast Asia, if incomplete in some areas and with reversals in others. This is in part due to the turn towards electoral processes in formerly authoritarian client states that have since lost the patronage of one or other of the two then superpowers. However, not all regime change has been democratic, democratic change is not inevitable and it has been shown to be possible for democracies to revert to other, less or non-democratic forms of political organization. Further, what is claimed to be ‘democratic’ may not be that, or it may be a procedural democracy, employing a relatively free electoral contest, but failing to provide a range of more substantive democratic qualities such as the separation of powers between government institutions, equitable and consistent rule of law, civil and political rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, or the opportunity to fully participate in the political process (see Schumpeter 1976; Dahl 1986; Burton et al. 1992: 1; Grugel 2002: 6).

In debates about democracy and democratization, Fukuyama (among others) argued that there is only one final form of democracy – liberal democracy associated with free market economics (Fukuyama 1992). Such ‘democratic absolutism’ has frequently run contrary to the political experience or preferences in Southeast Asian countries, even where they accept a substantive democratic model, for example, with a higher degree of economic intervention. As a result, there has been considerable debate over the value and appropriateness of a ‘one size fits all’ democracy, not least in the Southeast Asian contexts.

There are, in theory, over 500 types of democracy (Collier and Levitsky 1996) - many more than there are national democratic governments. The principle distinction is between whether the democracy in question is a minimalist or proceduralist model, or maximalist and substantive, an
d how these qualities are manifested.

A procedural democracy is understood to hold reasonably regular elections which are more or less free and fair. A substantive democracy holds regular, free and fair elections, has state institutions capable of instituting government policies which are accountable and under government control, has a strong and active civil society and is one in which law equally and consistently applied and in which there are no meaningful challengers to the democratic process (Collier and Levitsky 1996:10).

Despite Collier and Levitsky’s argument for acknowledging ‘diminished sub-types of democracy’ (Collier and Levitsky 2009), it could also be suggested that there is a democratic ‘cut-off point’, less than which is not actually ‘democracy’ but a different political form that also shares some democratic attributes. An ‘expanded procedural minimum’ model is equivalent as a democratic cut-off point in most Western democracies. This definition includes (‘reasonably’) competitive elections devoid of (‘massive’) fraud, with universal (‘broad’) suffrage, basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech, assembly and association , and an elected government with effective power to govern (institutional capacity). This may serve as a ‘democratic benchmark’.

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