It takes more than elections to make it work
Just two centuries ago most of the world was ruled by monarchs, and voting was a rare privilege. Even in the United States, the first modern democracy, voting was generally restricted to white men who owned property.
French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, though, was convinced an "irresistible revolution" toward equality was under way. He believed it had progressed the furthest in the U.S., which he visited in the 1830s to see the future of humankind. Yet by the close of the 19th century, universal suffragethe right for each person to votewas far from becoming a reality.
Enter the 20th century.
Following World War I, as monarchs and empires fell and women's suffrage gained momentum, people across the Northern Hemisphere were granted the vote. In the Southern Hemisphere independence came to European colonies after World War II; with nationhood came, gradually, the right to vote. By last spring, when black South Africans lined up to vote in their third presidential election, universal suffrage had spread across the globe.
But suffrage is one thing. Ensuring that elections are free, fair, and competitivethe minimum threshold that political scientists set for democracyis another. And liberal democracy, the kind many Western nations enjoy, requires even more: free speech, a free press, and the rule of law. The good news is that while democracy has lagged behind the right to vote, it's also on the rise. Experts say we're in the midst of a wave of democratization fueled by economic development, increased education, the emergence worldwide of a middle class, the growing reach of free markets, and technological advances that have carried the news of democracy to most people on Earth.
Today, of the world's 192 countries, 117 are considered electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, which promotes democracy worldwide. But there is no one model for a working democracy. Voter turnout, for example, varies greatly, and analysts argue over its meaning. Does low turnout mean voters are satisfiedor alienated to the point of apathy? Does high turnout mean voters are engaged by issues and candidatesor that a regime like the one in Belarus is forcing some citizens to the polls to create an impression of legitimacy? Female representation in elected bodies is another thorny issue. Typically, it falls far short of the percentage of women in the population, coming close only in places like Rwanda and the Nordic nations, where political parties or laws require that a percentage of candidates be female.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote at the end of the Cold War that we had reached the "end of history," with liberal democracy and capitalism the only viable systems left for states that want to be modern. Now, 15 years later, things don't look so simple. The future may bring different versions of democracy as the system is accepted in nations with non-Western cultures. Bruce Gilley, author of China's Democratic Future,
predicts democracy will come to that country as reformists in its leadership respond to pressure from below. Chinese scholars are already considering things they think will improve democracysuch as methods other than elections to give citizens a voice in shaping government policies. And some countries now in transition between an old form of government and democracy may never get there at all. In certain instances, says scholar Thomas Carothers, opposing political elites, considered corrupt and self-interested by average citizens, simply trade control of government through elections, without tackling their nations' problems. In others, dominant parties manipulate elections to remain in power. This year in Russia the government went to great lengths to ferry ballot boxes by helicopter to Siberian camps so reindeer herders could vote. Yet it also kept tight control of the media, and some critics charge that the government chosen by Russian voters amounts to no more than an "elected autocracy."
Experts agree democracy is the system that offers the best hope of promoting individual rights. However, in an influential 1997 article in Foreign Affairs,
Fareed Zakaria wrote that rushing the vote in countries lacking an established tradition of good governance, respect for human rights, and the rule of law results in governments likely to abuse authority and, sometimes, promote ethnic divisions. That kind of democracy, he warned, "is not simply inadequate, but dangerous." Elections may have spread across the globe, but for a number of nations a harder challenge remainsto create a government that is truly representative of its people.
Karen E. Lange