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The Facts


Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] New Internationalist 324[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] June 2000[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

Democracy - the facts

It is now accepted as the best alternative for human
governance. But superficial agreement masks a wide
divergence of views about what democracy is and how to
achieve it. The NI examines these differences and some
of the hurdles that stand in the way of a democratic life.

Child workers organize in India

How democratic can it be?

. In Britain only 2.6% of those who own property are not on the electoral register while 38.2% of those who rent furnished accommodation have never bothered to register1

. Women's rights to vote or stand for election are not recognized in Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates

. In Britain the winning Labour Party in the 1997 election won 63.4% of the parliamentary seats with only 43.2% of the votes cast. In Russia the Communist Party won 25.6% of the seats with 24.3% of the vote2

. In Canada 101 federal ridings have between 100,000 and 120,000 citizens, while 35 other ridings have between 20,000 and 75,000

. A study of 15 West European countries found that the percentage of people who were members of political parties had declined from 8.2% of the electorate in the early 1980s to 5.2% by the mid-1990s3


Paying the piper

First free elections in South Africa

. In the 1988 federal election in Canada a free-trade treaty with the US was the major issue. Business groups spent $13 million to advocate the deal and opponents spent roughly $1 million on a losing cause6

. Thirty-one per cent of Canadian survey respondents believe that advertising affects their votes

. In the US in 1996 the average cost to get elected to a seat in the House of Representatives was $520,000. A Senate seat went for $4.6 million7

. Between January 1991 and June 1999 the tobacco giant Philip Morris was the number-one patron of the US Republican Party, at $6.2 million8

An illiterate woman voting, Bolivia.

. In 1997 the airline industry donated $3.8 million to politicians (59% to Republicans) at a time when Congress was debating airline competition policy. Pharmaceutical companies gave $9.7 million (67% to Republicans) when Congress was debating controls on drug prices9

. Some 96% of US citizens give no money at all to politicians and 40% do not know the name of the Vice-President. In the last round of elections 100 million didn't bother to vote10

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[image, unknown] Running for office in Nigeria.

The Democracy Meter
Key to the democracy Meter For generations the political spectrum has had the same categories, from Right to Left - Conservatives who saw themselves as the only responsible rulers of society and a Left which saw government edict as a tool for bringing about social equality. These positions have largely disappeared under the pressure of globalization and popular discontent. The NI sorts out the democratic credentials of the new contenders for political power.

Market Government

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Examples: Former conservative parties like the Republicans in the US and the Conservative Party in Britain have now transformed themselves into radical free-marketeers.

Notion of Democracy: Collective provision and the welfare state are cut back. Democracy means as much individual consumer choice as possible. Instead of 'one person, one vote' it tends towards 'one dollar, one vote'.

Record on Rights: Defence of basic civil liberties is often in tension with a tough law-and-order stance. Stress on economic opportunity rather than equality.

Third Way

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Examples: The New Democrats in the US - but the main grouping here consists of parties that have evolved out of social democracy, such as the British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats.

Notion of Democracy: Efficiency and pragmatism are the highest values. Traditional Left commitment to economic equality is abandoned for an incentive society. Technocratic vision of growth engineered by a state-market partnership to enhance productivity.

Record on Rights: Reduced emphasis on economic equality. Less internal party democracy. The politics of image management is used to maintain electoral support.

Party of Fixers

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Examples: Single parties that often dominate politics in their country. The Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, Congress in India, The Liberal Party of Canada, the PRI in Mexico, the Liberals and Conservatives in Colombia.

Notion of Democracy: These are the ultimate pragmatists. Decisions rarely come from the membership but from the back-room manoeuvring of various factions and power-brokers.

Record on Rights: Whimsical. Sometimes supporters are rewarded or popular measures enacted. But little internal party democracy and a tendency to ruthless treatment of dissenters.

Council Democracy

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Examples: A movement for face-to-face decision-making in popular councils flows from the experience of the Paris Commune and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Today a number of opposition parties in the South, such as the Participation Front in Iran and the Workers Party in Brazil, advocate this as an alternative to, or at least a check on, centralized state power.

Notion of Democracy: Decentralist vision. Important decisions taken at local neighbourhood, school, workplace or municipal level. Power flows from the bottom up rather than the other way around.

Record on Rights: Emphasis on collectively arrived-at democratic decisions. More interested in collective well-being than the economic opportunities of individuals.

Charismatic Nationalism

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Examples: Since Nasser in Egypt and Nkrumah in Ghana this has proved a persistent form of politics in the post-colonial world. Present examples include Fujimori in Peru, Chavez in Venezuela, Mahathir in Malaysia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Notion of Democracy: Usually 'strongmen' (less frequently women) are elected, but the fairness of elections is questionable and the rights of any opposition are strictly limited.

Record on Rights: Often very bad record on civil liberties. The underlying notion is that a strong personality (often drawn from the ranks of the military) represents some mystical national expression. Differing records on economic rights and standing up to global pressures.


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Examples: Most prominently the Green parties who have a foothold in European Parliaments, elected by systems of proportional representation which allow a broader range of opinion. More radical variants include Deep Ecology, Bio-Regionalism and Social Ecology.

Notion of Democracy: Eco-democrats tend to support decentralization and more direct democracy. Critical of centralized state power. Internal party structures quite democratic.

Record on Rights: Strong supporters of civil liberties but believe the economic rights of the individual must be balanced against the interests of the eco-system.

Fundamentalist Revival

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Examples: There are now fundamentalist-based parties all across the Muslim world. Jewish fundamentalism plays an important role in Israel, the Hindu fundamentalist BJP is part of the Government of India and the Christian Coalition is an important influence on US politics.

Notion of Democracy: The collective rights of the community of believers hold sway over all individual and minority rights.

Record on Rights: Poor record on individual civil liberties. Varying attitudes to economic rights and internal party democracy.

1 Democratic Audit, Charter 88, 1997.
Proportionality Chart; Inter-Parliamentary Union Website.
1999 Democracy Forum Report, Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Stockholm.
Inter-Parliamentary Union op. cit. and Division for the Advancement of Women, United Nations.
5 Inter-Parliamentary Union op. cit.
Alan Freeman, Montreal Gazette, July 1997.
Multinational Monitor, October 1996.
8 Multinational Monitor, March 2000.
Multinational Monitor, December 1998.
Multinational Monitor, March 2000.

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