Can there be democracy in poor countries? Is there democracy in rich countries?


Democracy Map

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States generally recognized as being democratic with multi-party elections.
 Argentina*  Finland Mauritius
 Austria  France  Netherlands
 Australia  Germany  New Zealand
 Bangladesh*  Greece  Norway
 Belgium  Hungary*  Papua New Guinea
 Botswana  Iceland  Poland*
 Brazil  India  Portugal
 Britain (United Kingdom)  Ireland  Slovakia*
 Bulgaria*  Israel  Slovenia*
 Canada  Italy  Spain
 Chile*  Jamaica  Sweden
 Costa Rica  Japan (but until 1993 the opposition had
never won)
 Cyprus  Latvia*  Trinidad and Tobago
 Czech Republic*  Lithuania*  United States
 Denmark  Luxembourg  
 Estonia (western standard, but Russian minority)*  Malta  *Only recently

States with free elections but without a system of proportional representation.
 United States    

*but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have PR

States which may be in transition towards free elections.
 Afghanistan  Fiji  Malawi  Senegal
 Albania Georgia (Sakartvelo) 2004 revolution Mozambique Sierra Leone
 Algeria  Guatemala  Nicaragua  South Africa
 Angola  Ghana  Nigeria  Tanzania
 Bahrain  Iraq  Panama Thailand
 Cambodia (UN supervised)  Korea (South)  Peru  Yemen
 Croatia  Kyrgizstan (2005 revolution)  Serbia  Zambia
 Tunisia  Libya  Egypt  Only a second election will confirm the status

States which are suspected of having manipulated or restricted elections
 Armenia  Haiti*  Madagascar  Singapore
 Belarus (Byelorussia)  Honduras  Malaysia*  Sri Lanka
 Egypt  Indonesia  Mexico  Tunisia
 El Salvador  Iran  Morocco  Turkey
 Gabon  Ivory Coast  Nepal  Uganda
 Georgia  Jordan  Paraguay  Dem Congo (former Zaire)
 Guatemala  Kenya (improved last time)  Russia  Zimbabwe
 Guyana    Serbia  *Hard to classify

States with completely fraudulent elections (one-party tyrannies)
Burma  Korea (North)  Turkmenistan
China  Syria  Uzbekistan
Cuba Belarus Vietnam

States with no elections
Burma (army refused to accept result) Oman Swaziland (absolute monarchy)
Kuwait (voters are a tiny minority of residents)  Qatar United Arab Emirates
Laos Saudi Arabia
(has had elections - men only - for half the seats
of local councils)

Military regimes
 Burundi (after brief electoral experience)  Equatorial Guinea  Sao Tome
 Burma  Gambia  Sudan
 Central African Republic Guinea  Thailand (military in reserve)
Chad (with sham election)  Guine Bissau  Uganda (origin of regime)
Ethiopia (with possibly sham election) Rwanda  Pakistan (from time to time)
Egypt (with possible election later)  

States with serious political pathology
(death squads and random violence promoted by the government)
 Colombia  Iraq Paraguay (improving)
Guatemala (improving)  El Salvador  Peru (improving)
 Haiti  Sri Lanka  Congo Kinshasa
Honduras Syria  Zimbabwe

These lists are not necessarily complete as new states are being formed

Too new to classify
Bosnia (disrupted)  Macedonia   South Sudan
Khazakstan Montenegro (has had elections)  Tadjikistan
Kirgizia  Russia (opposition can't win) Ukraine (probably at least one honest election)

States with no effective government
 Afghanistan  Haiti Sierra Leone (govt. has little power outside capital but now normalising)
Congo Kinshasa (election held July 2006) Liberia (has now had an election, 2005)  Somalia.



Possible Solutions

Many countries have the word "Democratic" in their official titles. The cynic would say that this is a sign that they are dictatorships. The countries where the votes of the people can change the government are rather limited in number.

There are many governments which hold elections but make sure that the people in power won't lose. In 1990 the former communist states were in transition and it was not clear what category some of them belonged to. Most of the former Soviet Union states appear to be tending towards continuing dictatorship as leaders who made good opponents to the previous regime prove unsuccessful as elected leaders.

The classic 20th century dictatorships seem to be in retreat. They are characterized by: one political "party" led by one person; secret police to supervise and intimidate the people; concentration camps for those who don't agree; torture; state control of media and education; control (prohibition) of travel outside the country.

The first of these was the Russian Communist Party in power from 1917 until 1991, later imitated by Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party and the Arab Ba'ath Party. In Italy there was the Fascist Party. Similar forms were adopted by many of the former colonies, though more common has been the government controlled by the army.

Few other parties have approached the complete tyranny of these three. A single political society cannot be a Party in the sense used in a democracy; it is really a kind of church or secret society. (After being in power a long time it becomes like a feudal aristocracy, or Mafia). In a democracy membership of a party is voluntary; in a one-party state membership is by invitation or may be compulsory for people in certain professions: such as education and the media. The current examples still in place are: China, Cuba, North Korea, Iraq (until the invasion), Syria.

Until his death Pol Pot was still trying to re-impose a similar regime in Cambodia. He and Michel Aflaq, founder of Ba'athism, both studied in Paris. Another movement trying to achieve this condition is Sendero Luminoso in Peru, which has a Pol Potist policy. This is headed by a former university professor (now in jail). Robert Mugabe could also be considered a western-educated intellectual.

Earlier prototypes were the religious dictatorships, such as the Anabaptists of 17th century Munster and the 16th century Roman Catholic Church in Spain whose Inquisition has often been compared to Stalin's Committee for State Security (various names) and show trials. Many countries which during the Cold War belonged to the so-called Free World were in fact dictatorships with the usual apparatus of torture, imprisonment without trial and arbitrary killing. Thus the use of the word "Democracy" or "Free" by orators is not a sufficient condition for being sure that a country is democratic.

In the majority of states the ruling group cannot be displaced from power by elections (or anything else short of armed insurrection). There is a danger in such countries of psychopaths coming to power - and in most of them the dictators seem to be out of their skulls and out of touch with the people and the rest of the world (Libya was a good example). Perhaps the main value of free elections is not efficient government (many democracies have poorly performing governments) but to eliminate psychopaths and lessen corruption by a turnover of leaders. Nevertheless, no out-and-out dictatorship performs as well as even the worst democracy in providing services for the people. In some apparent democracies government secrecy may frustrate the will of the people.

The main factor in increasing the number of democratic states appears to be the ease of modern communications by which even the closed societies are unable to conceal from all their people the existence of a better world outside. The dictatorship of the Soviet Union lost control of publication when computer printers and fax machines became available (though they tried to limit them). Another factor is that the thorough-going tyrannies cannot allow the conditions necessary for a successful economy. Although the successful Asian economies are not democracies in the western sense, neither are they tyrannies - in every case, even in South Korea and Singapore, the government must pay attention to public opinion. China may not for ever remain an exception - though the success of its economy may be an illusion, judging by the low quality of its cheap products..

The main reason why more countries do not achieve democracy may be that the great powers have prevented them, on the grounds that democracies are harder to control. Many dictators therefore have been supported with military aid by the leaders of the western world. In particular the states of Central America and the Caribbean, controlled by land owners and small groups of the wealthy, appear to be the subjects of a policy of preventing democracy, usually with the excuse that the democrats are labeled communist.

The real reason may be fears that democratic governments elected by a majority of the people might wish to alter the land ownership of holdings by foreign companies in order to give land to the landless - a useful precondition for capital formation and economic development. Another group of this kind is the Gulf states where super-rich traditional monarchies can do what they like to their own people as long as the oil flows to the west. The case of Iraq is similar. It has been speculated that western governments refrained from supporting democratic forces in Iraq because of a preference for dictatorship over an unpredictable popular regime.

There is a dispute about whether democracy can exist in multi-lingual and largely illiterate societies. Is it easier to manipulate such people than those in industrial societies with television? Elections in such societies tend to be won by people whose main intention is to milk the state revenues - but this is not unknown in the industrial countries. The presidential elections in Brazil are sometimes used as an example of manipulation (But a recent President was impeached for corruption).

In many parts of Africa the pre-colonial societies were democratic at the village level (not all, though - Buganda, Dahomey and Zululand were as bad as any modern tyranny). The recent one-party states were a continuation of the governing methods of the colonial regimes, as Communism was to some extent a continuation of Tsarism.

It may be that in the long run the present world order of a few rich countries exercising varying degrees of control over the more numerous poor countries is unstable and needs to be replaced by some measure of world democracy, as yet unforeseeable.

New Democracies
The test of a new democracy occurs with the second election. Sometimes the first election results in a new dictatorship. It has been observed that the holding of elections does not always lead to a democratic system. People who have been used to dictatorship will often vote into power another authoritarian group. Examples are found in the republics emerging from the Soviet Union which tend to be dominated by nationalist parties with no real program other than being against rule from Moskva. Another is Algeria where elections resulted in the victory of an Islamic party openly desiring the abolition of democracy as "Western Pollution".

Types of Democracies
There are two main types of democratic systems:

  • Those with an elected President, as in the United States, a system also found in most Latin American states.
  • Those with a Prime Minister as in: the UK, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Italy and many other European countries.

In these the Head of State is not the Head of Government and performs mostly ceremonial roles.

  • France has a mixed system where the President is directly elected and there is also a PM. This system was imitated by Romania after the fall of Communism

They can be in conflict if they belong to different opposing parties, as Mitterrand and Chirac were during the mid 1980s and president Chirac was at one period with the Socialist Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister.

Both systems have strengths and weaknesses. The directly elected president is responsible to the citizens as a whole and they have a direct choice, but there are questions about the need for campaigning in a huge electorate. A person who can survive the selection process may not be the best fitted to govern. The best fitted to rule may not wish to endure the long electoral process. In a parliamentary system the Prime Minister usually has to perform first at ministerial level before becoming PM (though this was not the case with either Tony Blair or David Cameron in Britain). And before that he must show his abilities as an ordinary MP. Thus there is an element of apprenticeship during which he is on show to the other professionals and to the electors. But in the British system the PM may have too much unfettered power, whereas the US president is limited by the power of the Congress and the Constitution.

The United States of America has a unique system by which the President is elected by an Electoral College. The founders of the US were deeply suspicious of democracy and desired to elect the president by a council of wise men. The members were to be chosen by the states, with one member for each Senator and each Representative, thus bigger states had more electors. By now the electors are chosen by the voters rather than the state assemblies, and have no powers other than to vote as their label required. The College does not deliberate but merely votes. One result of this system is that it is possible for a candidate to obtain more votes in the country as a whole than a rival but still be defeated, if the other candidate has more votes in the Electoral College. (This may have happened in 2000). Both "elections" of the the US president George W Bush are likely to have been interfered with. The first election was marred by the result in Florida where many (mainly black) people were excluded from the voters' roll and the actual counting of the votes was dubious. In the second election the result in Ohio was almost certainly changed electronically to favor Bush instead of the probable actual result for Kerry. Thus Bush's electoral mandate was similar to that of Ahmedinijad in Iran.

A Prime Minister can be got rid of if the need arises or if he or she loses the support of the electors by a simple vote in the Assembly.

A US President can only be removed with difficulty. In most of the Prime Ministerial countries the PM is responsible to more than one party in a coalition as a result of proportional representation. In the US the party system is very weak as most candidates raise their own money and stand as individuals rather than as party members. They vote in Congress as individuals without party discipline. Thus ideological parties in the European sense do not exist in the US.

Voting systems
Britain, Canada and the United States use First Past the Post. Few other countries use it now. There are several other systems. In France there are two rounds. In the first round many parties and independent candidates can stand. In the second round, two weeks later, the top two candidates stand against each other (unless one had gained more than 50% in the first round). In Ireland and some other countries each voting district has several members. Voters choose candidates in order of preference. The counting system is complicated but the result is proportional to people's wishes. The Australian Senate uses this system. British constitutional experts devised another system for Germany in which each voting district has a member elected by direct vote, and a second member at large from the proportion of votes for each party, with a threshhold of 5%. This system has been adopted by New Zealand, and most recently by the Scottish Parliament. A number of European countries use a system with a Party List in which the parties receive members according to the number of votes. The parties themselves decide where on the list the candidates appear, and thus which ones are safe. This is used for the election of British Members of the European Parliament (not Northern Ireland). Spain uses it for the main house. (It is possibly the system whereby the ordinary voter has least influence on the people who represent them.)

One test of a democracy may be whether the government represents the majority of the people or whether there are large numbers who feel alienated from the working of the system. Several western democracies come near to failing this test, as they exclude the interests of the poor and try to make it hard for them to vote, so that they are moving towards oligarchy.

Recent changes in the voting system in States of the United States of America seemed designed to making it difficult for voters to vote. It is assumed that the reason for these changes is to bias the result towards the right wing partiy by excluding black and poor voters.

But is democracy enough? Some of the former communist countries, with their collapsed economies may have found that the democratic forms did not of themselves provide food and other necessities for life. The danger was that the people would associate democracy and its arguing politicians with destitution and will then acquiesce in renewed dictatorship. Something like this may have happened in Russia. The successor states of the Soviet Union seemed unlikely to find a stable democratic system as long as there was no food or fuel. In former Soviet Central Asia most of the successor states have remained complete tyrannies.

A different problem of democracy seems likely in the stable democracies where long years of prosperity have perhaps caused complacency. Can these democracies find competent politicians to deal with the increasingly unpredictable world where decisions will be needed to deal with unprecedented situations? Are they in any case responsive to the needs of all the people, or only to the better off? Are the conspiracy theorists right when they claim secret groups actually control important aspects of the state? There is some evidence of this - at least in Italy in the recent past.

Does the United States constitution, first enacted in 1789, suit modern conditions?

A new problem of democracy is that international agreements on trade have no democratic input. Instead the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, now World Trade Organization) is alleged to be responsive mainly to international companies. This points out the absence of a world democratic forum able to exert popular control over world institutions. Already the WTO is attempting to annul national laws on health, pollution and ethics (such as child labor) on the grounds that they are restraints on free trade. But these are controls of trade which national electorates have felt are justifiable. Can there be development without democracy?

"No taxation" theory
An insight by Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist, is interesting here. If governments control funds entirely from outside the country they have no need to consult the electorate. Thus, states where the only real income is oil have no need to tax the people and no need to listen to their wishes. States where the main income is international Aid have the same problem - the rulers don't need the people, and so the people have no influence. Saudi Arabia is the classic example, where the rulers control what seems to be unlimited wealth from the oil, and there are almost no ordinary taxes. In Venezuela the president controls the oil income and finds it less and less necessary to listen to others' ideas. In Uganda and many other African states the main government income is aid and the government answers more to the donors than to the taxpayers.

Thomas Friedman points out that Russia became more democratic when the price of oil was low - $17 a barrel. The rise of Putin, in practice a dictator, followed the rise in energy prices. Russia still has no other economy.

The growth of British democracy came from the fact that the king had to ask for taxation (unlike the king of France who simply demanded it). The House of Commons represented those who would have to pay.

Can democracy be imposed from outside? The signs are that unless there has been a tradition of popular assemblies interrupted by a military coup, imposition will not work. In 1945 Germany had experienced 12 years of Nazi dictatorship but had previously had a brief democratic regime - from 1918 to 1933. There were people still alive who had operated that system and when they returned from exile, or prison, they were able to establish a new system. But in the Soviet Union the very brief democratic period had lasted only months, following the abdication of the Tsar and the putsch by the Communists. In 1990 no-one alive had experienced even that.

In Iraq there had never been an honest democratic system. The British had left a monarchy, underpinned by British power in the background. When it was overthrown by a military coup there was no experience of elections, but merely a series of dictatorships, ending with Saddam Hussein's.

Arab Spring
Will the three north African states of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt become democratic? So far (November 2011) Tunisia has held an election for a Constituent Assembly, with a moderate Islamic party winning a majority. Libya is ruled by an interim government and has promised elections for a Constituent Assembly in early Spring 2012. Egypt remains ruled by the military. It seems likely that more revolutionary activity will be needed to bring about genuine elections.

Interesting Reading

Thomas Friedman

Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution - and How We Can Renew Our Global Future

Was zu tun ist: Eine Agenda für das 21. Jahrhundert

Last revised 31/08/12


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