Modern democracy is gradually taking shape between ancient legacies and adaptations to contemporary issues. Faced with the trials of history, modern democracies have experienced as many advances as setbacks. Competing authoritarian regimes and internal tensions question the democratic model.
Democracy is suffering, and its promise needs to be revived. Indeed, the added value, viability, and future of democracy are being contested in a way that has not been in modern history, at least since the 1930s.
If the last forty years have seen a remarkable expansion of democracy in all regions of the world, the last few years have been marked by the decline of the fabric of both old and young democracies. The concept of democracy continues to mobilize people around the world, but its practice has disappointed and disillusioned many citizens and democracy advocates.
The invention of democracy in Greece
In the VIIIth century, B.C. is founded the city-state of Athens, Athens is then governed by a group of aristocrats. The social crises and episodes of tyrannies push statesmen to associate the citizens with political decisions. At the beginning of the Vth century BC, the wars against the Persians gave the people an essential role: their victories opened the golden age of Athenian democracy.
The foundations of Athenian democracy are defined by equality before the law (isonomia); the freedom of political speech (isegoria); the powers of the popular Assembly (ecclesia) are reinforced.
Athens is a direct democracy in the sense that the magistrates are drawn by lot for one year among the citizens; the magistrates receive a “misthos“, financial allowance, allowing all the citizens to participate in public life. Decisions are taken by a show of hands in the Ecclesia.
This democratic principle is nevertheless limited, Athens is a closed democracy: women, children, foreigners, and slaves are excluded and citizenship is limited to men of military age, free by birth and of purely Athenian parents. Only 10% of the Athenian population was part of the body of citizens (that is to say 40 000 citizens in the Vth century BC).
In Rome: A Republic without democracy
Rome modified its political system in 509 BC, and the Republic (“res publica“, the public thing) replaces the royalty. It is a republic of aristocratic type led by magistrates appointed for one year in a collegial manner.
The most fortunate citizens participated in public affairs, the Comices (assemblies) where citizens are divided into tribes according to their wealth (5 censal classes). The first 2 classes vote first; the citizens of the other classes are not called. The most important annual magistracies are granted to the citizens of the 1st class. The members of the Senate, the highest Roman authority, came from great aristocratic families.
If, as in Athens, a man born of a citizen father becomes a Roman citizen. However, in adulthood, citizenship is more open: It can be given to the inhabitants of the cities of the Empire, to the allied barbarian elites, and to the soldiers of auxiliary troops.
In 212, the emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all free men of the Empire. Nevertheless, citizenship was more restricted and did not come with political rights. Birth and wealth remained the most important criteria for taking part in public affairs. Thus, democracy was never established in Rome.
The foundations of modern democracy
- Enlightenment and democratic ideals
In England, the Glorious Revolution (1688) marked the end of absolutism. The introduction of the Bill of Rights (1689) limited the power of the king and reaffirmed the authority of Parliament to control laws and taxes. Free elections are ensured, and the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people is established.
The English example nourished the Enlightenment. Philosophers criticize the absolute power of the king, arbitrariness, and privileges of the nobility and the clergy. Denis Diderot (1713-1784), in the Encyclopaedia, asserts that “no man has received from nature the right to command others“.
To guarantee this equality, John Locke (1632-1704) states the natural rights of man and evokes the existence of a “social contract” between men and the government. The former concede a part of their sovereignty to the latter freely, which in return guarantees these natural rights.
Later, Montesquieu (1689-1755) shows the necessity of separating powers, which if concentrated in the same hands, run the risk of authoritarian drift: “power stops power” (De l’Esprit des Lois, XII-4).
- A state of law
For J. Locke, only the creation of a law shared and respected by all allows men to be free. Only a state governed by law can enforce this requirement. The constitution is the guarantor of fundamental rights with the establishment of an independent administrative authority verifying the conformity of laws. To enable everyone to assert his or her rights, all the authorities comply with these superior rules.
This hierarchy of norms is one of the guarantees of the rule of law. The norms are only valid if they respect these higher rules. Such a model implies a judiciary that is independent of the legislative and executive powers.
- Popular sovereignty
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) each citizen holds a share of this sovereignty, which is one and indivisible. It is expressed by the general will which results from the deliberation of all the assembled citizens. Rousseau is hostile to the representative system and to all that divides the sovereignty of the people.
The idea of direct democracy runs up against many limits: if in Athens, the Ecclesia was able to assemble on the Pnyx hill (6,000 citizens out of 30 000 in the IVth century BC), the size of the modern states prevents the realization of this democratic ideal. Another limitation is the limited competence of the citizen. Rousseau recognizes that this perfect government is only suitable for a “people of gods“.
All democratic regimes proclaim the sovereignty of the people. The expression of this sovereignty passes by a right to vote for each citizen (universal suffrage) by which an imperative mandate is given to the elected. If the elected officials deviate from the will of the people, the voters can revoke it.
Kinds of democracy
To define what characterizes democracy today, we can start with the etymology of the word (demos = the people and kratos = power in Greek.) It is a principle and not a mode of government. However, it could be defined as, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
This definition has several consequences, such as the need to respect individual and collective freedoms. These freedoms, defined by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 and updated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, define the rights enjoyed by citizens, such as freedom of expression, opinion, and demonstration. Democracy implies the existence of active citizenship, based on equality between all. By citizens, we mean those who are able to participate in the life of the “city”, understood as a political community: the right to vote, to stand for election, etc.
Today, we can distinguish different types of democracies, of which the two main ones are
– Direct democracy: the people, understood as all citizens, govern directly. This is the model of Athenian citizenship as defined in the Vth century BC.
–Representative democracy: the people appoint representatives to govern on their behalf. This is the case in the vast majority of current democracies.
Participatory democracy would be a mode of operation that would allow citizens to feel more involved in the political decisions made by taking the maximum number of decisions at the level closest to them.
The representative democracies that we know today are based on the notion of the sovereignty of the people. In France, Article 3 of the 1958 Constitution states that “national sovereignty belongs to the people, who exercise it through their representatives or by referendum [“la souveraineté nationale appartient au peuple qui l’exerce par la voie de ses représentants ou par referendum”]”. It also specifies that this sovereignty is “one and indivisible [“une et indivisible”]“. Democracy is therefore opposed to authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. In the latter, freedom is limited or even repressed and citizens are exposed to arbitrary political decisions.
The totalitarianism of the XXth century (Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism) have disappeared, and today we see varying forms of authoritarian regimes: closed dictatorships such as in North Korea, or more liberal ones such as in China, which are totalitarian regimes – whose objective is to install, in the name of an ideology, political, cultural and economic domination – or “dictocracies” such as in Russia or Turkey. By this we mean regimes that, under the appearance of democracies (maintaining elections, the semblance of a multiparty system, etc.) in reality function as dictatorships. Democratic functioning regularly experiences crises and questioning which regularly require rethinking.
Advances and setbacks of democracies
- Tocqueville’s concern: from democracy to tyranny?
A political analysis Alexis de Tocqueville was not initially a supporter of democracy. He rather believes in a form of society led by enlightened elites, considering that election by universal suffrage means the tyranny of the majority. In On Democracy in America (1835 – 1840), he shows that the rule of law and individual liberties go hand in hand with economic and social progress. He emphasizes the importance of multipartyism and local involvement. But he fears that this system will eventually lead to the atomization of society, with each individual following his or her own interests, and the seizure of power by a despot.
- The democratic experiment of Salvador Allende in Chili
Salvador Allende’s government represented the failure of the left to come to power in Chile, which faced a double challenge: on the one hand, a revolutionary movement calling for a radical transformation, and on the other, conservative parties supported by the United States, in a context of the Cold War. Allende’s choice to respect the rights of the conservative opposition and to keep his trust in the chiefs of staff would probably prove fatal. The army was preparing to overthrow the government: a first military coup failed on June 29, 1973, while a second succeeded on September 11, resulting in Allende’s assassination and the rise to power of the extreme right-wing regime of General Augusto Pinochet. This example shows the fragility of democratic systems when they do not have a stable foundation.
- From authoritarian rule to democracy: Portugal and Spain from 1974 to 1982
The examples of Portugal and Spain are those of a peaceful democratic transition in two different contexts. On the one hand, there was a slow exit from the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal and the death of Franco in Spain. In Portugal, the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, was an example of a coup d’état with a democratic project, massively supported by the people and organized within the army. The adoption of the Constitution on April 2, 1976, marked the end of a complex transition process and the beginning of a parliamentary regime, culminating in Portugal’s accession to the EEC in 1986. In Spain, after the death of the Caudillo, the newly legalized left-wing opposition began discussions with Franco’s successors, who agreed to modernize the country and accept the role of the king and the monarchy. However, the period was marked by authoritarian upheavals until the coup d’état of February 23, 1981, the last gasp of a Franco regime on the verge of extinction.
A new form of democracy emerged at the turn of the century with the rise to power of Putin in Russia, followed by Erdogan in Turkey: these two regimes are emblematic of the authoritarian democracy that has taken shape today in some European and American countries. This power is democratic in the sense that it derives its legitimacy from the ballot box: Putin and Erdogan have been elected and re-elected, and no one disputes the popularity of the two leaders. That is where the analogy ends; that is also where the perversity of this regime lies. For the façade of democracy masks the inexorable erosion of public freedoms, the side-lining of the checks and balances necessary for the functioning of democracy, all of which leads to an absence of citizen awareness and space for public debate, and finally to the absence of political alternation since all access to power is locked up by the current leader.
The Russian regime corrupts at will. “There are three ways to act on men: blackmail, vodka, and the threat of assassination,” says Putin. The Putin regime represses when threats are not enough and kills when repression does not work. It suppresses all dissent and puts a tentacular mark on society which, as an autonomous entity, no longer exists. This is an old recipe of an autocrat disguised as a democrat: the people are only sovereign in the vote; once they have voted, all sovereignty returns to the government, and the people have given up their freedom. Moreover, he plays the people against the elites, following the logic of physical and moral violence.
In discussing the political systems of Russia and Turkey, Dimitar Bechev and Suat Kınıklıoğlu argue in an article entitled: “Turkey and Russia: No Birds of the Same Feather” and published in SWP:
“…the unnerving similarities between Turkey and Russia. In 2018, the international watchdog Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free”. Russia was demoted back in 2004, at the end of Putin’s first term. Constitutional changes in Turkey, in force since 2018, transferred all essential powers to President Erdoğan. Checks on the executive branch, from the media all the way to parliament, have been dismantled. In Russia, Putin has amended the constitution so as to be eligible to rule for another two six-year terms after 2024. Expectations that he might cede power, step by step, to a successor have evaporated. “
And they go on to say:
“Yet, Turkey is and will remain, different from Russia. It has a relatively more competitive political system shaped by decades of democratic development. The strength of the opposition, the structure of the economy, and the nature of linkages to the West make it unlikely that Turkey will consolidate an authoritarian system resembling Russia’s. Ankara is not coming into Moscow’s geopolitical orbit either. It still has a strong interest in maintaining links with the EU and the US instead of membership in a league of autocrats. What Erdoğan does – similar to his role model Sultan Abdulhamid II – is play Russia against the West, and vice versa, in pursuit of maximum strategic autonomy. “
The spring of authoritarian democracy is quite different: “[…] men are afraid of the Power that can strike them; the Power is afraid of the men who can revolt“. Putin and Erdogan are in the Machiavellian logic of power: it is better to be feared than loved. Everything is and must be subordinated to power. These two autocrats are shady (they distrust everything and everyone), aggressive (Putin massacres the Chechens and Erdogan, the Kurds), and gluttonous (they shamelessly absorb all other powers). Such a regime loses its democratic essence and turns into an autocracy. In power since 2000, Putin alternates only with his alter ego Medvedev. In power since 2003, Erdogan has replaced the Kemalist heritage with an Islamic caliphate made to his measure and subject to his grip.
For a long time, good old liberal democracy had only dictatorship as a rival: at least one knew what one was dealing with. Today, it has to deal with a form of power that is related to it, but with which the links are those of an incestuous and distorted family.