It was arguably the most turbulent year for democracies since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Swiss political scientist Claude Longchamp lists what he thinks were the biggest flops and failures of democracy in 2016.
The strengths and weaknesses of democratic rule are more significant today than ever before. Looking at individual countries, there has been a lot of talk about hybrid systems that hover between democracies and autocracies. They have even been called deficient or failed democracies.
Here is my list:
1. Outdated electoral system in the United States
In the US, it is not the citizens, who elect the president, but the Electoral College, which consists of 538 electors from every state. In 2016 and for the fifth time in US history, the majority of voters did not correspond with the majority of the electors. The fact is that it is the votes of the Electoral College that decide who becomes president, and not the majority of the voters’ votes. This system is outdated and undemocratic. According to political scientists at Princeton University, this flaw will turn the US’s democracy into an oligarchy of the rich, who not only strive to be powerful in the economic world but also in politics.
2. Quality of elections in established democracies
The 2016 US elections only scored 62 out of 100 points in the Electoral Integrity Index of the University of Sydney. The index rates elections all over the world according to their processes of how results are obtained. On a global scale, the US ranks 47th following countries including Tunisia, Greece, Mongolia, Grenada, Poland and South Africa. Pippa Norris, political scientist at Harvard, blames the division of constituencies, electoral legislation as well as campaign funding for the shortfalls in the US elections. According to her, these elements enhanced political polarisation, but did not prevent manipulative interventions.
3. Unregulated campaign funding
Campaign financing is undisputedly considered the weakest link of any election. According to expert estimates from 2016, in two thirds of the cases national laws have not proved sufficient to make sure that election results are independent of money. This means that the notion of free elections, which are a core component of democracy, is jeopardised. The fact that the US has raised the upper limit of campaign financing is a bad sign. Switzerland has the same shortfall, which has been a bone of contention with the European Council for quite some time. However, apart from this lack of transparency, Switzerland’s parliamentary elections are actually seen as a role model by the international community.
4. Completely failed elections
The 2016 elections in Syria and Equatorial Guinea failed completely, according to international observers. In Syria, it was obviously due to the ongoing civil war. In Equatorial Guinea, the president has been ruling the central African state since 1979, and he may continue to do so. Other failed elections took place in the Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Chad, Vietnam and Uganda. Part of the problem in underdeveloped countries is the lack of voter registration, parties and candidates, insufficient media reports as well as electoral authorities, whose independence is not guaranteed.
5. Presidential system with autocratic characteristics
In the summer of 2016, the Turkish government put down a military coup. The president used this victory to go on the offensive against the political opposition, against adversaries to the regime as well as any critical mass media. His goal was to establish a presidential democracy by keeping to the democratic path but by compromising the quality of democracy in favour of an autocratic governmental system. In political science, presidential democracies are deemed less efficient than parliamentary democracies.
6. Political and civil rights on the decline
According to the index of the Foundation Freedom House, 72 countries experienced a decline in their political and civil freedom in 2016. Only 43 countries showed the opposite trend. This is the tenth time in a row that the ‘negative’ list outperformed the list with the countries where political freedom is on the rise. China, Russia as well as countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America are worst off. This again proves that the link between economic wealth and liberal political order still exists. Political freedom no longer comes automatically with growth, if there is no political will.
7. Populism on the rise
In 2016, it was widely reported that globalisation had temporarily reached its peak. It had helped spur economic growth in numerous emerging countries, which benefitted their middle classes. However, industrialised countries in particular complained that some members of exactly that middle class were among the losers. In 2016, rightwing populist movements of nationalist groups were on the increase, thanks to citizens’ fear of social decline. This fueled further scepticism of the European Union and led to louder demands for an end to immigration. This trend peaked with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June 2016.
8. Sovereignty of the citizens, not only the states
In 2016, democracy suffered a further setback in the EU, stemming from citizens’ fears that they have no influence on what is happening at a supranational level. The EU responds to crises by demanding more integration. Technocratic cooperation dominates its political understanding. However, the EU fundamentally turns a blind eye to the fact that in modern times sovereignty is not only needed from the states, but also from their citizens. The debate on democratising the EU still lacks a balance of both principles.
9. Lack of identity formation
Critics see the integration power of liberal democracies fading. In the past, parties knew how to put aside their political ideologies – whether conservative, social-democratic or liberal – for pragmatic reasons. Being able to identify at a national level and with a supranational body is nowadays more important than economic cooperation. Without this identification, it is easy for new movements to gain ground during times of national resentment and crisis.
10. Undemocratic role models for young people
A worrying trend is the fact that young people in many countries are losing interest in politics and no longer care about democracy. Computer games, for example, should be looked at more closely since they play an important role in the socialization process, when it comes to an understanding of societal norms and forms of government. Some of the games simulate the collapse of the police, fire departments or hospitals just to highlight the general failure of a political system. The heroes are often strongmen who are opponents of the system.
This interim assessment of how democracies failed in 2016 is obviously unilaterally negative. However, it is not the emergence and disappearance of democracies that paint such a negative picture. It is more the realisation that democracy, which usually develops gradually, is in a phase of stagnation. Taking a critical look at it is the challenge of democrats everywhere.
This article is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch.
What were the biggest democracy flops in 2016 for you? Let us know too.
Adapted from German by Billi Bierling, swissinfo.ch