Four regime typesAmerican democracy is “flawed”, Nepal’s is “hybrid”, concluded the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) report titled “Democracy Index 2016”.
American democracy is “flawed”, Nepal’s is “hybrid”, concluded the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) report titled “Democracy Index 2016”. The report, published in the Economist, provides a snapshot of the state of democracy in 165 countries based on their Democracy Index (DI) score. Because of the highly reliable data, media and academic journals around the world quote the DI extensively. The report allows us to identify constraints in the growth of Nepali democracy and to make a high-level forecast of the direction it might take going forward.
The DI is based on a range of indicators grouped under five categories: “Electoral process and pluralism”; “Political participation”; “Political culture and civil liberties”; and “Functioning of government”. “Public confidence in political parties” and “Public confidence in government” are two of the 35 indicators under the “Functioning of government” category.
Depending on the weighted average of their total DI score, regimes are classified as full democracy; flawed democracy; hybrid democracy or authoritarian.
In countries with full democracies, “not only basic democratic values of political freedoms and civil liberties are respected”, they also tend to be “underpinned by a political culture conducive to the flourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory.”
Flawed democracies also “have free and fair elections and, even if there are problems, basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.”
In hybrid democracies, “corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically, there is harassment of and pressure on journalists and the judiciary is not independent.”
Barriers to progress
The United States’ demotion from full democracy in 2015 to flawed democracy in 2016 occurred primarily because of its low score in the “Functioning of Government” category, a reflection of Americans’ declining trust in public institutions and political leaders for a number of years. According to Pew Research Centre, only 16 percent of Americans trusted their federal government in 2016 compared with 73 percent in 1958. The public approval rating of Congress in the last six and a half years is less than 20 percent.
The mistrust of government institutions, intense dislike of political leaders and a lack of democratic culture, common in many of the flawed and hybrid democracies, have impeded the evolution of new democracies to a higher level. In many countries, they have led to a reversal of democracy. Nepal’s scores on “ Functioning of government” and “Political culture” were amongst the lowest.
The end of the Second World War brought independence and democracy to scores of British colonies in Asia and Africa. The fall of the Soviet Union created another surge of democracy in Russia and in the former Soviet satellite states. The so-called “Arab Spring” brought down a number of long-time dictatorships and brought democracy to some countries.
Many of the new democracies have now turned into pseudo democracies, or into failed or authoritarian states. Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Philippines are some examples. In 2016, 72 countries recorded a drop in the DI score compared to 2015. In 2006, there were 28 full democracies; in 2016, the number was 19. The poor functioning of government and maleficence of political leaders are primary reasons for the reversal.
The evolution of a feudal or an authoritarian state to full democracy goes through intervening phases of hybrid and flawed democracies. The evolution cannot be sustained without public participation, democratic culture and public confidence in the countries’ institutions. The conduct of political leaders plays a critical role in expediting the evolution and inculcation of democratic culture.
Regrettably, the experience of Nepal and of some other new democracies shows that the majority of the political leaders who once lead the revolution for democracy are unable to rid society of the feudal mindset with which they grew up. Following the advent of democracy, these leaders become rent-seekers who are accountable to no one. Their insatiable avarice for money and power undermines the idea of democracy itself. In Nepal, the conduct of politicians is the cause for Nepalis’ near-zero trust in their public institutions and their distaste for politicians.
Full democracy is every citizen’s ultimate dream, because it appeals to the innate human desire for freedom, rule of law, social order and justice. And countries with full democracies are among the richest and the happiest in the world. The top 10 countries with full democracy also top the list in the “The World Happiness Report” from 2014 to 2017.
The evolution to full democracy happens in small increments. It is a very slow, iterative and exhausting process that is strewn with roadblocks and occasional lapses into dictatorship. It took Nepal nearly 70 years just to reach the hybrid stage. Rising to flawed and then to full democracy could take even longer unless the current brand of corrupt, feckless, feudal leaders are ousted and a younger generation committed to democratic values and of uncompromising moral standards take over political power. To prevent backsliding, the media, civil society and the public at large must be vigilant and zealously protect every small improvement in the democratic process.
The process is not irreversible. Witness the United States’ fall from a full democracy to a flawed one.
Koirala is a geotechnical consultant based in Vancouver, Canada