Democracy in Crisis? Although 119 Countries Hold Free Elections, Only 89 of Those Are Considered 'Free' Societies. Democracy, It Seems, Relies upon More Than Just a Ballot Box

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Sit back and imagine a country ruled by a regime supported by a mere fifth of the electorate. Now think of another country in which a presidential candidate has gained power despite losing the popular vote. If you're thinking about African states rent by ethnic divisions or Central Asian republics with names ending in '-stan', think again. This is the UK and the USA we're talking about.

In the 2005 general election, the Labour party received little more than nine million votes. The other 35 million Britons who were eligible to vote chose not to re-elect Tony Blair's government. In the 2000 US presidential elections, the winner, George W Bush, gained 47.87 per cent of the popular vote. The same Federal Election Commission statistics show that his opponent, Al Gore, received a 48.38 per cent share--in real terms, 500,000 more votes.

Both Blair and Bush assumed power because both countries operate under versions of the winner-takes-all system known, somewhat paradoxically, as 'majoritarian'. In the case of the UK, the party with MPs elected to a majority of the seats available in the parliament forms a single-party government. In the USA, the candidate with the most votes from the Electoral College becomes president. This sets both countries apart from many in Europe, which tend to be 'consensus democracies' where power is shared among representatives of many social groups and political associations.

Ruled, as we are, by a leader who wasn't chosen by 80 per cent of us, can we even call the UK a democracy?

"We can reasonably claim to be a successful democracy, in the sense that a political system should be judged by more than one criterion," says Paul Webb, professor of politics at the University of Sussex and an expert on representative democracy. "We have a set of legal rights that protect people from the state--and others--to a meaningful extent, an independent judiciary to enforce these rights, a media that is largely free to criticise those in power, universal adult suffrage, the alternation of political leaders in office through the ballot box, respect for the rights of opposition, and so on."

Electoral democracy is no guarantor of freedom, however. The 2005 Freedom House survey defined 119 states as electoral democracies, but only 89 as 'free' countries. It is criteria such as those listed by Webb that define a free society, not the presence of a ballot box.

States that are democratic but only partly free are often those in transition from a repressive regime to more open forms of government. Georgia, which held free and fair elections in 2004, Ukraine, which elected Viktor Yushenko president after a flawed election led to the public protests of the so-called Orange Revolution, and Indonesia, widely praised for the conduct of its elections last year, are all examples of democracies not yet possessed of a fully open society, but moving in that direction.

In recent years, however, influential voices have begun to argue that democratisation, far from hastening freedom and civil society, works to repress it. "Elected governments claiming to represent the people have steadily encroached on the powers and rights of other elements of society," writes Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, in his 2003 study The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. …