Democratization: Questions for the Year 2000

Article excerpt

It is a very great honour to have been invited to The Vancouver Institute. I am sure that most of your speakers must comment on the remarkable fact that Vancouver is a city where, on a Saturday evening, we can find a huge audience like this for a lecture series. There must be very few places, if any, where that is still true, and I think that is an enormous tribute to the culture and citizens of Vancouver.

I want to say something this evening about democracy and democratization, and raise some questions, as we move towards the 21 st century. We now hear a great deal about democracy, in the sense of a certain set of institutions: constitutional government, civil and political rights, and what are called today free and fair elections. These institutions are more popular than at any time in history and are being prescribed for peoples and countries around the world. We also hear a lot about democratization - the process through which these institutions are being established. Certainly, there are more countries now than ever before with competitive elections and some guarantees of civil and political rights.

In 1993, 107 out of 186 countries, on one count at least, had some form of democratic institutions and elections. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the world's population now live in countries with a relatively democratic electoral system. Opposition parties have been legalized in 31 countries since 1990. This is a remarkable change in a short period. But to have free and fair elections requires an electorate; it needs citizens. Democratization is not only a process through which institutions are established, it is also a process through which subjects, people who are merely governed, become citizens - people who can participate in politics and take some part in governing. We also tend to think of democratization as a transition from authoritarian rule, military rule, or totalitarian systems - a move towards new institutions and new liberties. And we tend to think of it as a process happening abroad. But one thing I would like you to do this evening is also to think about the next century of democracy at home, and ask: do we require more democratization at home? Is democratization completed yet at home? Or have we still got some way to go? That is one important question for the next century.

But there is also another more basic question. And that is: why is democratization important? Why do we care so much about free and fair elections? What is it about democracy that so commends itself to us not only here at home, but also for all countries around the world? If we think about history, we see that there have been enormous struggles in the past over democratization, to establish the rights and liberties of citizenship, including, most basically, universal suffrage. We have seen in the last few years pictures of people walking for many miles, and standing in long lines for many hours, to cast their very first vote. What is it that makes voting so important? Of course, it is a way of making an orderly change of government, and that is very important because, as the saying goes, "ballots are always better than bullets." But is it just an orderly change of government? There are ways of replacing one government by another which do not necessarily involve elections. To see what is important about democracy, we need to go back to another transition - a long time ago in the old world - from a world of hierarchy, tradition, and status, to a new world of equality, rights, citizenship, and democracy. We should consider some ideas that were central to that transition two to three centuries ago, and see how those ideas are at the centre of democracy and democratization. From around the 17th and 18th centuries, a set of very revolutionary ideas began to become widely accepted and gain general currency. They do not sound all that revolutionary these days because we are so used to them, but they have some extremely important implications. …