Introduction: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Terminology around democracy


Democracy, as scholar Arend Lijphart notes, "is a concept that virtually defies definition."1 It is a type of political regime; however, clarity around delimiting it from other forms is hampered by significant disagreement. For instance, "to be considered democratic, a country must choose its leaders through fair and competitive elections, ensure basic civil liberties, and respect the rule of law."2 However, is the presence of these institutions enough to define democracy? Many would argue that these tenets are necessary, but insufficient, parameters for democratic regimes.

One point around which there seems to be consensus is that democracy embodies a political system with the aim of being representative of and responsive to citizenry. Former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali describes democracy as "a system of government which embodies, in a variety of institutions and mechanisms, the ideal of political power based on the will of the people."3 This definition points to the representative nature of democracy, but offers little information on what makes democratic institutions capable of formulating a representative system. Scholar Robert Dahl uses the term 'democracy' to mean "a political system one of the characteristics of which is the quality of being completely or almost completely responsive to citizens."4 Dahl prescribed three opportunities needed by citizens for this to be a reality:

  • "To formulate their preferences;
  • To signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action;
  • To have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government, that is, weighted with no discrimination because of the content or source of the preference."5

Democracy versus polyarchy

The notion of democracy represents an ideal. As such, many scholars employ Dahls alternative notion of polyarchies, which "may be thought of as relatively (but incompletely) democratized regimes or, to put it in another way, polyarchies are regimes that have been substantially popularized and liberalized, that is, highly inclusive and extensively open to public contestation."6 On this basis, polyarchies strive toward the same principles as democracies and have seven attributes that mirror those of democracy, including:

  • "elected officials;
  • free and fair elections;
  • inclusive suffrage;
  • the right to run for office;
  • freedom of expression;
  • alternative information; and
  • associational autonomy."7
The key difference lies in the fact that polyarchies are meant to imply "a system of government that fully embodies all democratic ideals, but one that approximates them to a reasonable degree."8 This distinction is seen as helpful by many experts on democracy, who often choose to utilize the term polyarchy as a proxy for democracy in practice. The argument for such usage is that "it is important to maintain the distinction between democracy as an ideal system and the institutional arrangements that have come to be regarded as a kind of imperfect approximation of an idea."9

A spectrum of regimes

The distinction between the ideal of democracy and the reality is one that emerges often in discussions of the extent to which democracy can be described as consolidated. 'Democratic consolidation' itself is a somewhat contested term. Many use the 'only game in town theory' as a litmus test for democratic consolidation, wherein "no significant political group seriously attempts to overthrow the democratic regime or to promote domestic or international violence in order to secede from the state."10 Others utilize the 'two turnover rule,' wherein power has successfully changed hands twice via a free and fair electoral process.11

This indicates that in practice, regimes are often seen as existing on a spectrum between democracy and what is generically termed 'authoritarianism.'12 Other terms used to imply this end of the continuum include 'hierarchical,' 'monocratic,' 'absolutist,' 'autocratic,' 'despotic,' 'hegemonic' (preferred by Dahl), and 'totalitarian.'13 An authoritarian regime may be defined as "a political system with limited, non-responsible political pluralism; without an elaborated and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities; without either extensive or intense political mobilisation, except at some points in their development, and in which a leader, or occasionally, a small group, exercise power from within formally ill-defined, but actually quite predictable limits."14

Along this scale, a number of typologies and terms have been offered to describe those that fall between authoritarian and democratic systems, including 'semi-consolidated democracies,' 'semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes,' 'partial democracies,' 'electoral democracies,' 'illiberal democracies,' 'defective democracies,' 'competitive authoritarianisms,' 'semi-authoritarianisms,' and 'electoral authoritarianisms.'15 Collectively, these may be called hybrid regimes16 "a mix of varying degrees of authoritarian and democratic systems (though there is some argument as to whether these regimes are hybrids or transitioning democracies).17

To delimit points within this range, a four-fold typology may be used, with cognizance that some variation exists between scholars on these conceptions: authoritarianism, electoral democracy, liberal democracy, and advanced democracy. In this view, whereas an electoral democracy "manages to hold (more or less) inclusive, clean, and competitive elections but fails to uphold the political and civil freedoms essential for liberal democracy,"18 a liberal democracy "extends freedom, fairness, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law from the electoral process into all other major aspects of governance and interest articulation, competition, and representation."19 Finally, advanced democracies "presumptively possess some positive traits over and above the minimal defining criteria of liberal democracy, and therefore rank higher in terms of democratic quality than many new democracies."20 This last classification inherently offers normative merit to western democracies, but is often used in writings on democracy.21  Go to Electoral Processes and Political Parties

Democratic governance and sovereignty

Democratic governance may be understood as "the management of societal affairs in accordance with the universal principles of democracy as a system of rule that maximizes popular consent and participation, the legitimacy and accountability of rulers, and the responsiveness of the latter to the expressed interests and needs of the public."22 An important point on such governance is that it is "as much about the process and political legitimacy as it is about institutions, structures and rules."23

The notion of democratic governance is tied into concepts of sovereignty, as well. Scholars Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan have observed, "Democracy is a form of governance in which the rights of citizens are guaranteed and protected. To protect the rights of its citizens and to deliver other basic services that citizens demand, a democratic government needs to be able to exercise effectively its claim to a monopoly of the legitimate use of force in its territory. . . . A modern democracy, therefore, needs the effective capacity to command, to regulate, and to extract tax revenues. For this, it needs a functioning state with a bureaucracy considered usable by the new democratic government."24 This is an important point in the peacebuilding context as "war-shattered states typically lack even the most rudimentary governmental institutions."25

Democratization/democratic transition processes

Democratization, or democratic transition, is a somewhat challenging concept to pinpoint because, in some senses, it imagines a start and end point for processes of democratic consolidation. Broadly speaking, it may be understood as the process by which a country adopts a democratic regime.26 In this regard, it has been defined as "the way democratic norms, institutions and practices evolve and are disseminated both within and across national and cultural boundaries."27 Yet, it assesses not only how but also the extent to which these institutions and processes move and are adopted. That is, democratization delimits between mature democracies and states that are in the process of democratizing.28

Thus, democratization infers a transition between regimes. The notion of transition gave birth to a sub-discipline in political science: transitology. This arena studies the process of change from a political regime to another, mainly from authoritarian regimes to democracies. It was influenced by two teams of scholars, Guillermo ODonnell, Philippe Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, who published Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy in 1986, and Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, who published The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes in 1978 and Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation in 1996. The notion was then expanded to the transition from conflict to peace or stability. Yet, the notion itself presents some ambiguities. In essence, a transitional society is one that has neither entirely moved beyond the legacies of the violent past nor established a sustainable peace. Rather, it is a society in transition from one state to another.29

This very 'transitoriness' is what gives rise to a multitude of tensions, dilemmas, and debates. As is evidenced in democratic transitions, the process is not necessarily a linear one and the concept does not specify what a society is transitioning to or when a transitional period will end. The process of a democratic transition, or democratization, implies a forward progression toward democracy. Scholar Jack Snyder defines "states as democratizing if they have recently adopted one or more [of these] democratic characteristics, even if they retain important nondemocratic features."30 This is an important distinction, as democracies can also regress in their democratic qualities.31

Democracy and its relationship to the economy and civil society

Because of the flexibility and at times vague nature of definitions of democracy, some contestation has emerged concerning democracy's relationship to the economy and to civil society. Chip Hauss notes, "Some observers also claim that a democracy has to have a capitalist economy and a strong civil-society and civic culture, although not all political scientists would include these two criteria."32 For instance, while some insist on the association of capitalism with democracy, others, such as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, contend that there has never been, and almost certainly will never be, a modern consolidated democracy with a pure market economy. Modern consolidated democracies require a set of sociopolitically crafted and accepted norms, institutions, and regulations, "what we call economic society," that mediates between the state and the market.33

In the literature on democratization, the assumption that civil society promotion and democratic viability go hand in hand is also debated, even though the existence of a lively civil society is mentioned as an important factor by leading scholars in the field, including Linz and Stepan, as well as ODonnell. This correlation is based on the idea that civil society is key to the establishment and maintenance of competent citizen activity, which is a necessary component of democratic sustainability. These arguments are often premised on Alexis de Tocqueville, who in Democracy in America posits that civic engagement in associations serves as a school of democracy and renders citizens capable of checking the abuse of authority. Thus, civic virtues such as tolerance, acceptance, honesty, and trust are really integrated into the character of civic individuals through associations.

Civic engagement in associations is thought to build confidence in democratic mechanisms, or what scholar Robert Putnam refers to as social capital. For Putnam, democracy may not be defined by associational activity, but such activity is what makes democracy work.34 Parts of the earliest discussions around this approach are now considered by many to be naïve, all but suggesting that any expansion of civic engagement was good for democracy. Anyone who has explored the rapid expansion of political involvement in such countries as the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda knows that any simplistic link between participation and democracy "let alone conflict resolution" is absurd.35 Critics of Putnam's original work even question whether the theory of social capital is sufficient to indicate that building civic associations will lead to improved governance and democracy. These arguments are based on some significant methodological critiques of Putnam's work, which note the inherent historical selectivity and endogeneity of his argument.36 Other scholars have preferred to use the notion of civil culture (or political culture, in reference to the values and attitudes that emerge with, and work to sustain, participatory democratic institutions).37

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Terminology around governance


Generally speaking, governance is broadly agreed upon to connote the formation and stewardship of the rules that regulate the public realm "the space where state as well as economic and societal actors interact to make decisions." Governance is a voluntarist activity that helps define the terms and conditions, under which policies are made and implemented.38 It should be observed that governance is at times also conceived as a broader system that enables and coordinates public policy.

Governance includes the role of government, which, as an entity, comprises officials typically appointed or elected to the legislature or the executive. Government, therefore, should be noted as a component of, but not synonymous with, governance. Rather, governance is the space in which these actors operate. Finally, most scholars include in their approach of governance formal as well as informal rules that apply to how issues emerge in the public and are handled by the political system.39
Go to Definition of governance: Administration, government, and governance

Good governance

The notion of good governance came into use when, in the mid-1980s, the World Bank studied the conditions of success and failure of structural adjustment programs. During this period, international support was conditioned upon good governance, related to the functioning of state structures, and to states role in the market and relationship to civil society. The notion of good governance was progressively expanded and is now used by all donors, which generally rely on the following normative indicators articulated by the World Bank: 40

  • Voice and accountability: The extent to which a countrys citizens are able to participate in selecting their government, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media.
  • Political stability and absence of violence: Perceptions of the likelihood that the government will be destabilized or overthrown by unconstitutional or violent means, including domestic violence and terrorism.
  • Government effectiveness: The quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the governments commitment to such policies.
  • Regulatory quality: The ability of the government to formulate and implement sound policies and regulations that permit and promote private sector development.
  • Rule of law: The extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, the police, and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence.
  • Control of corruption: The extent to which public power is exercised for private gain, including both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as capture of the state by elites and private interests.
This method of framing governance by normative values of good and bad has been largely critiqued. In this view, while governance, in the end, is just a synonym for getting the political machinery to work better, this notion of good governance is to get it to work more specifically along lines identified as preferred practices by the donors and their supporters in Western Europe and North America.41

Local governance

As a concept, scholars have defined local governance as the set of formal and informal rules, structures and processes defining the measures with which individuals and organizations can exercise power over the decisions by other stakeholders capable of affecting their welfare at the local levels.42 Yet, nuanced variations exist in such conceptions, and the normative perspectives on the good and bad functioning of governance have also entered into the defining of local governance.

For instance, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Local governance comprises a set of institutions, mechanisms and processes, through which citizens and their groups can articulate their interests and needs, mediate their differences and exercise their rights and obligations at the local level.43 This definition places a much greater emphasis on participation, which has been considered a central part of governance packaging by western donors. However, the success of participatory processes toward peace is highly contested, as at times participation can hamper decision making and may bring forward divisive voices. An additional challenge in this realm is in ascertaining the way in which the idea of local is being conceived, as actors utilize it to connote national versus community-level actors.  Go to Public Administration, Local Governance, and Participation

1. Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 4.
2. Charles (Chip) Hauss, "Democratization," Beyond Intractability (August 2003).
3. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for Democratization (New York: United Nations, 1996), 1.
4. Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971), 2.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 8.
7. Guillermo ODonnell, "Illusions about Consolidation," Journal of Democracy 7, no. 2 (1996): 35.
8. Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies, 4.
9. Dahl, Polyarchy, 9.
10. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, "Toward Consolidating Democracies," Journal of Democracy 7, no. 2 (1996): 15.
11. Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalism Conflict (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 27.
12. Andreas Schedler, "What Is Democratic Consolidation?" Journal of Democracy 9, no. 2 (1998): 91.
13. Dahl, Polyarchy, 9.
14. Juan J. Linz, "An Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Spain," in Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems, ed. Erik Allardt and Yrjö Littunen (Helsinki: Westermarck Society, 1964), 255.
15. Ibid., 1.
16. Ibid.
17. Leonardo Morlino, Hybrid Regimes or Regimes in Transition? (Madrid: Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior, 2007).
18. Schedler, "What Is Democratic Consolidation?" 91.
19. Larry Diamond, "Elections Without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes," Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (2002): 34.
20. Ibid., 2.
21. Ibid.
22. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, "Democratic Governance and Human Rights in the International Framework," (keynote address for the Joint Monthly Assembly of the Finnish Advisory Board for Human Rights and the Finnish Development Policy Committee, Helsinki, Finland, June 2004).
23. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), "Democratic Governance Issues Paper," draft (New York: UNDP, 2000).
24. Linz and Stepan, "Toward Consolidating Democracies," 20-21.
25. Ibid., 20-21.
26. Hauss, "Democratization."
27. "Democratization," Journal Details
28. Snyder, From Voting to Violence, 25.
29. Alexander L. Boraine, "Transitional Justice: A Holistic Interpretation," Journal of International Affairs 60, no. 1 (2006): 17-18.
30. Ibid., 26.
31. Morlino, Hybrid Regimes or Regimes in Transition? 1.
32. Hauss, "Democratization."
33. Linz and Stepan, "Toward Consolidating Democracies," 21.
34. Robert D. Putnam, "Bowling Alone: Americas Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (1995): 65-78.
35. Charles (Chip) Hauss, "Civil Society," Beyond Intractability (August 2003).
36. Sidney Tarrow, "Making Social Science Work Across Space and Time: A Critical Reflection on Putnam's Making Democracy Work," American Political Science Review 90, no. 2 (1996).
37. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (London: Sage, 1963).
38. Goran Hyden, Julius Court, and Kenneth Mease, Making Sense of Governance: The Need for Involving Local Stakeholders (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2003), 5.
39. Ibid.
40. World Bank, A Decade of Measuring the Quality of Governance: Governance Matters 2007 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2007), 2-3.
41. Ibid.
42. Keng-Ming Hsu and Chun-Yuan Wang, "The Institutional Design and Citizen Participation in Local Governance," in The Role of Public Administration in Alleviating Poverty and Improving Governance, ed. Jak Jabes (Tokyo: Asian Development Bank, 2005), 335.
43. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Decentralised Governance for Development: A Combined Practice Note on Decentralisation, Local Governance and Urban/Rural Development (New York: UNDP, 2004), 4.

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