Every year, the UN celebrates its International Day of Democracy, even if it often feels like there is little to smile about on this front. Research to be presented at the Italian parliament to mark the occasion shows that while Europeans across the continent share a powerful faith in democracy, they think their countries are lacking some of its most fundamental components.
The research, carried out by the European Social Survey is an attempt to quantify the difference between Democratic ideals and reality.
The results confirm that the overwhelming majority of Europeans share the democratic faith. In most countries, citizens strongly believe that they should be governed by elected representatives. In countries like Cyprus, Sweden, Germany and Israel, respondents rated the importance of living in a democratic country as a nine or above on a scale of zero to ten. And in almost every other country in a survey of 29 – including 21 EU member states – it was rated at least seven or above.
But Europe is vast and brings together a huge array of nations and cultures. It seems we can’t be sure that the word democracy means the same thing to them all.
Digging inside the ballot box, the survey reveals that in northern Europe, there is a greater focus on the rule of law, while in southern countries there is a stronger desire to obtain social justice. Scandinavians fall somewhere in the middle.
Eastern Europeans appear to be something of a special case. Citizens in many former soviet states only got the right to vote in proper elections around a quarter of a century ago and continue to expect the social protection that was once guaranteed by the old communist regimes while also demanding that the rule of law is enforced. Russian respondents attached the least importance to being run by a democratic government.
The basic definition of democracy is what is known as liberal democracy. This is a government chosen in free and competitive elections, with checks and balances in place and a free media and opposition in operation. Liberal democracy was considered to be operating in only around half of the 29 countries surveyed.
People in eastern European nations do not believe their countries hold free and fair elections and they do not consider their media free. And in southern Europe, citizens feel they lack equality before the law.
Asked about the social components of democracy – such as income equality and protection from poverty – citizens gave a harsh assessment. In 26 of the 29 countries, this side of democracy was considered insufficient.
In Scandinavia the gap between what people expect from democracy and what they think is actually delivered is smaller than in any other country. But even in these countries, there is the clear perception that the social dimension of democracy lags behind the liberal.
The political class should take this survey very seriously. It shows that the public has an increasingly broad idea of what it is to be a democracy but also that they are well informed. When expectations are not met, substantial resentment can build and that is reflected at the ballot box. Voters either back new entrants to the political sphere – like UKIP – or they stay at home on polling day.
An increasingly qualified and demanding public can’t simply be administered from above. New forms of participation need to be invented. If people are asked to participate in the delivery of public goods – through direct democracy and social involvement – they will have the opportunity to improve what is provided by elected representatives only. Or, at least, they will realise that everyone should implement their own dreams, democratic dreams included.