Democracy is an ancient political concept where the government rule is vested on the people. The idea conceived by the ancient classical philosophy is aimed at vesting supreme power in the people. The people would, in turn, exercise the power by electing agents to positions of power through elections. According to Macpherson (1977), democracy is a state when people are allowed to make crucial decisions regarding governance, which have substantial implications on their lives. Some totalitarian governments have often considered their exercise of power to be democratic due to the performance of elections. Modern definitions of democracy have resulted in different types and practices of democracy. Therefore, democracy is a majority rule that is aimed at vesting power in the people, but its modern definition comes with both benefits and limitations based on the way it is practiced.
The Modern Practice of Democracy
Indeed, democracy is considered as the common form of governance in the modern world. The old ideologies of democracy are also relevant in modern definitions and practice of democracy. For instance, modern democracy is exercised based on various principles, i.e. principles of human rights, separation of powers such as executive and judiciary, and the practice of democracy among others. The modern practice of democracy, however, is coupled with various challenges, for instance, many people from different regions across the world practice democracy in a variety of ways. Many developed countries adopted systems of justice long ago and they passed them to developing countries during the colonial period. Major democracies like the UK and the US serve as examples of a successful democratic practice in the world. However, the practice of democracy has not necessarily been successful in other regions, especially developing nations. It is due to the existence of challenges such as corruption, poverty, and civil wars.
The successful practice of democracy entails a broad spectrum of principles. First, it involves the due process of the law, whereby the government ensures that all citizens are accorded equal treatment based on the governing legislation of the state. Every democratic state thus has to have procedures and regulations.
Second, it requires the principle of openness, which includes ensuring transparency at every level of the government. Citizens are entitled to access information pertaining any issues i.e. court cases, election procedures among other information. The access to information is critical in the making of independent decisions by the people regarding public issues.
Third, there is the principle of public debate. Since democracy involves rule by the people, public opinions are important to democratic governance. Often, public debate in many democratic governments is done through the parliament. The chosen representatives pass laws based on majority consensus.
Fourth, it includes the principle of public hearing. Democratic practice involves offering chances to both sides during a hearing before decisions are reached. This public hearing is often performed by the judiciary in court cases. Public hearing helps the government to come up with fair decisions and judgments regarding public cases.
Lastly, it necessitates the principle of involvement. The principle ensures that in a democratic practice all citizens are involved in the practice regardless of their gender, ethnic backgrounds, and political affiliations among others. To ensure involvement, the governments should ensure equal rights regulations are put in place to offer the chance of involvement to all.
There are two types of democracies, i.e. direct and representative democracy. Representative democracy involves the use of elected members in governance, while direct democracy involves all members of the community in the process of making decisions. However, direct democracy is only practical with small populations such as a community. Modern systems embrace representative democracy where few individuals from the society are chosen to represent the rest in decision-making.
The principles of democracy act as guidelines to the practice of democracy today. However, there are also various challenges to democracy, which limit its practice. Taking an example of democracy in developing countries where democracy has helped promote equal rights as well as freedoms, various issues limit the quality of democracy practice in these countries. Some of the issues involve the following.
Electoral Democracy Procedures
Electoral processes are important in any democracy as they offer equal rights for everyone to participate in governance. Many developing countries, especially the Commonwealth countries, inherited the British parliamentary democracy during the colonial period. Parliamentary democracy in these countries has been of great use in the promotion of better economic conditions. Caribbean regions like Jamaica have practiced parliamentary democracy for over 50 years, demonstrating that democracy can indeed thrive and develop communities in developing countries. However, electoral democracy in these countries comes with various challenges such as corruption, democratic deficits, and lack of transparency. These practices have also affected the principles of openness and public hearing.
The definition of democracy states that governance should be by the people and for the people. However, the developing countries’ practice of democracy eludes this definition. Political practices in many of the developing countries include individuals obsessed with power and use all means necessary to stay in power. The result of such tendencies includes corruption and poverty. Political practices are not based on ideologies like in many developed countries where democracy thrives. The people’s vote is based on benefits achieved as a result of the voting. Often, most of the elections in these countries lack the idea of democracy as citizens are engaged in the politics of money.
Parliamentary majorities in some countries come as a challenge to the practice of democracy. The essence of parliamentary electoral processes is to ensure that all members in the country have equal rights to choose their candidates to represent them in the parliament. It is thus necessary to have a parliament with a fair distribution of the government’s representatives and opposing officials. In cases the parliamentary election has a high majority of individuals elected to the government opposed to the opposing parties, the governance resembles the one-party state politics. For instance, in the country of Dominica the governing party at one time between 1995-2010 secured 18 out of 21 parliamentary seats. Such a skewed parliamentary majority comes as a challenge to the practice of democracy in the countries.
However, many of the countries with limiting elective procedures restrict the practice of democracy. They are still considered to be democracies due to the nature in which they hold their elections. Most the elections are free of harassment and intimidation; this is seen as free elections despite the rampant corruption that may be present. Besides, many developing countries practicing electoral democracy have tremendously improved in the way they hold their elections. Countries of Barbuda and Antigua from the Caribbean region have passed laws to ensure fair elections free of corruption that would be transparent.
Political Economy and Democracy
In countries where the government uses political parties to control resources of a country, there are risks of depriving the public of its resources and distributing them along partisan lines. The colonial government, especially in the Commonwealth countries, inherited the political economies or rule based on the ideologies of their political parties. However, with changes in economic systems and the collapse of political economies, many countries need to adjust to accommodate the deepening of democracy. The fall of political economies often results in citizens who are aware of the expectations of democracy. It is referred to as neo-liberalism, leading to a creation of special interest groups such as activists. The lack of change of many governments or parties poses a risk to democratic stability in a country. For instance, collapse of the political economy in Jamaica led to a decrease in economic growth and financial resources. It led to an increase in poverty among marginalized people and creation of socially marginalized groups. Poverty limits the practice of democracy, for instance, since resources are not equally distributed, marginalized groups feel they are not well represented, thereby leading to the rise of gangs.
Political economies care mostly about property rights. In the Caribbean region, the Jamaican political economy collapsed, paving the way for neo-liberal ideas. Lack of a system that cares for the rights to property may lead to governmental manipulation of the public, resulting in the loss of assets and financial resources. State manipulation of the masses is a violation of democracy rights in a democratic country. In Jamaica, for instance, the government system from 1944 to 2007 was considered to be corrupt and had no respect for the public. Research shows that the government worked with gangs to ensure political support. Failure to comply with the will of the masses through the collapse of political economy systems comes with consequences. For instance, the public may engage the government in demonstrations to demand their rights and respect. It is what happened in Jamaica when the government wanted to extradite the notorious gang leader to the US in 2010. Lack of compliance with civil liberties has made Caribbean countries be defined by high rates of unemployment, poverty, and underemployment.
Voters’ Apathy and Democracy
Democracy is based on the majority rule where citizens choose representatives to governance. However, modern democracy is being challenged by the indifference of citizens in choosing representatives to governance. This trend is commonly witnessed in developed countries with high democratic qualities. New generations are becoming more and more disinterested in political issues and are less committed when it comes to mass commitment in democratic processes. For instance, the Brexit referendum in the UK demonstrates how many citizens are becoming less and less interested in participating in voting exercises. Voters’ indifference limits democracy as expected outcomes may not reflect the interests of the masses. The Brexit vote, for instance, was met with different reactions from most people in the UK, particularly those who wanted to stay in the European Union.
Countries in the Caribbean are also affected by voter apathy and it comes with a cost on democracy. In Jamaica, for instance, the youth are often not interested in political issues in the country. The increased apathy characteristics are due to factors such as low levels of education among the youth and high levels of unemployment. The last elections saw a voter turnout of only 42%. It means individuals unsuitable for public office could easily be voted through simple majority. This problem is not a Jamaican problem, but it is also witnessed across other countries in the Caribbean region. Many factors attributed to this trend include demographic issues, as well as economic and institutional factors. Lack of awareness on the effects of voters’ apathy affects democracy of a country.
Party Financing and Democracy
Modern democracies use the political parties' systems to allow the public to choose representatives to the governance positions. Thus, parties have an influence on the way the public selects its representatives. Parties with more resources have the ability to influence the masses in a bid to influence them to choose particular candidates to the governance positions. Government funding of political parties in many countries is used to ensure equal chances to influence the masses. However, funding from the private sector of parties may be different. In countries where there is less regulation of the level of private funding, some parties may have a high hand in elections as compared to others. Unregulated party financing can be a risk to democracy as parties with higher economic power may have the authority to influence the election of representatives contrary to the needs of the public.
Many countries have however passed laws to ensure the maximum financing that parties receive from private sectors to ensure a fair play of parties. Many democratic countries from the developing world such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have passed laws which regulate the amount parties and political candidates can spend to attract voters. However, the laws only exist in writing and are not often imposed. Many developing countries lack monitoring systems of party elections and their financing. It is not often easy to determine the amount spent by a particular candidate or party since the enforcement mechanisms instituted are not efficient in the implementation of compliance.
Moreover, private political financing has had an effect on democracy due to political peddling by party financiers. Substantial party donors often expect something in return and this includes political favors once the party comes to power. Such trends affect both developed and developing countries. Political favors to party financiers may lead to the distribution of resources along partisan lines, hence limiting democracy. The less privileged in the society or those with few resources will feel oppressed and this may lead to demonstrations or even revolutions.
Freedom of Expression Through the Media
One of the principles of democracy includes involvement, whereby every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech regardless of his or her background, gender, or political affiliation. In modern democratic settings, the media act as the means of expression for the masses. Mass media thus play a major role in democracy. It helps bring out the truth regarding government activities and distribution of resources to the public. A democratic system ensures freedom of mass media, which helps in informing the public regarding election candidates and make informed choices. However, most developing countries need to develop some democratic pillars regarding mass media. Restrictive practices in many democratic countries lead to the masses having the culture of fear of those in power. Restriction of the press also leads to a feeling of superiority among those in the authority.
In many developed countries exercising democracy, the media are considered to be the voice of the people and they play a major role in ensuring that democracy is achieved in such countries. In the US, for instance, large media houses such as CNN and FOX news highlight different issues affecting the people and how the government is working to achieve quality democracy in the country. However, in countries such as Barbados in the Caribbean region the government in the 1980s had control over the media content given out to the public. Politicians have the powers to castigate news presenters who gave news which they did not consider to be favorable to their political careers. However, this has changed with the growth of media liberalism of the 1990s in the East Caribbean regions.
Democracy requires knowledge and intelligence. Poor quality of media leads to low quality of democracy levels in a given area or country. Many leaders are known to take advantage of the ignorance of the masses to ignore needs of the public and act on their wills. However, with the increasing liberalization of media content in many democratic countries the worrying trend that has emerged is the willingness of the public to seek information. Most modern people are used to consuming and reacting to short-term news as opposed to long-term news. The growing decline in the sale of newspapers shows the changing trend in consumption of news. Democracy thus is at risk because of new forms of media news that ignores important long-term issues such as climate change.
Mass Intelligence and Knowledge
Democracy is better practiced when the public or the masses can make informed choices. The public needs to understand every endeavor of the government. Thus, to understand changes in politics, one needs to be intelligent as well as educated to understand how democracy is practiced in a given country. In case mass mediocrity is rampant, this can be a recipe to undermine democracy in that country. Leaders chosen to represent the masses need to be informed and intelligent in many fields. For instance, democracy is better practiced in the Western countries due to high literacy levels of the public. In the Caribbean region, however, the rate of children out of school is high. Adult literacy, in turn, is also at lower levels. It contributes to the low-level quality of democracy practices in the region. However, there is an increased trend in education reforms in the Caribbean countries, especially in Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago had a literacy level of 99.58 in 2012. The increase in literacy level above average is due to the education reform and social mobilization strategies.
The practice of democracy in the current era is often limited by various challenges be it in developed countries or developing countries. Challenges such as nepotism and political interference limit freedom. Many countries, however, have embarked on various democratic reforms to meet these new challenges. In the Caribbean countries, there is a need to pay attention to structures that enhance democracy. Changes in issues such as property rights and accountability systems among others will ensure that there is respect for the masses, hence increasing confidence of the public in the government. For instance, the incident of corruption involving the Piarco airport is an example of the lack of accountability in many countries in the Caribbean region. Loss of public resources through corruption, abuse of freedoms, and individual rights through restriction of the media are some of the reforms these countries need to streamline to ensure the better practice of democracy and restoration of public confidence.
Many countries in the Caribbean region, including Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, need to strengthen their democratic structure to ensure that fair elections are observed. Some countries, however, have been implementing tremendous changes that encourage a better practice of democracy. Barbados, for instance, has embarked on media reforms, which will ensure freedom of the press. The issue of transparency is difficult as evidenced by various corruption scandals from different countries in the Caribbean region. With the growing rates of literacy in the Caribbean countries, there is room for the states to ensure democratic reforms are achieved, which will, in turn, promote the better practice of democracy in the region.
Democratic principles guide democratic practices. However, the practice of democracy differs from country to country. Quality democratic practice is witnessed in developed countries. In developing countries, various challenges limit the way democracy is practiced. For instance, in the Caribbean countries the practice of democracy is often constrained by issues such as elective procedures, political economy systems, political and elections party financing, and the media status. For the level of democracy to achieve commendable heights, there is a need to have transparent electoral processes and ensure that the press is free from any restrictions.