Democracy is to a politically curious man or woman what sex is to a young adolescent. They have all heard the word, they are intrigued by the concept, but only have a cursory idea of what it actually is. The latter is generally resolved through a natural process of biological and psycho-sexual maturity.
The former is only solved through education, no matter how old the particular student is. I’d like to explore some of the many manifestations of democracy throughout the world, paying close attention to the modern democratic process in the Russian Federation, a country which is vastly more democratic than many have been led to believe it is.
What is Democracy?
The English word democracy is derived from the ancient Greek word demokratia, itself a word which combined demos (the populace/people) with kratos (rule/strength). At the time this term came about there was no unified Hellenic state but rather multiple city states amongst the Hellenic peoples. Some, though not all were considered democracies, Athens being the most powerful and hence the best remembered.
Ancient Athens pioneered something called direct democracy whereby citizens actively participate in the construction, amendment and implementation of laws. It wasn’t always like that, the classical Athenian democracy only developed under the reforms of Solon who took power away from the ancient council of elders, the Areopagus and placed power in the Ecclesia, a popular council open to all male Athenian citizens, though women and non-citizens living in Athens were excluded.
Before moving on to more contemporary variants of democracy, it is necessary to clarify some terms.
Direct Democracy: The full participation of citizens in the making, amending and enforcing of laws. In such a system there are no professional politicians.
Suffrage: This simply means the right to vote. It does not mean one has the right to make law, overturn law and crucially it does not mean democracy. One can have suffrage in a non-democratic fashion (when one votes in a non-binding referendum for example).
Universal Suffrage: Many societies throughout history have allowed certain people to vote although the idea that all citizens have an automatic right to vote is historically speaking, a rather recent phenomenon. Certain qualifications for the eligibility to vote have traditionally applied, the most common being, wealth, property ownership, one’s sex and in more limited cases education and aptitude. Universal Suffrage is the idea that all citizens or in some cases all residents of a state should have the unqualified right to vote.
Petition: Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, Petition was the most sacred and common expression of democracy. Although petitions to the throne existed in Imperial China, the most well known example is that of England and later all of Britain. The process was affirmed in the Magna Carta of 1215. A petition is when a subject, citizen or group thereof write their grievance to the sovereign and propose how the issue ought to be redressed.
Representative democracy (sometimes known as Parliamentary Democracy): This is the most common form of democracy in the world today. It involves citizens using their right to the franchise (suffrage) to elected representatives to a legislative body (or bodies).
Referendum: A referendum is a tool of direct democracy. Here those with the right to vote get to decide on pieces of legislation irrespective of the wishes of professional politicians. There is however a caveat to this, some countries have non-binding referenda, whereby those with the right to vote can express their views but these views can be overruled by professional politicians or in some cases judges.
Initiatives: In an initiative, a group of citizens propose a piece of legislation and if it meets certain qualifications (the amount of citizens proposing the legislation, constitutionality etc) it will then be put to all voters in a referendum.
Demonstration: The right to demonstrate is a legal right of citizens to publically assemble, allowing their views to be unmistakably head by a state’s leadership. It is the vocal version of a petition in many ways, though in most cases doesn’t carry the same legal standing.
Social Contract/Will of the People: This is the idea that there is an uncodified law demanding that the leaders of government have a duty to represent the will, desires and needs of the populace without necessitating any form of suffrage. This harkens to the Platonic/Socratic idea of ‘philosopher kings’, a group of esteemed individuals who earn their right to rule through intellect and merit rather than through direct elections or approval.
Peace: Peace is the antithesis of war and obviously war the antithesis of peace. In no dictionary or language is democracy the antithesis of war. The concepts are not intellectually related. Whether democracy helps create peace is up for debate. I’ll simply mention some popular theories. Plato would say democracy is more likely to lead to war due to the ‘mob mentality’ he associated with it and his fear of demagoguery whipping up a population against a foreign power. Two popular counter arguments state that if people feel they have a direct say in government they will not resort to civil war. Also, if people have the right to participate in either a demonstration, petition or initiate against a government’s desire to go to war, that it may be effective. Of course, the 1 million people demonstrating against Tony Blair and his government’s desire to invade Iraq in 2003 proved ineffective.
So which modern state is the most democratic? That’s an easy one, Switzerland. Switzerland employs constitutional initiatives, popular referenda and indeed demands referenda on the most crucial matters of government. Switzerland’s form of government is the closet of any to a direct democracy. I did say I would talk about Russia and I will. Russia is much less democratic than Switzerland, but it is quite a bit more democratic than Britain, The United States, Germany, France, Canada and Poland (to name but a few).
The Political System in Russia
The Russian Federation is a representative democracy in which all male and female citizens of adult age cast votes for a political party to represent them according to the proportional representation system of elections which is used throughout much of Europe. In Britain members of the Green Party, Liberal Democratic Party and UKIP have often proposed the implementation of proportional representation, as they feel the so-called ‘first past the post’ system in modern Britain is insufficiently democratic.
The proper way to measure the level of democracy in a representative democracy like Russia’s or for that matter like Britain’s or America’s is by analysing the diversity of opinion amongst the parties which people have elected to a legislative body. In this respect Russia is a clear winner. In what other democratic legislature can one find a party which is the successor to the once most powerful Communist Party in the world and on the other hand a party whose leader has called Lenin a terrorist and has publicly proscribed Communism in the Council of Europe? It’s hard to frankly compete with such levels of political diversity. In order to better understand this, it is necessary to catalogue the four major parties of Russian politics beginning with the oldest.
Political Parties in Russia
The Communist Party of The Russian Federation: This is the successor party to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and has traditionally polled a strong second in most elections to the Duma as well as presidential elections. This is a traditional Marxist-Leninist party which under the lengthy leadership of Gennady Zyuganov has repudiated both the de-Stalinisation of Khrushchev as well as the reforms of Gorbachev. Whilst strictly an atheistic party as the CPSU always had been, Zyuganov offers a conciliatory approach to religion constituting a divergence from early Stalinist views on religion.
The LDPR (formerly Liberal Democratic Party of Russia): This was the second officially registered party in the Soviet Union. Founded and still led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the party places a great deal of emphasis on Russia’s historical role in geo-politics as well as traditional Russian culture. Whilst often described as right-wing or even far-right, the domestic policies of the LDPR tend to be a mix of market capitalism and state regulation with an emphasis on the need for cooperation between free individuals and the need of government to facilitate industrial, agricultural and infrastructural development. In terms of overarching ideology it is stridently anti-fascist and anti-nationalist, whilst embracing a uniquely Russian sense of conservatism. Zhirinovsky himself is a professional historian and a multi-lingual expert in world affairs. Known for a flamboyant and often adversarial rhetoric, his speeches on the importance of foreign affairs in the daily lives of individuals are an instructive viewing.
United Russia: Founded in 2001, United Russia remains the most powerful and politically active party in Russia. Whilst since the 2012 Presidential Election, Vladimir Putin hasn’t been an official member of the party, United Russia openly endorses Putin and is currently chaired by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The party offers generally centrist policies but on the whole promotes the free market with some mixed economic elements. In foreign affairs United Russia is fully aligned with official Presidential policy.
A Just Russia: Led by Sergey Mironov, A Just Russia is the newest of Russia’s major parties. It is a social democratic party which campaigns on increased social welfare programmes, better treatment of pensioners and has been highly critical of the internal workings of United Russia, presenting itself as a more honest party. Mironov has campaigned for the votes of both United Russia supporters as well as those who traditionally vote Communist, promising the social interventions Communist favour with a more centrist and ‘modern’ approach that tends to appeal to United Russia voters. Although sprung from disorganised beginnings, it is now the third largest party in the State Duma.
Russia’s Duma is indeed diverse, far more so than those challenging Russia’s democratic credentials.
Comparing Democracy: Russia and the West
How could Russia improve its democracy? I would say the same way the United States could do, by allowing for referenda and initiatives at a national level. Apart from that, Russia’s election system is according to all international observers, free and fair, its parties represent diverse views and Russia’s president has a far higher popularity rating amongst his people than his equivalents in most representative democracies.
So if Russia is more rather than less democratic than many of its neighbours let alone its international detractors, why do many in Europe and North America not understand this? For this one must turn to the nature of the media. I would say Russian media offer a much wider breadth of debate than say the BBC or New York Times.
Take for example the recent events in Turkey. The Russian media have published and aired many alternative views, some anti-Ergodan and some pro with many not even willing to take a side at this early stage in what promises to be a season of political turmoil in Turkey.
By contrast, when Russian politics are discussed in western media it is almost always negative or defamatory. Parts of the western media remind me of something else Switzerland is famous for…not its admirable democracy but something filled with holes and when left out in the open for too long, it begins to stink