How do you define democracy?

While democracy is a term we frequently use in our line of work, we rarely discuss the definition. In seeking to quantify progress towards democracy, the term is often diluted to a set of indicators that measure freedom of association, accountability, number of parties, number of voters, the level of corruption, etc. Developing a clear definition can be difficult because the act of definition requires that certain features of governmental design are prioritized over others. What if there is another way? What if we think about democracy as a process and not as a condition?

This was the conclusion of Pavel Pšeja, an Assistant Professor at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, who presented to the Rising Stars delegation during a discussion on democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe. Launched in 2007, IRI’s Rising Stars initiative helps emerging democratic leaders gain knowledge and skills to prepare them to address their country’s challenges with sound and proven policies and govern in an open, transparent and democratic manner.  Dr. Pšeja began his lecture by stating that a democratic government is something people all over the world want, but there is difficulty in coming to agreement on what it truly means. Dr. Pšeja illustrated his point by asking each participant from the delegation to define what democracy means to them. After a lengthy discussion, it became clear that even a small group of democratically minded leaders could not agree on what democracy means.

Dr. Pšeja continued his presentation by stating that a repressed civil society often expects too much, too quickly. When a democratic transition encounters roadblocks, proponents of democracy get discouraged and blame the system for the failure. Reframing democracy as a process instead of a condition creates the expectation that democratic transition will require patience to generate an effective democratic culture. This conceptual way of thinking about democratic transitions is a valuable lesson as it could help prevent the overwhelming perception that transition has to happen overnight.

While the political transition may happen quickly, the democratic culture could take years and more likely decades, to take root.  For example, key components of the transition process such as reconciliation and restorative justice can take decades, but are important features of a democratic state as they ensure that there is trust between civil society and governmental institutions. In preparing for transition, civil society leaders should account for the potential long term aspects of the transition.

Thinking about democracy as a process that demands patience and persistence might also help create the space for a peaceful transition. For example, Chile’s transition to democracy took almost three decades and many argue it is still incomplete. Among the many challenges Chile is still addressing constitutional reform and how the reform process should work.  In the meantime, Chile serves as an example to other countries seeking to make a smooth transition to Democracy by illustrating that democratic institutions will naturally experience a trial and error period.

Thinking of democracy as a practice and not as a condition is an important lesson for democracy implementers because it affects not only how we talk about democracy, but more importantly how we work to promote democracy. Through our programming, we need to think about how we emphasize the idea that democratic transitions take time and equip our participants with the patience to ensure the transition happens smoothly and is sustainable in the long-term. 

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