By: Lucas Lang
In recent years, the question of democratic reform has cropped up in countries spanning the globe. Over its history, the two thousand-five-hundred-year-old form of governance has changed drastically with many different variations emerging which are unique to cultures and regions. Since the second world war, democracies have generally been associated with stable states. Over the last two decades, however, there has been increasing political upheaval and demand for political change. In Russia, opposition to the government of Vladimir Putin is growing. In Hong Kong, calls for democracy are becoming louder, and the Chinese government is meeting the peoples demands with new restrictions on democracy. Yet, it is not just countries which are largely considered to be authoritarian which are struggling with calls for democratic reform.
In Canada there is growing consensus that democratic reform of the senate and electoral system is necessary. In the United States, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the continued support for the former president, indicates a voting base that seeks a change in party leadership style and democratic practices. Throughout Europe, there is mounting support for populist parties and preservation of national identity, which further demonstrates that citizens of democratic states are looking for a change in the way democracy is run.
So why is all this happening, how are we to understand it, and how should we respond?
Perhaps a clue can be found in the recent collapse of another form of governance. In the 1960’s, the Soviet Union underwent a period known as the Era of Stagnation. During this era, enthusiasm for socialism encountered a notable decline. Politicians attempting to re-strengthen support for the political system undertook a series of reforms in efforts to “improve socialism”. One of the leaders who led theses efforts was Mikhail Gorbachev, whose efforts to reform the Soviet Union are largely considered to have led to its collapse in 1991. It may be time that we consider that democracy might be having an era of stagnation of its own.
In countries around the world there has been a lack of enthusiasm for democracy. Where once it was considered a privilege and a responsibility to vote and participate in governance, within many states this is no longer true. Many governments find themselves deadlocked with opposing parties and bureaucracy preventing administrations from functioning properly. For many democratic countries both in North America and Europe, lower voter turnouts are not uncommon as citizens have begun to doubt their government’s ability to make changes and carry out their promises. Corruption and partisan politics have further corroded peoples trust in governments. As a result, many countries are seeking reforms to better their state’s democracy.
As governments begin to seek to “improve democracy”, it is crucial to acknowledge that seeking to fixing democracy is no small task. It will absolutely create divisions and most certainly will not provide the outcomes we expect. Within history there are numerous examples of states which began down the path to democracy but ended up becoming something else entirely. Despite the enthusiasm for democracy and the promise shown within Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Vladimir Putin ultimately came to power. After the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Imperial Germany, the Democratic Weimar Republic rose, but Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi’s were eventually elected to lead. There is always a risk with political reform and both those on the left and right will have to walk a careful line and manage their more radical elements for any compromise or progress to endure. Already in Europe, there is also mounting concern for the rising numbers of states which have adopted hybrids of democratic and authoritarian governments, with policies that do not comply with those of typical democratic states.
If democracy has indeed been in a period of stagnation from which it is now emerging, it will be at its most vulnerable. As changes are made, new policies and platforms will be introduced, new forms of democracy will be tested, and old ones broken. While some new and beneficial models of democracy will be made, others, harmful and more destructive will also emerge. Citizens will need to remain vigilant as the future of democracy within their country will be decided by their votes.