A Brief History on the Rise and Fall of Democracy in the Twentieth Century

Modern day democracy traces its origins to the Greeks’ attempts at limited self-government in the polis, or city state, of Athens. In Greek, the word democracy translates to people power.  For most of its history, Athens was ruled by an aristocracy which governed for their own advantage. While Athenian democracy disqualified the majority of people living in Athens from being recognized as citizens, being that slaves and women were not entitled to vote, it still meant that a much larger portion of society was actively participating in government unlike aristocracies and oligarchies.  Those allowed to vote were extremely engaged and active in a form of direct democracy where each member voted directly on issues and decisions. This was unlike most representative democracies of today, where citizens elect representatives who are then entrusted with voting in the people’s best interests on legislation and executive bills.

In the early twentieth century, many countries once part of the British Empire, gained their independence after decolonization.  These included Canada, New Zealand and Australia, basing their new political structure on the British parliamentary system and becoming successful democracies.  South Arica also became a democracy too, but participation was limited to white people during the Apartheid.

In the 20th century many countries have tended to become democratic in the aftermath of devastating wars, revolutions, economic and social upheavals. The end of World War I saw the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the formation of new nations. Most of these new European nations quickly regressed into nationalism after failed attempts to form democratic governments, because they lacked unifying national identities and the necessary cultural and social conditions for sustaining a democratic state. Soon, as a result of the Great Depression, many European nations became dictatorships or succumbed to Fascist leaders who came to power promising to right the woes that democracy had failed to resolve, unify nations and restore national pride.

After World War II, liberal democracies were established throughout Western Europe, though most of Eastern Europe came under the influence of Soviet Communism.  Further decolonization also took place throughout the rest of the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America where most newly independent nations turned to a British Parliament style of democracy. However, by the 1960’s many of these democracies in Asia, Latin America and Africa, following the pattern of the short lived European democracies after WW1, regressed into illiberal and despotic regimes.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, most of Eastern Europe established democratic political systems.  The results have been mixed with some succeeding in creating robust liberal societies and others becoming illiberal democracies, with all the trappings and mechanics of an electoral democratic system but without liberal and pluralistic values. Internationally, today there are many successful democratic nations even as many others struggle to nurture and sustain authentic democratic societies.

Democracy, while promising the possibility of extraordinary freedoms, rights and dignity for large groups of people, is a complex political system that is dependent upon the cultivation of strong democratic institutions, robust system of checks and balances, a mature political class and a well-informed citizenry appreciative of the importance and challenges of co-existence and willing to participate actively in the public space.  Without these in place, democratic states can deteriorate into corrupt oligarchies, oppressive populist and majoritarian autocracies or even be at risk of breaking up into sub national regions.

Republics and Democracies:

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A Republic is a representative system of government that elects a head of state, such as a president, who serves for a restricted period of time. The majority’s voice prevails with a constitution or charter of rights protecting the basic rights of minorities.

A Democracy is a government where, whether through elected representatives or directly, all eligible citizens possess the right to equally participate within that system, even as such laws are usually decided by voting.

A Liberal Democracy does not simply accept that the will of majorities should define what constitutes the public good. Instead, unlike other forms of government, all citizens participate and contribute to the creation and continual development of the laws which govern them.  Democracies also allow individuals and minorities the liberty to freely express opinions and participate as equal citizens in the public life of the community and nation.

All republics, are not liberal democracies. The Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran, for instance, despite the holding of elections and having a representative form of government, have legal systems based upon the state religion that grants minorities only limited rights and liberties. Most advanced democracies, on the other hand, are liberal democratic republics that are based on a combination of these principles.