Democratic institutions and processes
Democracy means far more than just popular government or a system of regular elections; the democratic approach to government implies the existence of a complex array of institutions and processes through which the wishes of the people are articulated and carried out. While the specific institutional arrangements tend to vary between states, countries which are held to be democratic in variably have a political system which comprises four common and inter locking elements: an electoral system, a party system, a representative assembly and a system for the articulation of sectional interests. The generic roles of these major building blocks of democratic government are discussed below. Location-specific information on how the system operates in a national (i.e. United Kingdom) and a supranational (i.e. European Union) context can be found in the appendices to this chapter. Non-UK readers are encouraged to substitute their own political arrangements for those described in the appendices.
The electoral system
As indicated above, in a representative democracy the electoral systemlinks the people (the electorate) with government; it is through elections that a country’s citizens periodically get to choose who will exercise the power to make decisions which will ultimately shape the lives of individuals. Elections, in short, are a vital ingredient of a representative system of government. That said, the fact that elections exist in a particular country is not a sufficient guarantee that it is democratic in the accepted sense of the word.
In order to operate in a way which is normally regarded as democratic, a country’s electoral system would need to exhibit a number of features which suggest that the wishes of individual citizens as expressed through the ballot box are reasonably reflected in the choice of government. Such features would include:
a system of regular elections (e.g. every four to five years) based on universal adult suffrage;
_ basic freedoms of speech, movement, assembly, etc.;
_ freedom from coercion and the absence of illegal electoral practices;
_ a secret ballot;
_ free media.
Where conditions such as these are absent or are not fully operational, there will always be a suspicion that the electoral outcome may not be a true reflection of the wishes of the people. The act of voting, in other words, needs to be accompanied by a set of legal prescriptions which provide some kind of guarantee that an election to choose part, if not all, of the government is both free and fair.
To be democratic the electoral system must not only be transparent; it must also ensure that the wishes of the majority as expressed through the number of votes cast are reflected in the final result. In ‘first-past-the-post systems’ (e.g. in most current UK elections) a simple majority is sufficient to ensure victory; as a consequence some winning candidates may be elected with fewer than half of the votes cast. Where a system of ‘proportional representation’ operates (e.g. in many other European countries) a redistribution of votes occurs when there is no out right winner, resulting in a final decision which can be said to more closely represent the wishes of the whole electorate. While the intricacies of different electoral systems are beyond the scope of this book, it is worth observing that the voting system a country uses can have important ramifications for the government elected to office. On the whole, a ‘plurality’ or ‘first-past-the-post system’ of voting usually results in majority government, with a single party dominating the organs of decision making and able to pursue its legislative program relatively free from constraint by the losing side(s). In contrast, where a proportional representation system is used the resulting government is often made up of a coalition of different parties, some of which may hold radically different views from the largest party within the coalition. In effect, coalition government is predominantly a matter of negotiation, accommodation and compromise, an exercise in consensus building and persuasion, as commonly found in most types of organizational setting, including the business world.
The party system
While it is possible to have democratic government in a one-party state, democracy is normally taken to imply that citizens get to choose between alternative candidates when casting their vote at an election. Invariably such candidates tend to represent different political partiesand to this extent a vote for a specific candidate can be said to equate to a vote for the party that he or she represents and which is ultimately hoping to form the government.
The existence of political parties, which compete for office at election time, is clearly a convenient if sometimes questionable means of organizing a system of representative democracy; hence the universality of party systems in democratic states and the relative lack of candidates standing with no party tag at governmental elections at all spatial levels. Parties not only help to choose most of the candidates who compete in these elections, but usually also support and sustain them (e.g.financially) before, during and after the election campaign and help to organize a system of (largely unpaid) volunteers to work to get them elected, as well as providing candidates with a platform of policies on which to stand for office. Whereas some of these activities tend to be the responsibility of the party at national level, others are undertaken at a regional and/or local level, often in the constituency (i.e. geographical area) that a candidate represents. Since questions of organisation, policy making and finance are central to the operation and success of a political party in modern democratic states, party structures have tended to become complex, bureaucratic, multi-layered and increasingly professionalized. As in other types of organization framework, they also provide an arena in which a substantial degree of in-fighting occurs between individuals of different temperaments, views and ambitions who are seeking to push the party in a particular direction.
From the electors’ point of view one of the primary benefits of the party system is that it provides a means of selecting political leaders and the kind of policies they are likely to pursue if the party achieves political office. Describing candidates by a party label (e.g. Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Conservative, Liberal, etc.)allows voters to choose those candidates whose views most closely represent their own, given that parties normally have an identifiable policy stance and produce some form of statement (or manifesto) outlining their policy preferences during an election campaign. Thus, while an individual elector is unlikely to agree with every single policy or proposed piece of legislation that a party puts forward in its attempts to gain office, he/she is at least able to express a preference between alternative approaches to government at the ballot box. To that extent it can be argued that there is likely to be a degree of congruence between the legislative program of the party democratically elected to form the government and the wishes of the people who elected it, albeit that in some cases the government may have received less than 50 per cent of the popular vote.
It is worth remembering that party labels are not always a good guide to the policy or legislative preferences of individual candidates, since someone described as a ‘Democrat’ or ‘Liberal’ in one part of a country may hold radically different views on a range of issues from others of the same title elected to constituencies in other areas. If anything, identifying election candidates in party political terms gives voters a broad indication of the underlying values and beliefs to which an individual subscribes: parties in practice are always destined to be (sometimes fragile)coalitions of groups and individuals representing a range of opinions and preferences under a party banner.
A representative assembly
As previously indicated, one of the key features of democratic government is the existence of a representative decision-making body; a group of individuals chosen by a country’s citizens to help make important decisions on their behalf. In the same way that share holders in a public company elect directors to guide the organization and to represent their interest, voters at election time choose individuals they wish to represent them in government in the various organs of decision making and policy implementation (see below). While not everyone chosen by the electorate becomes part of the small group of key decision makers (the government or political executive), all normally have some kind of role to play in the decision making process and usually get an opportunity to scrutinize policy and legislative proposals put forward by the governing element and to vote upon them. The fact that the electorate periodically has the opportunity to express its opinion on the performance of the incumbent decision makers and where necessary to replace them provides for a degree of political accountability, a central tenet of a democratic system of government.
As over two centuries of political theory have demonstrated, the concept of ‘representation’ can have at least two meanings: decision makers may represent the views of their constituents in the literal sense that they articulate them in orto government or they may simply represent them in so far as they have been elected by a majority (simple or otherwise) of voters to be the representative of a geographical area. In practice both these interpretations of representation can be seen to operate at different times, according to the predispositions of individual decision makers and the influences emanating from the prevailing political culture in a country, region or area. For example, in a system of government where national political parties are relatively weak and where an individual’s success in elections depends very much on supporting policies which are consistent with those of significant elements in one’s electorate (e.g. in the United States), representation tends to be seen in the more literal sense of supporting local views and preferences. In contrast, where there is a strong party system and where individuals are held to be elected on the basis of party affiliation (e.g. the UnitedKingdom), elected representatives are generally expected to be loyal to the party ina policy sense, even if this results on occasions in a conflict with the views of the majority of one’s constituents.
In modern democratic states the model of representative decision making usually operates at all spatial levels. In Europe, for example, voters not only elect their own national governments but also choose decision makers at a local and/or regional level and many European citizens are also able to vote in elections for pan-European institutions (i.e. for the European Parliament). One of the consequences of this arrangement is that on occasions the party (or parties)elected to office at national level may be different from that (or those) in power locally, regionally and/or supranationally. Where this occurs, clashes between decision makers representing different geographical areas tend to be inevitable and can give rise to problems of decision making and policy implementation, thus potentially disrupting the program on which a government has been elected to office.
In this context a useful distinction can be drawn between ‘federal’ and ‘unitary’systems of government. In the former, sovereignty (i.e. the legitimate power to make decisions) is divided between two levels of government (e.g. national andlocal/regional), each with independent powers that are usually laid down in a written constitution which is interpreted by the courts. Thus in the United States education is in the hands of the elected government at state (i.e. subnational) level, while defence and foreign affairs are federal (i.e. national) governmental responsibilities. In Germany, the federal government similarly has exclusive jurisdiction over foreign and defence policy and environmental protection, while the Länder(states) control such areas as education and the police.In contrast, under a unitary system ultimate authority rests with the national government and any powers granted to subnational levels by the central sovereign authority can ultimately be rescinded, including the right of government at subnational level to exist. Under such an arrangement particularly where it is written down in the form of a constitution government at national level clearly holds the whip hand and would normally expect its view to prevail where a dispute over an issue or policy occurred between it and a subnational authority. That said, decision makers in democratic states at all levels and under different governmental system shave, on the whole, a tendency to settle such conflicts through negotiation, bargaining and compromise rather than by exerting their power and authority, although this might be used on occasions. This predisposition goes some way to explaining why in democratic systems of government, the policies and legislative program of elected governments are much more likely to be incremental than they are to be radical.
A system for articulating sectional interests
Elections and a party system provide one way in which the views of an individual can be represented in government; an alternative is via pressure group activity.Like competing political parties, the existence of pressure groups is usually regarded as an important indicator of a democratic system of government. For many citizens in democratic countries, joining such a group is seen as a much more effective way of influencing government than through the party system.
Where as political parties seek influence by formally contesting political office, pressure groups seek to influence government in other ways, although this distinction is increasingly becoming blurred. In essence pressure groups (or ‘lobbies’) are collections of like-minded people who have voluntarily joined together to try to influence government thinking and behaviour and to represent the interest of their members. As a sectional interest within society, pressure groups provide a vehicle through which a collective and non-party political view can be articulated in decision-making circles; as such they can be said to operate as kind of safety-valve within a democratic system of government.
Traditionally in pressure group literature, a distinction tends to be drawn between groups which represent ‘somebody’ and those which represent ‘something’. The former are usually referred to as ‘interest groups’ or ‘protective groups’ and would include groups representing a particular section of the community, such as trade unions or professional associations. The latter tend to be known as ‘causegroups’ or ‘issue groups’, as exemplified by Green peace, Amnesty International and the various animal rights groups. In practice, of course, it is often difficult to make such a clear-cut distinction, given that some interest groups such as trade unions often associate themselves with particular causes and may campaign vigorously along side other groups in support of or against the issue concerned.
From a governmental point of view the existence of structures for articulating sectional interests is seen as an aid to efficient and representative decision making.Pressure groups not only provide government with detailed information on specific areas of everyday activity without which rational decision making would be difficult; they also fulfil a number of other important functions in a democratic system.
These would include:
The successful introduction of reforms in a country’s health service, for example, is dependent upon support from the various arms of the medical profession and from
organisations representing the different interests of health service workers. Similarly the effectiveness of government economic policies, and their subsequent impact on the business community, will be conditioned at least in part by the reactions of groups representing large employers, small and medium enterprises, workers, financial interests, etc., as well as by individual entrepreneurs and consumers.
This relative inter dependence between government and pressure groups under a democratic system is exemplified by the practice of prior consultation; this is the arrangement whereby the elected government actively seeks the views of interested parties during the policy and/or legislative process. Such consultation may be ‘formal’(e.g. where a group has representation on an advisory or executive body or where it isinvited to offer its views on a proposal) or ‘informal’ (e.g. off-the-record meetings between representatives of the group and the government) or a mixture of the two; it may also involve a group in hiring the services of a professional lobbyist often an ex-politician or bureaucrat familiar with the structure of decision making in government and with access to key decision makers. Groups which are regularly consulted and whose opinion is readily sought by government may acquire ‘insider status’ and may even be incorporated into the formal decision-making process prizes which are highly valued since they imply that the group has a legitimate right to be consulted by government prior to deciding on a particular course of action or inaction. In comparison, ‘outsider groups’ often find it difficult to make their voice heard indecision-making circles and for this reason may be forced to resort to different formsof direct action in order to publicise their views in the wider community in the hopeof gaining influence through public sympathy and support.
As this discussion of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider groups’ illustrates, pressure groups can use a variety of methods to attract support for their cause or to protect and promote the interests of their members. These range from direct lobbying of government to marches, strikes, disruption and other forms of demonstrative action designed to attract media and hence public attention although frequently such action can have an adverse effect. In addition, some of the larger and better-resourced groups may employ experts to advise on policy issues and/or establish their own research facilities to provide information to strengthen their case (e.g. Greenpeace).
What method(s) a group employs and where it seeks to bring its influence to bear tends to vary from issue to issue and group to group, and generally reflects not only differences in group status and resources but also the structure of decision making within the policy community concerned. In the United States for instance, direct lobbying of Congressmen/women is a common tactic used by pressure groups, given the relative weakness of the party system and the tendency for an individual’s electoral fortunes to be tied up with the views of key groups in the constituency.In contrast in the United Kingdom, the pressures of party discipline, the domination of the executive branch of government and the influence of senior civil servants tend to make direct appeals to key actors in government a more effective method of achieving political influence than operating at constituency level.As a final comment it is worth recalling that decisions in a democracy may be made locally, nationally, supranationally or internationally and often require cooperation between different levels of government and/or between different agencies and arms of government at both the formulation and implementation stages. Accordingly, pressure groups are increasingly to be found operating at the interface between the institutions of government and across the whole range of spatial levels from the local to the global (see Mini case: Supranational lobbying). Given the large number of pressure points where vested interests can bring their influence to bear, it tends to be easier for a group to prevent or limit government action rather than to persuade decision makers to change the direction of policy. To this extent policy formulation and implementation in democratic states is perhaps best portrayed as the ‘art of the possible’ rather than the ‘science of the desirable’.
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