Inhabitants of an area either govern themselves or they have governance thrust upon them. The latter cases are those where power is acquired by someone not duly elected by the people living there but through violence, terror or other peaceful yet still undemocratic methods. This last scenario can happen by, for example, inheritance or appointment.

The more fortunate situation is when people decide for themselves how and who should govern them. This is basically what we call democracy. Shifting is always possible between regimes: a democratic system can also be transformed into an autocratic system, and the reverse is also true as we saw in 1989 across Central Europe.

Ferenc Patsch SJ, in his three-part article series in “A Szív” – the oldest, continuously published Hungarian monthly paper by Jesuits – demonstrated correctly that the democratic exercise of power is still the most attractive community-based form of governance on planet Earth. Certain interpretations of social sciences have expressly stated that one of the great steps in human evolution was the ability to self-organise into a hierarchy: the pack of wolves, the herd of elephants or the termites living in complex social structures, reflect how the early human communities were first organized into tribes, then settled into colonies, which necessarily brought the division of labour and a hierarchical system.

A cornerstone of human history is how people construct their own governance.  If one wishes to be precise, the question itself has changed over the millennia: first it asked who might be recognized as a ruler: shall it be based on divine grace, the will of the ancestors, or other external forces etc.

Then a few hundred years ago, the question was transformed in the direction of whom to empower to rule, and who has the right to choose their rulers, based on the general will of the people, later put in the ideological framework of the sovereignty of the people. One cannot highlight enough what a huge a leap it was in the perception of the structures of power. The underlying drastic shift in the self-perception of mankind had taken place during the Renaissance era, which actually enabled the transformation of the above question.

Is there a common backbone of democracies?

The democratic exercise of power entails a concept, which is realised in a plethora of ways, different for each country. Yet, there are some common principles that are valid in the Swiss version of direct democracy as well as in the electoral US presidential system or in the Hungarian model. This article argues that the essence of democracies is that a coherent group of people in a given area – a community – are allowing and supporting their subgroups to compete peacefully against each other to determine who is able to exercise power for a determined timeframe.

This can be broken down into several preconditions: firstly, one must compete peacefully for the exercise of power. Not through revolutions, military coups, anarchist bombings, or assisted by foreign invasions, essentially any excluding direct or indirect violence. This prerequisite is not truly met in quite a lots of countries around the world, therefore disqualifying them from the community of democracies

On the other hand, according to this revolutionary idea of competing for power, it must be assured that the aspiring groups have a structure in place for competition. Recently, this is the terrain of democratic elections – through the general, equal, direct and secret right to vote.

There were different solutions previously, such as random choice (tirage au sort), but in democratic countries during the second half of the 20th century, it became clear that universal suffrage was the most desirable and had become the most prevalent, involving slowly all parts of society, like women, the poor, people of different faiths and all remaining groups who had previously been excluded from elections.

The only criterion to vote was narrowed down to citizenship, with some minor adjustments like the decreasing of the voting age, for example in Austria the voting age is sixteen, while in other places it remains twenty-one.

Many candidates but only one winner: the nature of the democratic race

Democracy is rarely considered first as a competition. Yet, this approach actually offers an explanation for the existence of democratic institutions and the idea of freedom. If we look back over thousands of years, we see the struggle for survival of communities: against natural forces and against other humans.

Throughout history, humans created larger and larger groups for survival, eventually reaching the nation-state level since the Westphalian peace in the Euro-Atlantic region. It is certainly more complex than previous fiefdoms and kingdoms: it requires simultaneously  the development of the nation and the state.

Hence, in modern states, it is possible to compete for leadership through elections: the state assures the neutral structures for competition for the subgroups of the nation. Power is not up to war, poisoning and witchcraft. This competitive understanding of the race for governance shall be considered as a group-friendly phenomenon, markedly more favourable for intra-group peace as the group members – the citizens of the nation – do not kill each other for the inner leadership position, but peacefully resolve matters in elections; therefore assuring more resources for the community in its inter-state fights.

It is so commonplace in democratic countries that it has become a cultural metaphor: how many movies have we watched and novels have we read where the eventually successful leader is failing its first chance to be elected? Who is only recalled to lead when the ultimate danger is approaching the nation?

One of the Churchill narratives has such a twist, but it is also a widespread story line in tales for children as well. This means, in practice, that a given democratic community of people holds several leaders “standby”, who will be the best leaders under different circumstances: because there is no person who could always and under all circumstances perform in the best way. Yet, this also requires a rational acceptance of our human nature and its limits.

The point is that the community – currently the nation state – will improve its ability to survive if it is able to adapt its leaders to the changing circumstances, so that the most talented person is enabled to lead when the politics of the world shifts. This is also a fundamental principle of the democratic power cycle, a justification for the members of the community how and why competition for power is a rational solution.

The recipe of fair competition

If we take the individuals’ interest, it is even clearer why the institution of democracy and liberties must go hand in hand.

Let’s consider for a moment what constitutes a fair race? Would anyone watch a football game where only three players are competing against a complete team? Or a basketball game where one of the baskets is higher than the other?

Competition is not fair unless we provide the most equitable conditions for the participants. Only under this condition is a democratic race capable of extracting alternative leaders from the community.

This is why individual freedoms are needed as everyone has to be given the potential: the right to vote and to stand for election. In order to run a fair electoral process, one must have freedom of expression, right to assembly, freedom of speech and the press and all the rights declared already at the end of the 18th century during the French revolution. These freedoms are actually inseparable ingredients of the democratic race, for the better of intra-group competition.

We are still having countless debates how to deliver on those rights and how to level the playing field: how can we create more equal conditions by regulating party financing? How can it be avoided that the ruling party be in a better position than the opposition? How can lobbying be regulated? In this respect, the freedom of the media is also critical, in so far it helps to inform the citizens. But how is the media more helpful when it is purely capitalist, state-financed, or perhaps oligopolistic (which could be called oligarchic in Eastern Europe)? Answers are being researched from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

Finally, an important feature of the above definition of democratic competition is that power may be gained by a subgroup only for a definite period of time – typically four or five years. Power is not life-long or until retirement.

The idea of fixed term limits serves several components of democracy: it is important that no one should have a chance to consolidate his own power, or to claim automatic renewal of the mandate; or to have a chance (and time) to render hollow the democratic structures of checks and balances. Consequently, only electoral systems are capable in maintaining regular power rotations.

In other words, they help to realise elite shifts in governmental power, hinder permanent nepotism, dependency and abuse. In addition, shall the global context change, the nation has a chance to choose a more suitable leader to the new challenges.

The fallacy of man must remain an axiom

After all, the ultimate objective of every and each democratic system is the same: how can we avoid people from abusing their power at the expense of others? This thought has a lot in common with the Christian worldview where human beings are unable to resist temptation.

Indeed, it is their true nature that, time to time, they give in to temptation. The beholder of power is no longer taken as a divine being, a special creature, but a simple mortal. With this in mind, it is necessary to build checks and balances in the structures of government, in order to reduce the chances of temptation and the chance of governors to abuse their power.

This is strictly not an ideological issue, but simply a natural phenomenon of the human psyche. That is why all of us must be first a democrat, insisting on the democratic competition, and only secondly a supporter of particular ideologies. Being a democrat only means accepting a formal mechanism for distributing power. Modern political ideologies embody the intra-group competition, inside a democratic structure, but clearly and above all, the structure itself must be in place.

We could also say that democratic structures for competition represents the hardware while ideology is the software; we can always change the software without throwing out the hardware. However, once the processor is broken in our computer, then no ideological competition can take place and the system freezes. One might assume that the selection among software remains the privilege of those who maintain their hardware.

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Hungarian in Sziv.

Botond Feledy is foreign policy expert and analyst.

Botond Feledy

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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