17 April 2019

Presidential and Parliamentary Democracies Struggle to Adapt to the Modern World

Democracy, a form of government that seemed destined to spread to all corners of the world, has found itself on the back foot in recent years.  Many factors have contributed to the rising fears about the future of democracy as the world’s leading form of government.  For example, a number of election results over the past few years would have been seemingly unthinkable just a few years earlier.  At the same time, many elections have resulted in the formation of governments, or the election of leaders, who are less interested in preserving democracy and the climate that fosters the success of democratic governments. As such, trust in democracy has fallen significantly in many areas of the world, including in many of the countries that were responsible for the spread of democracy.  In its place, totalitarianism and authoritarianism are making strong comebacks, with many weak democracies falling back into the arms of totalitarian-leaning leaders and governments.  As this trend gains momentum, many are asking whether or not democracy is doomed to fail, or if this is just a down period in what will eventually be another era of democratic expansion.

The rise of democracy as the world’s leading form of government is intricately linked with the rise of the West. While the initial rise of the West came not as a result of democratic political systems, many of the West’s most powerful states eventually transitioned to some form of democratic government.  By the 19thcentury, Europe’s foremost large democracy, the United Kingdom, had amassed an empire that spread to all corners of the world, a factor that would result in the creation of many of today’s most-powerful democracies. Meanwhile, the United States’ birth as a democratic country and its eventual rise to global leadership played a vital role in the spread of democracy, with the US often using its immense economic and military power to promote democracy in areas of the world where the promotion of democracy benefitted the US’ position there.  With the US and its democratic allies promoting democracy around the world, democracy as a form of government peaked in the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The victory of the United States and the West in the Cold War resulted in more countries around the world having a democratic form of government than ever before.  In fact, democracy spread to regions such as Eastern Europe, Latin America and even to the Middle East and North Africa in the years following the Cold War’s end.  Voters in countries with little history or experience with democracy suddenly found themselves being forced to choice from a huge number of candidates and parties, some of which had links to their country’s previous authoritarian regimes and others that spanned the democratic spectrum, including nationalists, liberals, social conservatives and environmentalists.  

With so many young democracies struggling to adopt to their new form of government, it is little wonder that democracy in many of these countries has struggled to take root.  In fact, democracy has suffered all manner of setbacks in these newly-formed democracies in recent years, with some sliding back into authoritarianism and others finding it difficult to maintain strong and stable governments.  More surprising is the fact that democracy is also under threat in many of the world’s longer-lasting and more-stable democracies.  Despite the relative success of many of these early democracies, and increasing number of voters in these countries are losing faith in the democratic form of government, a trend that has accelerated in of late, as evidenced by recent election results in many of these countries.  Worse, both major forms of democratic government, the presidential and the parliamentary systems, are under threat.

The presidential system is best-known as the form of government in the United States, but it is also a common form of government in many democracies, particularly in emerging markets.  In recent decades, the presidential system has struggled with the fact that presidential elections are increasingly becoming personality contests.  At the same time, elected officials, at least in actual democracies, are finding their approval ratings fall ever lower, with the current presidents of some of the world’s most influential democracies having approval ratings that are near all-time lows for the leaders of their countries.  Meanwhile, the rise of populist ideas on the political right and left is making it harder for centrist political leaders to win office in presidential systems.  As these trends continue, upcoming presidential elections will be closely watched to see if the struggles of the presidential system continue, with no election being more closely watched than the 2020 presidential election in the United States.

The other leading form of democratic government is the parliamentary system, which is particularly common in Europe and in many New World countries.  For a long time, parliamentary systems were viewed as the more stable form of government due to their lack of strong individual political leaders and the need to form coalition governments that were formed by compromise and consensus.  However, populism has also impacted the parliamentary form of government, with a proliferation of political parties threatening the future of parliamentary democracy.  Today, more parties than ever are entering the parliament in countries around the world, as traditionally powerful parties lose support and as new parties, often on the far-right or the far-left, winning a greater share of the vote.  As such, it is now much more difficult to form stable and cohesive coalition governments in the parliamentary system, with some countries finding it all but impossible to form governments and others finding it difficult to maintain coalition governments.  This is resulting in an increasing level of frustration with this form of government.

Without a doubt, democracy’s inexorable spread no longer seems certain as that form of government has run into major trouble.  However, there is still room for hope for the democratic form of government.  For example, powerful countries and organizations such as the United States, India and the European Union remain robust democracies, despite some recent hiccups.  Likewise, people around the world generally take to the streets to demand more democracy, not less.  Therefore, democracies must be more assertive in promoting their form of government in order to stem the rise of authoritarianism that has characterized global politics in recent years.  Moreover, both of the leading systems of democracy must address their current challenges and adapt to their new realities.  One way of doing this is to drop the rigid constitutionalism that bedevils many democracies, as many of the guidelines that are used by democracies today are ill-suited for modern times.  Therefore, the next few years will be the key, as governments and voters in today’s democracies are fully-aware of the challenges that they face, but it remains to be seen if they are up to the challenge of restoring and improving the democratic form of government.