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Slow and steady wins the race? Not always – and why democracies should be worried

June 18, 2024 • By Ida Hedkvist
Source: Photo by Timon Studler

Findings from a recent survey across 19 countries around the world reveal that people are more likely to express positive thoughts about non-democratic leadership when it comes with efficiency and progress. Respondents to the Perceptions of Democracy Survey (PODS) were asked whether they “have any favorable thoughts about a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Parliament or elections” and the degree to which they agree or disagree with the statement, “It is more important to have a government that can get things done, even if we have no say over what it does”. In almost all countries, considerably more people agreed (answered “Agree” or “Completely Agree”) with the second statement than the first. On average, about one in three respondents said they have some favorable thoughts about a strong leader while almost half agreed that getting things done is more important than having a say. 

Figure 1: Respondents who agreed with the statements listed

This pattern may indicate that dissatisfaction with democracy is connected to frustration with government inefficiency, rather than a general preference for non-democratic leadership. A few countries, such as Iraq, Pakistan, and Taiwan stand out, with 83 per cent, 63 per cent and 74 per cent of respondents, respectively, who prioritize getting things done. Comparatively, only 36 per cent, 32 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively, said they have favorable thoughts about a strong leader. 

These findings are a part of a larger body of research in recent years that has identified feelings of frustration, dissatisfaction and lack of trust in democracy’s ability to deliver. There is, of course, a balance to strike. Democratic institutions are notoriously slow, and decision-making takes time when broad-based agreement is required. However, these findings are to be taken seriously. If people prioritize efficiency over democracy, they might be willing to sacrifice democracy for the sake of progress on their priority issues, which could be a vulnerability to leaders who remove checks and balances for the sake of making decisions without having to “bother” with legislative or judicial checks. 

These findings therefore raise several important questions for further research. First, are democracies slower at delivering, or are they failing to communicate what is being delivered? Many studies find that life satisfaction is overall higher in democracies than in non-democracies, which indicates that democracies are delivering in some ways. Second, are there particular problems with inefficiency in places like Taiwan, Iraq, and Pakistan, which could explain the high numbers there? Looking into the more extreme cases might give insight to the background of the sentiments picked up in the survey. Third, what are the things that people feel are not getting done? Are there key issues which democracies are failing to address?  

Understanding and addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction with democratic processes without compromising democratic values will be crucial. If these challenges are not met, the allure of an efficient authoritarian might grow stronger, posing a significant threat to democratic governance worldwide.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.

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About the authors

Ida Hedkvist
Ida Hedkvist
Intern, Democracy Assessment
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