Our citizen-led democracy assessments generated a variety of intriguing findings in various countries. But even more than that, they have initiated reform processes and spurred internal debate on democratic systems, their flaws and ways to make improvements.
Democracy assessment is not an end in itself, but rather a means to facilitate a democratic reform process by providing the systematic evidence, argument and comparative data on which reforms might be based. Thus, publication of the assessment findings is not necessarily the final step.
Our framework emphasizes that the assessment process is an effective means to communicate a country’s story of democracy that has been forged through national consensus. This process ought to be communicated to as diverse and broad an audience as possible, and should lead to the formulation of concrete proposals for democratic reform that draw on the findings of the assessment in ways that are based on local ownership of the reform agenda.
The potential for initiating, implementing and sustaining significant democratic reforms, however, must be seen as a function of four larger factors that need to be taken into consideration:
- the context in which the assessment was carried out;
- the types of influence that the assessment made possible;
- the audience to which the assessment was directed; and
- the type of outputs produced.
These factors can act alone or in combination to affect the type of democratic reform that is possible, in both the short and long terms. The assessment process has several different dimensions (agent, context, openness of the political process, audiences, outputs and impact) that create different opportunities and areas for democratic reform, including:
Institutional reforms are based on enhancing accountability mechanisms in ways that prohibit the centralization of power or the exercise of power and decision-making without real oversight. Across different institutional arrangements (e.g., unitary and federal systems, presidential and parliamentary systems, and proportional and majoritarian systems), the assessment experiences have shown that it is important to ensure that institutional mechanisms are in place to maintain independent forms of representation and accountability. Institutional oversight requires real power backed by the constitutional or statutory authority to oversee and control government actions that can have a deleterious impact on human rights—including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Popular institutional solutions include the establishment of national human rights institutions, electoral commissions, anti-corruption bodies and ombudsman offices, as well as more traditional legislative and judicial oversight powers that have evolved over long periods of time in the more established democracies. For transitional societies, there is an additional demand for institutional solutions that confront authoritarian legacies (at both the formal/legal and cultural/practical levels), the so-called military reserve domains of power (e.g., in Bangladesh and Pakistan), and the use of emergency powers within national constitutions. Moreover, institutional solutions are needed to enhance the participation and inclusion of all groups, including minorities and women.
The framework is based on the idea that political and legal equality must be complemented by the means to realize social equality; thus there is a need for resource-based reforms. The persistence of social and economic inequality constrains the ability of large numbers of people to take part in the public affairs of a country. Concentration on fulfilling economic and social rights is often criticized for placing a heavy burden on governments’ fiscal capacities, but programmes that enhance the protection of civil and political rights also entail such a burden. All rights depend to some degree on tax revenues and government spending. Thus, improving the quality of democracy involves enhancing the fiscal capacity of states, while more democratic procedures and institutions can contribute to a better allocation of national revenue in ways that raise living standards and overall well-being.
There is a longer-term need for the kind of reforms that promote and develop a broader political culture that supports democracy. The Bosnian and Latvian assessment experiences showed that new and restored democracies face harder challenges in this regard. Bangladesh has experienced ongoing military interventions in the political sphere that the public has generally backed, which suggests a weak attachment to democracy and democratic principles. Indeed, the South Asian assessment found that ‘an affirmation of democracy does not lead to the negation of authoritarian alternatives, so support for democracy is thin’. The Netherlands has sought to formulate an interconnected package of measures to guarantee, reinforce and—where necessary—renew democracy, together with the results of the Citizens’ Forum (Burgerforum) and the National Convention, among other initiatives.