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Democracy. One size fits all?

Prof. dr. Evert van der Zweerde (Radboud University)


While nearly all countries in the world claim to be democratic, and populations across the globe, from Cairo to Bangkok, and from Caracas to Moscow, rally for more or better democracy, citizens and intellectuals in established democracies like the USA or the Netherlands speak of a crisis, or even the death of democracy. Dutch intellectuals write books with titles like Against Elections or Beyond Democracy.

How is it possible that some are ready to fight and die for what others are, in some cases, ready to give up? Do they mean the same thing? Is there one 'type' of democracy that would – or even should - fit the whole world, irrespective of history, geography, or civilization, or should we differentiate and conclude that each people gets the regime it deserves?

The central thesis of this lecture will be that the answer is: both. The notion of democracy can be broken down into a number of institutions, repertoires, and practices, each of which can, to a varying extent, possess the quality of being 'democratic'. Depending on background (historical and cultural) as well as present-day circumstances (economic, demographic, geographic), different combinations of institutions, repertoires and practices can be fitting … or not fitting. This means that democracy cannot be exported or imposed, but has to grow bottom-up and has to be grafted onto local conditions, and it will, in each instance, be a matter of contestation and struggle. Finally, the current 'crisis' of democracy, including mass disappointment in places like Russia were democracy is “new”, is due to a considerable extent to an exclusive focus on 'free and fair elections'.