Rethinking democracy


Despite the general claims of triumph and success by its proponents and defenders, the universality and normativity of democracy is currently under scrutiny. Its proponents claim democracy as the most important development in the twentieth century. Democracy has been widely accepted as the ‘normal’ form of government to which all nations are entitled – whether in Europe, America, Asia, or Africa. The assumption is that for a nation to prosper, a democratic state is required. Democracy is hailed as the only system of governance where there is freedom of expression, equality, economic development and peace.

Recent academic debates, however, have revealed diverse attitudes toward democracy. On the one hand, there is a general agreement within mainstream scholarship – what Kanbur (2002)has called the mainstream of development economics – that democracy is a requirement for the emergence of accountable and responsive forms of government (Faguet, 2014). This idea has become widely accepted and nourished local and global debates around the sustainability and desirability of democratic regimes. For instance, the 1 May 2014 edition of The Economist in an article on ‘What’s gone wrong with democracy’, argued that:’democracies are on average richer than non-democracies, are less likely to go to war and have a better record of fighting corruption. More fundamentally, democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures. That so many people in so many different parts of the world are prepared to risk so much for this idea is testimony to its enduring appeal’ (The Economist 2014).

On the other hand, scholars like Ballestrin (2014) call attention to the colonial logic of hegemonic western democracy, and its link to capitalism and the natural disasters and conflicts it has created. She and others argue that the hegemony of western democracy founded on the central tenets of Thomas Paine, undermines other equally democratic and just systems of governance around the world, as well as limits the possibility of practicing local democracy.


It seems that democracy is again a subject that needs to be rethought.

As we explore in this journal issue, rethinking democracy implies a critical attitude of going beyond claims of universality and normativity of democracy as a given concept and set of practices. In its broadest sense the word democracy (demos and kratos) can be simply translated as people power, rule of the people, or from the people-by the people-for the people. This basic idea has been translated to the dominant form of (western) democracy that we have today – a system of government considered so good that, instead of asking if a country was fit for democracy, twentieth-century scholars assumed that a country should become fit through democracy (Sen, 1999). However, in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, democracy has taken a turn that has resulted in various signs of civil discontent with contemporary form(s) of government. Massive demonstrations have taken place in the main squares and avenues of several cities – particularly in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America – against authoritarian rule, massive corruption and governments’ failures in providing employment and social welfare.

Since 2009, the world has witnessed: the ousting of ruling regimes in Benin, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the formal birth of elected governments in Pakistan, the rise of the global Occupy movement that emerged out of the Wall Street effort, which has been active in more than 30 countries worldwide against corporate influence in politics;1 the allegations of repression against civilian protesters in Iran, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela and Ukraine; and the uprising of social mobilizations in Brazil against the enormous costs of hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup. These mass demonstrations and uprisings around the globe indicate the widespread nature of civil discontent against the liberal norms of western democracy. As we write the editorial, we have just witnessed the brutal execution of 30 Ethiopian and Eritrean nationals in Libya, and the ongoing debate about democracy related to the Middle East and Africa where people have tried to escape the ill fate in their homeland, only to meet death when their boats sank in the Mediterranean before reaching the coast of Europe.