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The Big Question: Does democracy work?

Updated Thursday, 25th November 2004

If people got to vote on what style of government they'd like, democracy would win. But is it the best system on offer?

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Nelson Mandela voting Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

In the early 1970s, forty countries had a democratically-elected government. Thirty years on, that figure has risen to 120. So, it seems, democracy is flourishing around the world.

But is it living up to expectations? Is it giving its electorates what they want? Last week, we asked what is democracy - now, The Big Question: Does Democracy Work?

Emma and Professor Walston What does it mean to be a democracy? For Professor James Walston, from the American University in Rome, (itself home to one of the earliest democracies), certain key elements make up an ideal modern democracy: free and fair elections, the separation of powers between branches of government - the executive, parliamentand the judiciary, as well as a constitution to regulate national policies and defend citizens' rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a neutral police force and military.

To explore how this democratic model works in practice, Emma speaks to Chris Fomunyoh, Senior Associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington DC and Felipe Agüero, professor of comparative politics at the University of Miami.

A large proportion of the countries adopting popular democracy in the past few years have been in Africa, a fact celebrated by the Foundation for Democracy in Africa. There has also been a rise in free and fair elections in Latin America, while democracy throughout the old Warsaw Pact has also been taking a firm hold.

For many of these states, with democracy came liberal economic reforms. But the Big Question hears that in many cases, these economic reforms have not improved people's living conditions. A recent UN survey in the new Latin American democracies found that more than half of those asked would back a return to an authoritarian government if it could resolve their economic problems.

In Africa, one new democracy widely seen as a model for political and economic reform is Ghana, which enjoys a high degree of media freedom. The Big Question hears from the presenter of a lively radio phone-in show, where politicians are regularly called to account.

Emma's guests tell her that low turnouts is one of the biggest dangers to democracy worldwide. Voter apathy in the United States and declining political participation in Sweden are just two symptoms of what could be a world-wide problem. But Professor James Walston sees democracy's biggest challenge in governments' responses to the threat of terrorism.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 14th August 2004





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