What is a liberal democracy

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Liberal democracy as a universal canon of values ​​- back to the future?

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Faust, Jörg
The Current Column (2013)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) (The current column of January 14, 2013)

Bonn, January 14, 2013. The core idea of ​​democracy understands the people as the only legitimate bearer of state power. In liberal democracy, this core idea is expressed in the fact that inclusive political participation rights of all citizens enable free competition for the legislature and executive, so that the rulers are bound to the preferences of broad majorities. Free and fair elections, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of the press and information as well as the protection of fundamental rights are institutional principles that characterize democratic systems today and which, especially after the end of the Cold War, seemed to prevail as a universal amalgam of values ​​of legitimate rule.

However, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this universality is increasingly being questioned critically. Rather, the "ability to travel" of Western ideas of democracy in other cultural contexts is severely limited. The emergence of liberal democracy is a product of specifically Western experiences, which is why the embedding of liberal democratic values ​​in other cultural contexts is only possible to a very limited extent. The democratic principles mentioned are therefore in no way suitable as a universal canon of values, but are limited in their scope by cultural or cultural-religious borders. Since, for example, deeply impregnated Asian or African ideas and practices of political culture are at best compatible with liberal democratic ideas to a limited extent, Western measures to promote liberal democracy must also be viewed as unlawful and unproductive interventions. This argument is also strengthened by the current global shifts - the rise of large developing and emerging countries as well as the manifest economic problems in Europe and the USA.

But on closer inspection, there is much to be said for the universality of liberal democratic values ​​and little for culturally relativistic skepticism.

The principles of liberal democratic rule still exert an enormous radiance in all cultures. And not just because democracy is associated with western prosperity and consumption, but because the institutional principles of liberal democracy are linked to the not unjustified hope that state governance is not based on the interests of the less powerful but on the needs of broad sections of the population. Not only the events of the Arab Spring indicate that large sections of the population advocated more political participation and democracy, and at least the Muslims of the urban middle classes have little interest in authoritarian regimes with an Islamist character. It is no different in South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Ghana or South Africa, where the aforementioned institutional principles of democracy have been established and are shared by a majority of the population. Conversely, authoritarian governments in all cultures invest a great deal in censorship and repression in order to prevent an open discussion about the legitimacy of different forms of rule.

Mind you, this does not mean that the institutions of liberal democracy will be established quickly and without conflict everywhere. In many places the inertial forces of political and economic elites, who benefit greatly from illiberal and autocratic structures, are too strong for such an optimistic forecast. But that the attractiveness of liberal democratic principles is tied to large cultural areas can simply not be proven by the experience of the last decades. Rather, it would be a downright cynical undertaking to explain to the Indian demonstrators that the state must guarantee basic rights for girls and women, but at the same time to point out that freedom of assembly and demands for greater accountability by parliament and government are culturally not at all legitimate means of doing this. Chinese bloggers like Michael Anti would also have to be countered that he was wrong to call democracy a “universal value”. Likewise, one would have to counteract civil society actors in African countries that their demands for democratically legitimized rule of law are culturally uninformed claims.

The accusation of cultural relativist skeptics that the idea of ​​liberal democracy as a universal canon of values ​​is an integral part of western values ​​imperialism can in many cases even be easily reversed. After all, what legitimation do Western cultural relativists actually use when they deny societies in other regions the cultural suitability for democratic rule? The reference to intellectual opponents of liberal democratic principles in the countries of the south is in any case of little use, as on closer inspection this opposition often turns out to be subject to censorship or even as the beneficiary of authoritarian structures.

The core of the culturally relativistic argument against the ability to travel liberal democracy is therefore neither empirically tenable nor normatively comprehensible. However, overly optimistic prognoses, which herald an inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, must also be treated with caution. But the barriers to more democracy are less based on the universal attractiveness of liberal democracy, but rather on the fact that inclusive political rights of participation and freedom pose a threat to the political and economic profiteers of authoritarian structures.

After all, the acceptance of the universality of liberal ideas of democracy does not mean that we are not allowed to criticize the practices and conduct of Western democracy promotion. Diplomatic duplicity and the complacency of Western democracy supporters, which often appears to be superlative, are not very suitable for promoting the acceptance of democracy as a universal value in a changing international system.

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