Baroness Ashton exclusive: How to build a deep democracy

Democracy demands much more than giving people the right to vote, Baroness Ashton writes exclusively for Dialogue

“We want what you have – democracy as part of everyday life.” The young man who said this to me had recently emerged from eight years in a prison in Libya. We were standing in a Benghazi hotel looking out at buildings – or bits of buildings – shattered by the bombings in a country shortly to disintegrate into chaos.

In his perfect English, he made the point that is crucial to the debate on democracy – that it is part of our everyday life. That means it is deeply rooted in our institutions, our media, civil society and in our psyche. That doesn’t happen by accident, it takes time and effort. What I describe as deep democracy is vital if a society is to survive the ups and downs of economic and political change – and, more importantly, deliver what
people need.

In the UK we have recently celebrated 700 years since Magna Carta. We will shortly celebrate 100 years of women having the vote. It took 600 years to get from one to the other. So it should not be surprising that countries with no history of democracy struggle to escape their past in a few weeks or months. We can offer good advice and supportive actions. But they are no substitute for nations creating their own framework for democracy, and their own institutions, to ensure it functions effectively.

Travelling across the world, and especially in countries where dramatic change has transformed the political landscape, I heard “election and democracy” in the same sentence as if one automatically led to the other, or that the two were cause and effect. While elections are a fundamental part of democratic life, they are insufficient on their own. It doesn’t mean that we have to wait centuries for countries to establish democracy, but it does mean we need to keep nurturing and supporting it to ensure it grows deep roots. Deep democracy has many characteristics. Here are six that are fundamental…

1. The campaign test 

Free elections need careful preparation. I have seen elections called before people were able to develop their manifestos or platforms, or to work out how they would campaign and who they would work with. The result is confusion at best for the voter, and leads to some surprising and unexpected results – not necessarily in the interests of advancing democracy.

2. The goodbye test

Elections must give voters the practical opportunity – not just the theoretical right – to throw a government out of office and replace it. So ensuring opposition is effective, holding government to account and preparing itself to be in government is important. However much a leader might believe they, and only they, can run the country, democracy must allow that decision to rest with the people. An elderly politician in Egypt, at the time of Mubarak’s overthrow, said to me, “What we need is a retired president. Someone who voluntarily leaves office when their time is up. We have never had that.”

3. The fairness test 

The franchise must be full and fair. Women should have the vote – and the right to stand for election – on the same basis as men. There needs to be a well-understood age for voting. It means, too, that all eligible adults can easily join the electoral register, and have ready access to polling stations. These are challenges that face even well-established democracies such as the UK and US. Perfection is difficult, but striving for it is essential. On election day, this includes providing remote villages with the tables, ballot papers, ink and collection of documents and so forth that they need.

4. The openness test 

Civil society operating freely is crucial: working in support of communities and causes, holding government to account, pushing ideas and views. Civil society must be able to receive money and operate freely so that people can be informed about issues that affect them – human rights, levels of pollution, conditions in prison, actions of police
and so on.

When I visited Tunisia in 2011, I went to the offices of the human rights organization in Tunis.
I was the first person from outside Tunisia to cross the threshold – the government had forbidden outsiders to visit as part of a crackdown on their activities. There I met many dedicated individuals working in support of their communities and
raising concerns. Their work is vital to a
thriving democracy.

5. The press test 

A free press matters in any democracy. Able to respond to issues and raise questions, the press can inform and educate people to the realities of what is happening. Of course journalists are sometimes biased. They don’t always tell the truth. But the fact that the press exists in different media, including social media, means information gets to people from more than one source. And good journalism challenges candidates, governments and leaders to answer for what they do.

6. The justice test 

The judicial system needs to be impartial and free from corruption. Police and judges must follow the law and the evidence, and not be swayed by populist opinion or government pressure. Again, established democracies sometimes struggle with this, but they also provide examples of the courts standing up to corrupt politicians – such as the state senator from New York last year, and British parliamentarians jailed for dishonest expenses claims a few years ago. People must be able to rely on the judicial system – especially in circumstances where politicians from one group are targeted by another.

These six points are about establishing deep democracy – there are more that I could mention. But the wider point is that democracy is fragile when it is not supported by an interwoven infrastructure. Our striving for democracy shouldn’t forget that.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland was first vice president of the European Commission in the Barroso Commission from 2009 to 2014