ANALYSIS | The decline of freedom in democracies

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IEC. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)
IEC. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

The political elite are happy to access power through democratic elections, but are averse to institutional checks once in power, writes Nicola de Jager.

One of the most salient questions dominating our epoch is: Is democracy in decline?

Political scientists have for many decades been "taking the temperature" of democracy.

The Third Wave of democratisation beginning in the 1970s, gained strong momentum into the 1990s. By the year 2000 the continuous rise in legitimacy of democracy was celebrated and in the ideological sphere it reigned supreme.

The ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville, an early liberal democratic thinker, had overtaken the ideas of Karl Marx and its communist manifestations. However, by 2010 the mood had begun to change and was formulated in the terms of an erosion of freedom.

The political scientist, Samuel Huntington, had already in the 1980s poignantly noted "the future of democracy is closely associated with freedom in the world".

There is something inherent in the idea of democracy that conjures expectations of valuing human dignity and thus freedoms - freedom of association, thought, belief, religion and speech.

This is evident on the African continent.

According to Afrobarometer's survey data, which measures the values and perceptions of Africans from 34 countries, the majority (56%) linked the meaning of democracy with "civil liberties and personal freedoms", with the distant second (7.2%) meaning being "voting/ elections/multiparty competition".

Call for freedom

There is a deep call in the human heart for freedom.

Contemporary comparative politics scholars Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart argue that "liberal democracy is a manifestation of human freedom".

Thus, the term democracy best captures the expectation of upholding freedoms when it is prefixed with "liberal".

Liberal democracy is a compromise of two traditions: on the one hand, political power attained through popular participation, and on the other, a restraint of that power, through accountability and the protection of liberties.

Including the term "liberal", derived from the philosophy of classical liberalism, recognises the importance of limiting arbitrary government and guaranteeing specified rights of the individual against encroachment by government.

John Locke, the philosopher and founding father of classical liberalism, argued for widespread liberties based on natural rights. And, these rights were to be outside the reach of the state, hence the need for the private sphere separate from the public sphere.

READ | Analysis: Without a stronger opposition, South Africa's democracy is doomed

The extent of the state and ruling elite's power is thus limited, and subject to institutionalised checks and balances. This makes liberal democracies different from authoritarian political systems.

In the latter, government is "from above", with authority exercised over a population irrespective of whether their consent has been given or not.

Authoritarianism is based on the belief in the wisdom of established leaders; where in the ideas of Plato knowledge should triumph numbers.

The population is considered subjects, required to give unquestioning obedience to the state, as opposed to being citizens of a democratic system who have rights and can engage with the elected authorities.

While recognising the need for both the democratic and liberal, distinguishing between the two helps to better analyse where the problem lies.


The use of elections, as opposed to monarchical succession, military overthrows and violence, as the means to accessing political power has become commonplace. As has adult suffrage.

In 1900, less than 13% of the world's adult population enjoyed the legal right to vote, but by 2019 98% enjoy suffrage (according to V-Dem data). In contemporary politics, there has actually been an increase in electoral democracies, from 17 (10%) in 1972 to 72 (34%) in 2018.

And yet, there is also evidence of a growing divide between the ruling elite and ordinary people, an encroaching into the private sphere, and a disregarding of civil liberties.

In some cases, like Russia, it is blatant, where the country has returned to authoritarianism under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

In Western nations, it is more subtle.

In Canada's Quebec there is a decline in religious freedom as public servants are barred from wearing symbols of their religion in the workplace.

In the UK and US, there has been a creep in terms of academic freedom and freedom of speech, where, for fear of being ostracised, "cancelled" or no-platformed, academics and others are self-censoring and unwilling to challenge current orthodoxy.

In Germany and Sweden, the private family sphere has been encroached on through laws, which prohibit parents' right to home-school.

READ | Mavuso Msimang: The struggle for democracy and clean government is far from over

On the African continent, it is again different.

The political elite are happy to access power through the electoral mechanism, but are averse to institutional checks on their power once accessed.


In addition, political power is less about representing the public interest than it is about their opportunity to feast at the state trough.

V-Dem, a dataset that measures democracy in its complexity, has noted, unlike the growth in electoral democracies, liberal democracies have declined from their peak of 44 (25%) in 2014 to 39 (22%) in 2018.

Similarly, Freedom House, which measures liberal democracy in terms of political and civil liberties, noted in 2020 a decline in democratic freedoms for the 14th consecutive year.

The decline therefore is less a democratic one than a liberal one - it is freedom that is under threat.

- Nicola de Jager is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University.

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