International Day of Democracy – About the Might of Majority

The governing form known as democracy translates literally as ‘the rule of the people.’ It has existed in its earliest form for over 2,500 years. In Western countries, it is now generally uncontroversial that democracy is the most advanced and best form of government – this is traditionally celebrated on September 15.

Die Regierungsform Demokratie bedeutet wörtlich übersetzt ‚Herrschaft des Volkes‘. Sie besteht in ihrer frühesten Form seit über 2.500 Jahren. In den westlichen Ländern ist es mittlerweile größtenteils unumstritten, dass es sich bei der Demokratie um die fortschrittlichste und beste Regierungsform handelt – dies wird traditionell am 15. September gefeiert.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2021.49

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time …”

Winston S. Churchill (November 11, 1947)

A Brief History of Democracy

The so-called Athenian democracy, which was established in the city-state of Athens around the 6th century BC, is one of the first examples of an early form of democracy. Of course, this system would no longer meet the modern standards of democracy. So, for example, only those were citizens who were male and sons of a man who was also a citizen 1. This definition clearly excluded all women, slaves, and foreigners. The history of democracy is often narrated in terms of revolutions and bottom-up uprisings. What is frequently omitted from this story are exactly those people who had also played a suppressed role in the actual history of democracy, such as women 2: The U.S. and French revolutions that established the foundation of Western liberal democracies in the eighteenth century continue to be celebrated today – though the U. S. Declaration of Independence from 1776 explicitly states that “all men are created equal” and the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen from 1789 still recognized only men as citizens.

In this blog post, we will shed some light on democracy today: What criteria must be met, what advantages does it offer to its citizens, or does it possibly also have some flaws? Drawing on data from the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS; 1998, 2008, 2018) 3, the European Values Study (EVS) 2008 4, and the Politbarometer 1997 5, we gain further insights into people’s attitudes towards democracy.

Today’s Democracies

The research division of the U.K.-based company that publishes The Economist newspaper has created a so-called Democracy Index to measure the state of democracy in more than 160 countries. In annually published reports, countries are classified into four categories, which are arranged on a scale ranging from 0 to 10. A score of 0 to 4 corresponds to an authoritarian regime, 4.01 to 6 to a hybrid regime, 6.01 to 8 to a flawed democracy – and those with a score higher than 8 qualify as full democracies. According to this index, quite exactly half of the world’s population in 2020 lived in complete or flawed democracies, while the other half of citizens lived in hybrid or authoritarian regimes 6. Norway is the frontrunner in the ranking, followed by Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Canada. Germany ranks 14th but is still classified as a full democracy. The countries scoring lowest on the index are the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and North Korea, all with values below 1.5.  The scores are obtained by having experts answer 60 questions with a numerical value and calculating the weighted average. However, the procedure is strongly criticized for its lack of transparency 7.

Citizens’ Duties

In some European countries (such as Greece, Cyprus, and Belgium), voting is compulsory, and eligible voters who abstain from voting without an acceptable reason may face a fine. In Germany, however, it is assumed that compulsory voting would contradict the freedom of voting. Therefore, everyone is at liberty to vote in elections, though a certain moral obligation to vote is emphasized 8.

ALLBUS data from 1998, 2008, and 2018 9 show how the attitudes of Germans towards this moral duty to vote have developed over the years (see Figure 1). In 1998, about half of all respondents completely agreed with the statement that every citizen in a democracy has the duty to vote regularly in elections. This value increased from 60% in 2008 up to 74% in 2018. In the latest ALLBUS wave, less than 9% tended to disagree or completely disagreed with the statement, indicating a strong sense of civic duty. 

Strengths and Weaknesses of Democracies

Democracy endows its citizens with extensive rights: voting, guaranteed fundamental rights, the freedom of expression and assembly, the right to life. But are there also any downsides to the rule of the people? Unarguably, decisions are reached faster if only one person makes them and not an entire parliament that has to struggle through hours, days, and weeks of negotiations with the opposition.

In the EVS 2008 (see Figure 2) 10, respondents were asked for their opinions on a strong leader who does not have to bother with this protracted process. More than 80% of all German respondents thought this was a fairly bad or very bad idea, while nearly 60% of Russian participants considered it a fairly good or very good idea. German respondents consistently felt more positive about democracies, whereas Russian respondents tended to rate democracies as less economically successful, efficient, and stable. About 94% of the German respondents agreed or agreed strongly despite all possible weaknesses of democracies with the statement that it is nevertheless better than any other form of government, with the corresponding value for Russian respondents being about 81%.

Who is Sufficiently Responsible?

At the age of 16, young people have criminal responsibility and extended legal capacity, and many of them are already employed or have come to terms with their life planning. That is why the Austrian national council decided in 2007 to grant all young people from the age of 16 active franchise for elections on all political levels 11. In Germany, the situation is different: Young people aged 16 and older are allowed to vote in local elections in 11 states (starting with Lower Saxony in 1996) and also in four states’ state elections, namely in Brandenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, and Schleswig-Holstein. At the federal level, however, the age limit of 18 continues to apply. In the Politbarometer from 1997 12, respondents were invited to give their opinion on lowering the voting age in state elections (see Figure 3).

With about 84%, an overwhelming majority of the German respondents in 1997 opposed lowering the voting age in state elections. In Lower Saxony, where young people over the age of 16 have been allowed to vote in local elections since 1996, the disapproval was slightly lower at 81%. Of the parties currently represented in the German Bundestag, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Greens, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Left Party are in favor of lowering the voting age to 16 for federal elections. The Christian Democrats and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) reject this 13.

How to Deal With Other Regimes?

For quite some time now, the scientific community concurs that wars between democracies are virtually non-existent. One reason for this might be that “when people learn to agree to disagree and have some control over the political process, they may learn that conflicts with other people who share similar ideas about the political process can also be resolved in peaceful ways” 14. But how to deal with states that do not pursue similar ideas? In 2022, the Men’s Soccer World Cup is scheduled to take place in Qatar, which has sparked ongoing criticism of regular human rights violations and the exploitation of migrant workers, 6,500 of whom have already died, according to The Guardian 15. Yet, there are also other opinions: Political scientist Danyel Reiche, for his part, told Deutschlandfunk that he sees the sporting event as an opportunity for Qatar to keep going down the path of reform in its role as a pioneer in the region – and although Reiche works on a Georgetown University campus in Doha which is financed by the Qatar Foundation, he does not see his objectivity affected 16. In the end, it remains to be seen which will prevail: money or Western values.

Until then, have a great International Day of Democracy!


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  3. GESIS – Leibniz-Institut für Sozialwissenschaften (2021). German General Social Survey (ALLBUS) – Cumulation 1980-2018. GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA5276 Datenfile Version 1.1.0,
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  6. The Economist (2020). “Democracy Index 2020: In sickness and in health?”
  7. Tasker, Peter (25 February 2016). “Peter Tasker: The flawed ‘science’ behind democracy rankings.” Nikkei Asia. Retrieved 1 September, from
  8. Der Bundeswahlleiter (2015). “Wahlpflicht.” Retrieved 29 July 2021, from
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  10. EVS (2016). European Values Study 2008: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4800 Datenfile Version 4.0.0,
  11. “Wählen mit 16” (n. d.). Bundeskanzleramt. Retrieved 30 August 2021, from
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  13. Wahl-O-Mat (2021). Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.
  14. Ember, Carol R., et al. (1992). “Peace Between Participatory Polities: A Cross-Cultural Test of the ‘Democracies Rarely Fight Each Other’ Hypothesis.” World Politics 44. 4: 573–599.
  15. Aumüller, Johannes (22 March 2021). “Die Fifa muss endlich handeln.” Süddeutsche Zeitung. Retrieved 1 September 2021, from
  16. “Kritik an Fußball-WM in Katar – ‘Toni Kroos steht auf der verkehrten Seite der Geschichte’” (4 April 2021). Deutschlandfunk. Retrieved 1 September 2021, from

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