What does a free democracy look like?

Any country’s democracy does not only flourish with a successful outcome of elections, which produce winners and losers. It is a process that must be nourished all year long

What does a free democracy look like?

Abhijit Shanker

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), based in London, has consistently published a ranking of the world’s democracies, called the ‘Democracy Index’ since 2006. It bases the ranking of democratic countries on a set of 60 questions, such as whether the elections are free and fair, the voters feel secure enough to vote, the influence of foreign powers on local elections and whether the civil servants are empowered to implement the policies.

Every year when the index is published, it galvanizes the governments into a dizzy, prompting them to send their own set of questionnaires to the EIU asking for details on its methodology. The local media in the countries which are ranked lower than previous years go into a spin to rubbish the index and criticize the west for passing judgments on local governance.

This is also followed by debates on pro-government television channels, and lengthy forwards on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.

There’s one country which constantly ranks at the top of the EIU’s democracy index, and not by coincidence, also ranks among the highest on the happiness index. I would assume the two are intertwined.

This small Nordic country spread in 148 square miles and with a population of just over 5 million, is Norway. What does democracy look like in Norway, for it be consistently named the most democratic country in the world? Norwegians are said to describe their democracy as more collaborative, than confrontational.

Norway is a unitary sovereign state with a constitutional monarchy, and a parliamentary system of governance. It was a founding member of the NATO, is an oil rich country, with keen participation in the dialogues around Climate Change, owing to its own problem of the melting ice.

For starters, Norwegian citizens are automatically registered to vote, and approximately 80 percent of them vote religiously in every election, a good 20 percentage points higher than the United States. Women’s rights are protected, and they are very well represented in the parliament. Until the last elections, Norway had a female Prime Minister, who ruled the country for 8 years. 41% of the Norway’s 169 parliamentary seats are occupied by women.

The indigenous Sami population has its own legislature, Sameting, and participates in the political process through dialogue to protects its cultural heritage and language. The national government has a deputy minister to specifically investigate issues related to the Sami population.

Norway also leads the world in protecting the rights of the LGBTQ. In 1981, it became the first country in the world to enact anti-discrimination law protecting the rights of the gays and lesbians. In 1993, it became the second country, after Denmark, to legalize civil union partnerships for same sex couples.

One of the other reasons often cited for the country’s consistent high ranking on the democracy index is the youth population’s participation in the democratic process. A poll conducted by NBC in 2017 said the Norwegian youth believed they could never elect a reality TV star like the former US President Donald J Trump. They said they could never let it happen to their country.

Norway is also one of the very few countries globally which has toyed with the idea of reducing its voting age to 16 or 17. In its beta tests, it figured there was no change in voting turnouts. The country also allows all citizens who have reached the age of 18 to not only vote, but also to stand in the elections as candidates. If you are sensible enough to vote, you are also wise enough to make policy decisions, I surmise. Currently, the ratio of young people under 30 in the Norwegian parliament is 14/169. The youngest member of the current parliament is age 20.

The Press in Norway, considered the fourth pillar of democracy, is guaranteed by the constitution, and is viewed as free and fair. Its citizens have access to independent views from multiple sources and the government does not play a role in creating a bias in the news delivery. Private discussions carried out by the citizens is also considered free from any political involvements.

Any country’s democracy does not only flourish with a successful outcome of elections, which produce winners and losers. It is a process that must be nourished all year long, with free and fair participation by its citizens. It is a state where the citizens are free to raise their objections, without the fear to be roughed up by the police, or be water cannoned at the instructions of the head of the parliament.

It is a scenario where the different political parties come together to solve the issues at hand, and not engage only in brow beating the opposition. It is a process which should enable a dialogue, and not keep its fist clenched. It also presents a scenario when the government of the day is open to criticism, and not merely pay a lip service to its promises.

As Tagore famously said, ‘where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high, where knowledge is free and where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.’

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York, where he worked for more than a decade).

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

(Views are personal)

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