The optimism that the Arab Spring represented the beginning of global democratisation, driven by the internet, has given way to many questions about the future of democracy and the role that information technology will play. Specifically, what is happening with democracy today, what is likely to happen in the future and how does information technology feature in this?
Freedom House produce reports on democracy around the world. The following chart shows their view of how democracy has progressed since 1989. We can see that the democratisation of former Soviet bloc countries appeared in the period 1989 – 2001 and then the chart levels off.
Optimism about democratisation as internet usage increased globally does not seem to have yet appeared in the practices in individual countries. This may mean that it is yet to appear – democratisation may take some time to develop and become established – or the optimism may be inappropriate. In the Middle East and North Africa initial hopes from the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have not been realised. Turmoil continues in these countries. While information technology usage may have changed the nature of political activity in these countries, lasting peace and democracy have not appeared (yet?).
In other countries democracy has been the focus of some debate and discussion has focused on how information technology might improve democracy in the future.
Globalisation and Powerlessness
Globalisation, often argued to have been facilitated and accelerated by the use of information technology is an important factor in the challenges facing many democracies today. Globalisation is thought to have eroded the power of individual nation states – as the world has become more integrated, especially economically, the power of individual nation states to address and deal with the issues that their populations expect them to has declined. This has led to increasing disillusion with establishment politicians and political institutions and a number of different political responses.
One response to increasing globalisation has been the growth of international integration of nation states in structures such as the European Union. By working together states believe that they can exert more influence over global economic forces. In some countries this has led to concern that democratic influence by citizens is declining and to a backlash against integration. In Britain this opposition has led to a growth in popularity of a new political movement based on opposition to membership of the European Union and to immigration:
UKIP appear likely to achieve a significant number of votes in the upcoming British general election. Part of the growth of UKIP may have been facilitated by the internet.
Also in Britain the growth of the movement for Scottish independence has been dramatic. From minimal support amongst the Scottish population a few years ago, support has risen to substantial levels that were reflected in the independence referendum held in September 2014.
The growth in support for Scottish independence may have been influenced by a number of factors: the powerlessness of establishment politicians, globalisation and a sense that having Scottish control of political affairs will enable citizen concerns to be better addressed by politicians. The counter argument is that an independent Scotland, a country of 5 million people, will be more powerless in a globalised world. This dilemma is present in many countries around the world and debates on how governments should operate in a globalised world are frequent.
We are also seeing democracy itself being challenged as an effective method of national leadership and decision making. Hong Kong’s selection of their Chief Executive has highlighted this challenge. Many Hong Kong citizens have called for direct elections for the position and the Chinese government have disagreed:
The Chinese government’s argument is that democracy is not a good way to select a good Chief Executive. They argue that free elections could result in a poorly qualified candidate being elected resulting in negative consequences from the policies pursued, for the people of Hong Kong. This is a direct challenge to the concept of democracy and it is reflected in other countries where democracy does not exist.
In recent weeks some evidence in support of the Chinese position may have emerged. Sarah Palin was mulling seeking the Republican nomination for US President:
Does the Internet Lead to Less Political Participation?
The processes through which information technology might impact democracy are discussed in another blog post. One of the questions in that discussion is whether the internet makes people less likely to participate in politics. A controversial video on this topic appeared in the past year, which looked at political awareness in Texas Tech:
The debate over whether the internet is reducing political interest is more carefully considered in the following video:
In recent years it is believed that there has been less interest in involvement in formal political parties and more interest in participation in social movements. This presentation, at the US Library of Congress, considers the impact that the internet may have had here:
The Future of Democracy – “Citizen Control”
The impact that the internet might have on democracy in the future is discussed in the final two videos. They argue that the internet creates the possibility of the extension of democracy through increased direct participation by citizens in political debate and decisions. Pia Mancini from Argentina gave a very interesting Ted talk on how to upgrade democracy:
Finally, this video from Journeyman pictures presents a similar theme and reflects the growing interest in this topic:
This post has reported some of the discussions and issues that exist in the consideration of democracy in the world today. The role that information technology has in these discussions is highlighted. Finally, some have argued that information technology can improve democracy in the future and videos on this topic are included.