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Functioning democracy

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A functioning democracy is defined by various characteristics, like freedom of speech, equality, human rights, rule of law and many more. When autocratic rulers or monarchs were in power these achievements of modern society obviously weren’t guaranteed. They might even have respected momentarily those rights, but since they couldn’t be held accountable for their actions, they could simply dismiss them without further consequences. That’s why accountability for political agents in democracies has become of high importance. But what is accountability exactly? The wide mass of literature assumes that the mere holding of free and fair conducted is the best way for citizens to hold their political representatives accountable. So if the voter doesn’t feel satisfied with what the elected has provided, he simply switches to another political candidate at the next elections. A further problem is represented by non-elected agents in the public sphere. The main reason they represent a complication is that they can not be held accountable by the voter since they are not elected. If the voter is unhappy or disappointed about their results he can not express that by voting an alternative. Accountability is first a relationship between two sets of actors (actually, most of it is played out not between individuals, but between organizations) in which the former accepts to inform the other, explain or justify his or her actions and submit to any pre-determined sanctions that the latter may impose. This is the definition Philippe C. Schmitter and Karl Terry came up with. From a political point of view it means that, the elected remains accountable to the voter. In other words the voter has a possibility to get rid of the previously elected through another election.

The latter who became subject to the former, must provide information, explain how they are obeying or not and accept the possible consequences. So accountability, when it works, is not a linear relationship but rather a mutual exchange of responsibilities and potential sanction. Information can be selective and skewed justifications and explanations can be deflected to other actors sanctions are rarely applied and can be simply ignored. The definition of accountability can be applied to different areas: it can be linked to ethical behaviour, financial probity, social esteem, functional interdependence, familial obligation, patriotic duty. We want to focus on political accountability which goes hand in hand with exercise of asymmetric power. (promises and payoffs). The main question is how to tame and exploit the power of the institutions, especially the ones with monopoly of power over a given population and territory, i.e. a modern state.

All stable political regimes have some kind of accountability. Military dictatorships have their juntas and other arrangements for solving conflicts. Even absolute monarchies were supposed to be accountable to God, but had to consider as well more earthly aspects like dynastic and martial concerns. The main difference between these regimes and democracy is, that the latter has citizens. Which have rights and obligations. The citizens have to rely on the representatives they elected to speak for them. These agents probably aspire to be re-elected, which gives them an incentive to perform well. Political accountability has to be institutionalized. This can happen in various forms for example in legal codes or sworn oaths. Political accountability has a notable difference in comparison to financial, legal or ethical accountability. Elected political agents may not violate law or social values but can still be held accountable for their actions. They can simply be blamed for bad choices or failed actions. Similarly, citizens can be held responsible by their rulers for what they have done or not done provided the rules were taken by previously established consent.

But political accountability isn’t always negative. Voters do not tend to throw their previously elected representatives out. But rather tolerate or even reward them. How to ensure political accountability: Fair and free held elections are not enough to ensure the mechanisms of political accountability. Robert Dahl argues there are 5 properties a political selection has to display to be called:

  • All adults have the right to vote
  • All adults have the right to run for election
  • Citizens have the right to express their opinion without having to fear punishment
  • Citizens have access to alternative sources of information, furthermore alternative sources of information exist and are protected by the law
  • Citizens have the right to form independent organizations, like political parties Almost all modern democracies satisfy these requirements at least to a certain point. Philippe C. Schmitter and Karl Terry even add 12 more points, but I’m not going to list them here since they are basically just additions to Dahls conditions.

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