Survey: Gulf Between Democracy in Theory and Practice

The basic democratic principle that "the will of the people should be the basis for the authority of government" is supported by overwhelming majorities throughout the world, according to a major new survey [.pdf] of more than 17,000 adults in 19 countries released Monday.

Large majorities in most of those countries also believe that their own governments are not living up to that principle, according to the poll, which was conducted and published by WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO).

Indeed, an average of 74 percent of respondents in the 19 countries, which represent 59 percent of the world’s total population, believe that "the will of the people" should have more influence in how their country is concerned than it currently does.

And an average of 63 percent of respondents say their country is being run by a "few big interests looking out for themselves," rather than "for the benefit of all the people."

The belief that governments were being run by "a few big interests" was particularly pervasive in Ukraine (84 percent), Mexico (83 percent), the United States (80 percent), Nigeria and South Korea (78 percent), and Argentina (71 percent).

"The perception that governments are not responsive to the popular will appears to be contributing to the low levels of confidence in government found around the world," noted Steven Kull, who directs both the WPO and its parent organization, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

"Most see their governments as primarily serving big interests rather than the people as a whole," he added.

The new survey, part of a series conducted by WPO earlier this year to probe global attitudes towards human rights and other key issues, was carried out between January and mid-March this year. The previous surveys have shown, among other things, majority support in most countries for a free press unfettered by government control, even stronger support for gender equality, and growing unease with the impact of economic globalization, especially in Western countries.

The 19 countries in the latest survey included Argentina, Mexico, and the U.S. in the Americas; France, Britain, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine in Europe; Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories (PT), and Turkey in the greater Middle East; Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa; and China, India, Indonesia, and South Korea in Asia.

On average, 85 percent agreed the principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 60th anniversary is being celebrated this year, that "the will of the people should be the basis for the authority of the government." Fifty-two percent agreed "strongly," while 33 percent said they agreed "somewhat."

Those who said they agreed "strongly" were most prevalent in relatively new democracies, notably Ukraine (77 percent), Nigeria (75 percent), Indonesia (72 percent), Azerbaijan (63 percent), Mexico and the PT (59 percent each), although 70 percent of Turks, whose longer-standing democracy has been interrupted by several military interventions over recent decades, also agreed strongly.

By contrast, respondents in the more long-standing democratic states were less enthusiastic. While 55 percent of British respondents said they agreed strongly, that was true of only 44 percent of U.S. respondents, and 34 percent of French respondents.

The least enthusiastic respondents were found in India, the world’s most populous democratic state, where only 53 percent said they either strongly (32 percent) or "somewhat" (21 percent) agreed with the basic principle – far below the overall average of 85 percent and even the next most-skeptical group of respondents in Iran.

The survey found substantial dissatisfaction among respondents regarding their perceptions of how well their governments reflected the popular will. When asked to rate on a scale of 0-10 how much influence the "will of the people" has on their own government, the mean response was 4.5 – well below what they said was the preferred level of 8.0.

An average of 74 percent of all respondents said they wished their government would be more responsive to the popular will than they perceived it to be. The biggest gaps were found in Egypt (97 percent), Nigeria (89 percent), Ukraine (86 percent), Mexico (85 percent), and the U.S. and South Korea (83 percent). The smallest gaps were found in Jordan (44 percent) and India (46 percent).

The survey also found low levels of trust in their governments to "do what is right," with majorities respondents in 11 of the countries saying their governments did so "only some of the time" (48 percent) or "never" (six percent). Cynicism was particularly high in South Korea, Mexico, Argentina, and Ukraine.

On the other hand 83 percent of Chinese respondents said they could trust their national government to do what is right "just about always" (23 percent) or "most of the time" (60 percent). The percentages for Egypt were also high, at 13 percent and 71 percent, respectively. Smaller majorities in Russia, Jordan, and the PT also said they trusted their government at least "most of the time," while 48 percent of Iranians agreed.

An average of 84 percent of all respondents said they believed their government leaders should be selected through elections in which all citizens can vote, as opposed to the 12 percent who said they should be selected some other way. Support was highest in Indonesia (97 percent), the U.S. (96 percent), Poland, Ukraine, and South Korea (91 percent). Support was lowest in India (33 percent) and Egypt and Jordan (24 percent).

At the same time, three out of four respondents said elections alone should "not [be] the only time when the views of the people should have influence," but that leaders should also "pay attention to the views of the people as they make decisions." Four out of five respondents said policymakers should pay attention in particular to public opinion polls.

Views on this point were strongest in South Korea (94 percent), Nigeria (93 percent), Mexico (92 percent), Poland (91 percent), and Ukraine (90 percent), and weakest in Egypt (64 percent) and India (56 percent).

Respondents were also asked whether they thought their governments should take account of world public opinion in making decisions. Support for that proposition was strongest in Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, China, Azerbaijan, and Britain in descending order. Support was weakest by far in India, followed by the PT, the U.S., Russia, and Argentina. Among all 19 countries, respondents in the U.S. thought their government took into account world public opinion the least.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.