Is your democracy more flawed than mine?

1994 vote (2)

Who will get to the front of the queue first to vote? On 27 April 1994 all South Africans, black and white, voted together in free and fair elections for the first time, after all discriminatory race laws were abolished. In the photograph, a line forms of people waiting patiently to cast their vote (SAHistoryOnline)

DESPITE the doom and gloom which characterizes South Africans’ mood these days following the catastrophe of former President Jacob Zuma’s tenure, South African democracy is still relatively healthy, although with shortcomings. According to the Democracy Index of The Economist magazine, which ranks the democracies of 167 territories based on a wide range of indicators, with Norway the most democratic at number 1, it is placed 40th in the Index. This is a remarkable achievement given its apartheid and colonialist history, and its difficulties.

Both South Africa and Israel are regarded by the Index as “flawed democracies”. They hold free and fair elections, and though there may be problems, basic civil liberties are respected.

What about the world’s other democracies? Does America still qualify as the leader of the free world? No, it doesn’t; the ranting of loose-cannon President Donald Trump makes this idea unconvincing today. The Index regards America also as a flawed democracy, although ranking higher than South Africa, at number 25. For comparison, Japan ranks 22 and France 29. A main problem in America is not so much about Trump, but erosion of trust in government and elected officials.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will try desperately to increase his hold on power in South Africa’s crucial national elections on May 8. Warring factions in the African National Congress threaten to undermine him, and unrest and political dissonance are flaring up countrywide. Rising social tensions and economic populism are challenging his ‘new dawn’ vision for the country.

The diversity of South Africa’s population is its richness, but there is a flip-side: The country lacks a clear sense of what it means to be South African, and the violence inherent in the society makes this dangerous. Public protest often turns violent and racist. Last week’s unrest which began in Alexandra township in Johannesburg and has spread elsewhere is the most recent example. The tone of political debate is often threatening. The positive side is that the population’s interest in politics is very high. Everybody talks politics, from the taxi-driver to the housewife.

What about Israeli politics, which last week handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a fifth term? To the chagrin of many supporters of Israel, the Index consistently ranks it as a flawed rather than a full democracy. Kneejerk defenders of Israel would claim it is because of anti-Semitism, but it is primarily about the Law of Return – the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel. Arab citizens are guaranteed the same civil rights, but only Jews have the ‘right’ to citizenship.

This analysis of Israel does not account for the simmering conundrum of the Palestinians under its control. They have no vote; does this reduce Israel’s democracy ranking? Without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would have to do that.

Notwithstanding these issues, the Index ranks Israel’s democracy 30th out of 167, between France and Belgium. Despite the divisiveness of Israeli politics and the shift to the right, the country is moving in a liberal direction in areas such as improvements in LGBT rights and in women’s rights. However, because of history, ideology and security challenges, it cannot be more than a flawed democracy.

The internet is the new kid on the block when it comes to measuring democracies, where validation can be found for almost any belief, and “facts” are a matter of personal preference. In America, South Africa, Israel or elsewhere, it is getting harder for voters to make informed, rational choices about crucial matters. On this roller-coaster, voters will have to work harder to distinguish between fact and fiction. It’s not an easy ride.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 



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