Undermining Popular Will in Established and Emerging Democracies


International Day of Democracy | Past events | United Nations

Yasser Harrak 

Democracy, originally referred to in Greek as Demos Kratos or the power of people, can be questionable in Western and Eastern democracies from the angles of representation, partisanism and electoral process. The issue of representation mainly has posed a challenge to the power of people sometimes due to the nature of the party and electoral system and sometimes due to the level of popular participation in the electoral process. Here are some examples from emerging and established democracies.

The pervasiveness of presidential-prime ministerial conflict can undermine voters' choice. In Eastern Europe, for example, the no confidence vote forcing Vladimir Meciar (in late 1990s) to step down as prime minister of Slovakia was was opposed by a popular vote returning him in parliamentary elections. His subsequent attempt to force President Michal Kovac from office led to his demise days after the president had charged him of orchestrating privatization in favor of his party (Baylis 1996, 298). This situation stems from several causes: 1- the respect for the rule of law is not well developed in any case, part of the legacy of the communist period. 2- The distribution of authority is necessarily ambiguous and fluid. 3- Interest-group structures and allegiances are similarly fluid. 4-There are as yet no political parties strong and disciplined enough to channel or rein in the competition.(Ibid) The solution, therefore, to this situation is by reversing these root causes.

Party ideological polarization is an issue in both Eastern and Western democracies. party system polarization seems to be the predominate factor shaping distortion of governments' relationship with the median voter (Kim 2010, 167). This issue can be solved by policy coherence, responsiveness, policy alternative and programatic coherence. These elements are key for an optimized representation (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2007, 1137). In the United States, for example, programmatic incoherence between the Obama and Trump administration in the issue of immigration, taxation and environmental regulation undermine the popular vote and leads to wasting national resourses on ideological battles on the legistlative level  rather than on urging popular issues such that the issue of potable water in Flint, Michigan.

Vote distortion is another issue affecting voter representation. Vote distortion indicate the percentage by which a party vote is inflated or deflated in actually electing representatives (Argersinger 2012, 306). In many instances, political processes give parties more or less representation than what votes allow them. In the example of the United States, a presidential candidate can win most of the popular vote and lose in the elections.  In addition to vote distortion, there is the issue of legislative distortion. For example, states manage the districting of the seats in their state legislature through a variety of processes. A majority of states do not redistrict through any sort of commission and, even in the 21 states that do, those commissions are often merely advisory or backup plans in case the legislature fail to produce a map. Thus, in many cases, state legislative redistricting involves state legislators drawing the lines of their own districts—choosing their voters rather than being chosen by the voters (Health of State Democracies 2015). The solution for the issue of vote and legislative distortion depends on a much needed electoral reform.

Last but not least, we have the voter turnout issue. Assuming the voter turnout in any given country is 50% and the winning party forms a majority government with 70%, in reality, this means that the country they govern by majority has only given them 35% of the votes. This puts a big question mark on the idea of democratic representation. Some scholars suggest publicizing the names of voters and non-voters increases the rate of participation in the voting process.  A large-scale field experiment involving several hundred thousand registered voters used a series of mailings to gauge these effects. Substantially higher turnout was observed among the voters(Gerber, Green and Larimer 2008).

In conclusion, Eastern and Western democracies need to improve party politics and consider institutional reform to best represent voters, insure their participation and make voter focused  policy and/or policy alternatives.




  • Argersinger, Peter H. 2012. Representation and Inequality in Late Nineteenth-Century America: The Politics of Appointments. Cambridge University Press. New York
  • Baylis, Thomas A. 1996. "Presidents Versus Prime Ministers." World Politics 48.
  • Gerber, Alan S., Green Donald P., and Larimer Christopher W. 2008. "Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment." The American Political Science Review 102(1): 33-48.
  • Health of State Democracies. 2015. “Legislative District Distortion”. Center for American Progress Action Fund. Accessed December 20, 2016 https://www.healthofstatedemocracies.org/factors/statedistort.html
  • Jr., and Fording Richard C. 2010. "Electoral Systems, Party Systems, and Ideological Representation An Analysis of Distortion in Western Democracies." Comparative Politics 42(2): 167-85.
  • Rohrschneider, Robert, and Whitefield Stephen. 2007. "Representation in New Democracies: Party Stances on European Integration in Post-Communist Eastern Europe." The Journal of Politics 69(4): 1133-146.

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