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The rise of the referendum?

New data from the European Social Survey (ESS) reveals a 'democratic deficit' across Europe
by Sophie

nullNew data from the European Social Survey (ESS) reveals an evident failure of democratic governments to live up to public expectations. The results, announced on International Day of Democracy, confirm major concerns about the public's dissatisfaction with the way democracy actually works in most European countries.

This 'democratic deficit' manifests itself most significantly in what researchers identify as social and direct democracy: social democracy meaning delivering outcomes such as protection from poverty and direct democracy as providing citizens with more opportunities to participate, such as referendums.

The evidence, collected at national level in 29 countries, also suggests that citizens are more demanding of a government perceived to be doing poorly and where the consequences of a shortfall in democracy are most apparent. Using established methods of measuring how successful a government is, (World Bank indicators), researchers found a positive correlation between performance and citizen satisfaction.

Commenting on the results, which will be announced today at the Italian Parliament, Rory Fitzgerald, Director of the ESS says; "As we hypothesised there is a positive relationship between good governance and citizen's evaluations of their democratic system. This is important as it indicates the public is a reliable source for the assessment of a democracy and could potentially provide valuable information on what aspects don't work or need improving".

Despite the deficiency, the results show that there is a strong commitment to the idea of democracy across Europe. In 24 of the 29 countries surveyed, the mean level of support for the statement "It is important to live in a country governed democratically was above eight, (out of 10, 10 being extremely important).

However, when asked to evaluate democracy within their own nation, respondents answered respondents answered somewhat less positively, in particular with regard to their evaluations of social outcomes and citizen involvement which were evaluated no higher than five out of ten in most countries (on a scale of 0 to ten).

The researchers identified three main dimensions of democracy, all of which were considered important:

Liberal - free elections, government accountability and justification, free opposition, differentiated parties, debate and responsiveness to citizens and other governments, equality before the law - both for citizens and governments, media freedom and reliability and the protection of minorities

Social - protection from poverty and income inequality

Direct - direct citizen participation via referendums

For the purpose of analysing the results, the 29 countries surveyed were divided into four regions, Western Europe, (Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK), Northern Europe, (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), Southern Europe, (Cyprus, Italy, Portugal and Spain, plus neighbouring Israel) and Eastern Europe, (Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Kosovo, Russian and Ukraine).

Researchers identified considerable variations in evaluations of democracy across the regions. Northern Europeans are the most satisfied with the function of their democracies, followed by Western Europeans, whilst evaluations in Southern and Eastern Europe lag behind.

Across all four regions evaluation of the liberal aspects of democracy is more positive than the social and direct democracy dimensions, with the exception of Switzerland, Slovenia and Ireland, who all evaluated the direct democracy aspect most positively than the other two aspects. Of note, Ukraine, Russia, Italy and Kosovo evaluate even the liberal aspects of democracy below five on average i.e. more negatively than positively.

This data was collected in 2012 for Round 6 of the ESS and was fielded in 29 European countries.

The ESS ERIC is based at City University London.

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