Can Competition in Democracy Help a Government?


By Ethan HollanderWabash College

A lot of people celebrate competition in democracy. Just as competition in the economy is said to spark innovation and efficiency, it’s certainly possible that democracies are better off because their leaders are those with the best—or at least, the most popular—ideas. And in most democracies, it’s a free market. But the competition has to be fair.

Two chess kings
Many democracies have at least two governmental institutions independent of each other to ensure competition in democracy. (Image: Leo Fernandes/Shutterstock)

Competition Is Healthy

Just as the right to vote is enjoyed by almost everyone, so too is the right to serve. Adlai Stevenson, former governor of Illinois who ran for president twice in the 1950s, said: “In America, anyone can become president. That’s one of the risks you take.”

Most countries have elections and representation of some sort. But, as it is with the economy, if there’s too much government intervention in the electoral process, the political marketplace becomes distorted. Some flawed democracies interfere with the electoral process at the back end when votes are counted. But others do so at the front end by restricting who can run for office in the first place.

In Iran, there are regular elections for president and parliament, but you can’t run for office unless you get the approval of the clerical establishment first. The same is true in places like China or Cuba, where people who don’t belong to the Communist Party are unlikely to get their names on the ballot and won’t get even-handed coverage in the state-run media.

In other countries, the barriers to entry are a little more hidden. If you live in Russia, you’re welcome to run for president against Vladimir Putin, but some people who do just that end up poisoned or dead.

Democracy: A Sliding Scale

The upshot is that what counts as fair competition is sometimes unclear. Even established democracies have electoral irregularities from time to time. So, where do you draw the line? Some observers have more exacting standards than others for what counts—and what doesn’t count—as democratic.

This is why political scientists often describe democracy not as an either-or thing but as a sliding scale. Freedom House is a US-based nonprofit organization that advocates for democracy and human rights. It publishes an annual freedom index that ranks every country on earth from the most democratic to the least. By its measure, Canada, Scandinavian countries, Australia, and New Zealand tend to be near the top of the list.

On the other end of the scale, a lot of countries call themselves democratic, even when they’re clearly not. There’s a joke: If the word democratic appears in a country’s official name, then that country is almost certainly not a real democracy. (The official name of North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. By comparison, democratic South Korea is simply called the Republic of Korea.)

This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its AlternativesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Horizontal and Vertical Accountability

When we talk about competition as an essential element of democracy, we don’t only mean competition between people or parties for positions of power. It can also mean competition among the institutions of government itself. Unchecked power—even by democratically elected representatives—is seldom good for democratic stability. So, many regimes set up a government in such a way that the different parts of government compete against one another.

This is what we mean by checks and balances and the separation of powers, which are labels that tend to get used in the American context, even though many democracies have arrangements that foster competition among the institutions of government.

One way to think about the issue is to say that democracy is characterized by both vertical and horizontal accountability. Vertical accountability refers to the notion that leaders are constrained from below by voters who threaten to vote them out of office. The 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put it this way: “I’m the leader. I must follow the people!”

But accountability from below can’t be the only thing. An elected dictatorship is still a dictatorship. And so, most democracies also have elements of horizontal accountability built into the system. That’s what we mean by setting up the institutions of government in such a way that they constrain each other.

Horizontal Accountability in Practice

Image of a judge gavel next to a balanced weighing scale
In many democracies, the judiciary system is separate from other institutions of government, so it can keep checks and balances independently. (Image: MIND AND I/Shutterstock)

Many democracies are bicameral: They have a two-house legislature. That way, one house can check the power of the other. Meanwhile, one or both houses can usually check the power of the chief executive: A president or prime minister can’t do much if the legislature stands in the way. 

Even within a legislature, there’s competition between the parties in government and those in opposition, or even among coalition partners. And most democracies have an independent judiciary, too. If no one is to be above the law, then those who interpret the law have to be different from those who write it.

Does it slow down the machinery of government to have so many hands on so many different levers of power? Yes, it does. But that’s the point. If you pit the organs of government against one another, they’re unlikely to be able to do much unless it’s something that enjoys broad-based support. You get less done, but the things that do get done are likely to be supported by more than just a mere majority.

So, it comes down to a trade-off that we’ve seen before: a trade-off between government efficiency on the one hand and safeguards against government tyranny on the other. Checks on government power sap the government’s ability to do things efficiently; accountability has a way of slowing things down. But if we get rid of these things, then there’s nothing that stops the government from ignoring the will of the people. Accountability is a double-edged sword: prized for its promise to keep our leaders honest but cursed for its inefficiency.

Common Questions about Competition in Democracy

Q: What are some examples of flawed democracies?

In Iran, anyone who wants to run for office has to first be approved by the clerical establishment. In China and Cuba, you have to be a member of the Communist party; otherwise, the state media won’t cover your campaign. Competition in democracy isn’t as open in such countries.

Q: What is the difference between horizontal and vertical accountability in governments?

Vertical accountability is the notion that the government should be approved by the people, hence voting in a democracy. If leaders do a bad job, people will vote them out of office. On the other hand, horizontal accountability refers to the power struggle between different institutions of government. Competition in democracy happens in both.

Q: What are the problems of horizontal accountability in government?

Having different institutions check and balance each other slows down bureaucracy, but it also leads to accountability. Having one institute with all the power makes things move faster within a government, but nobody can be held accountable. This is one of the fundamental forces of competition in democracy.

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