6.3.5.4 Evidence of Public Assent to Governance

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6354.htm)

Democratic elections provide a process for appointing politicians, which satisfies part of Beetham’s requirement for the population to express its consent to political governance; this consent is only meaningful, though, if there is a credible alternative that people can vote for if they are dissatisfied with their government.  The opposition has to be seen as a possible ‘government in waiting’.

Elections are not a panacea and don’t completely guarantee that the public is satisfied.  There are practical issues: elections are a crude and imprecise means of representing people’s wishes (6.3.2.2) and representation isn’t always effective (6.5.1.4).  They nonetheless provide an important mechanism for negotiation, and can thereby contribute to legitimacy, so there are weaknesses if people don’t vote in a democratic system:

  • A society would rapidly become unstable if people, merely by not voting, were able to dissociate themselves from government decisions.
  • Not voting can be a form of silent protest against the system, and a reason to consider changing it. A spoiled ballot paper is a way of indicating this sentiment in some systems.
  • Apathy might be regarded as regrettable but it is not necessarily a sign of an illegitimate system.  A ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’ box on the ballot might be revealing.

There is thus a good case for making voting compulsory, as it already is in some countries, to reveal more about whether a democratic system is seen to lack legitimacy and to increase people’s sense of having participated in negotiations on governance issues.

The evidence of acceptability cannot, by definition, be expressed through the ballot box in an authoritarian power structure: people express their consent by passive acceptance and they express discontent by holding demonstrations or publishing criticisms of the government through whatever means are at their disposal.  If authoritarian regimes suppress dissent they lack legitimacy at this level of Beetham’s model.

In both democratic and authoritarian systems, evidence of consent may be more accurately determined by the openness of interactions between people and politicians – as discussed later: consultation processes (6.5.3), people’s access to politicians (6.8.3.1), their freedom of speech (6.8.3.2), meaningful political negotiation (6.8.4), the transparency with which governance is conducted (6.8.5.1) and politicians’ accountability for performance (6.8.5.2).

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