Democracy: Western Concept or Universal Value?



Originally published on my column for UNICEFs Voices of Youth.

There are so many meticulous definitions of democracy, from electoral democracies to flawed democracies to hybrid regimes and liberal democracies that it could be broken down and be infinitely debated on its requisites, pros and cons. In his book, The Spirit of Democracy, Larry Diamond, one of the pioneer advocates of democracy, simplifies his definition of democracy to a distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ definitions of democracy and suggests that the minimum requirements (i.e. the “thin” definition) for calling a system of governance democratic is the existence of regular, free, and fair elections. When this requisite is met you have an electoral democracy, which in terms of a “thick” definition may, be either liberal or illiberal. This paper will explore how states across the world despite geographical, cultural and economic disparities have the capacity to become liberal democracies fitting to Diamond’s “thick” definition.

The “Thick” Definition

Diamond’s “thick” definition of democracy is quite descriptive and meticulous. According to this definition pure liberal democracies must meet ten key requisites. Firstly, they must provide individuals with “freedom of belief, opinion, discussion, speech, publication, broadcast, assembly, demonstration, petition and (why not) the Internet.” Secondly, All ethnicities, religions, races, and other minority groups “(as well as historically excluded majorities)” must be given the space and freedom to immerse in their religious and cultural norms as well as equal rights to participate in political and social life. Thirdly, all adult citizens must have the equal rights to vote and run for office. Fourthly elections must comprise of “Genuine openness and competition.” Fifth requisite is a constitution that provides legal equality to all citizens, “in which the laws are ‘clear, publicly known, universal, stable, and nonrestorative.’” Sixth is the requirement of an independent judiciary which is neutral and consistent. The seventh is a “process of law and freedom of individuals from torture, terror, and unjustified detention, exile, or interference in their personal lives – by the state or non-state actors.” Eighth is the existence of a process of Institutional checks on the power of elected officials by an independent legislature, court system, and other autonomous agencies. Ninth is the existence of a wide range of sources of information and forms of organization independent of the state giving birth to “a vibrant ‘civil society.’” Last is control over the military and state security apparatus by civilians who are ultimately accountable to the people through elections.” According to Diamond, countries that meet these requirements, at least to a large extent, are liberal democracies. Are these requisites achievable or they merely social and political elements that comply with western culture and political systems?

Is Democracy Incompatible with Non-Western Cultures?

Some argue that the deep faith in religions of certain non- western states is often a barrier to letting liberal democracies take root in them. In the case of China, for example, where Confucianism has had a historical presence and still a great influence in Chinese lifestyle, one could argue that democracy will not fit in well. It is a common argument made with regard to this notion that Confucianism is completely incompatible with democracy since it supports the idea of social hierarchy and disregards the value of equality which is a central element of democracy. This assumption of anti-egalitarianism would mislead some to reject the possibility of democracy taking root in China due to its extreme presence Confucianism . Tan Sor Hoon a professor of the National University of Singapore, in a study of comparative political theory organized by Texas A&M University, argued that “equality and inequality were relevant in instrumental ways to some of Confucianism’s key social and political concerns” and that democracy and equality are not unheard of theories in China. In fact the concept of democracy has been a conversation present in Chinese political literature for centuries. The writing of Yan Fu, the late 19th and early 20th century translator and writer, one of the first writers to introduce ideas of freedom and democracy in China, was quite popular in China. Yan, who was also a realist, debated that democracy and freedom were fundamental in safeguarding​ ​China’s vastly growing wealth and power. Diamond too, quotes Kim Dae Jung in his letter to Lee Kuan Yew that said “although Confucianism lacked a historical experience of democracy per se, … liberal democracies in contemporary East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, has opened up a free space in which Confucianism’s traditions of serious thought can truly come into its own.”

Another non-western religion and culture that is often mistaken to be incompatible with the core requisites of democracy is Islam. In the same study mentioned above, took part Nura Hossainzadeh, a scholar of Islamic thought, examining Persian political ideas. She explored the political writing of Hezbollah Khomeini and other Islamic political thinkers and argues that the Islamic theories of governance are more democratic than the world recognizes. She explains how Khomeni’s theory of governance elaborates on how the guardian cannot give government all that government needs, and that distinguishes that the guardian cannot have the final word, and recognizes the common people as an important element of governance. She argues that Islamic political thought is one that is open to democracy. Diamond too supports the idea that Islamic culture is no opponent to democracy by bring up the fact that Arabian writers and political scientists put together the Arabian Human Development Report which raised their concern in the need for democratization to reach more of the Arab world.

Botswana is a great example of a functioning democracy in Africa. Despite the continient’s commonly seen trend of military coups and authoritarian regimes Botswana has been able to maintain a rule of law that supports democracy. In fact, certain requirements of Diamond’s thick definition such as transparency are achieved by Botsawan at a level that is not present even in some western democracies. Another great example is Aung Saan Suu Kyi, the democrat who a majority of Myanmar voted for, before the military coup took over and had her jailed for decades. She had the choice of leaving her house arrest in Myanmmar and going back to her sons and husband in London, but chose to stay back and continue the fight for democracy since she knew leaving would mean that she wouldn’t be allowed back, and the hopes of her country achieving democracy would leave with her. Her struggle alone is a great example of eastern nations and their aspirations of democracy.

Is Economic Capacity a Necessity for Democracy?

Finally, to further strengthen the argument that democracy is a universal value let us consider if high economic development is a requirement for democracy. Mainly due to there being a higher presence of democracy in Western industrialized countries, the argument that economic development being a necessity for democracy to take root has often been supported by scholars. However, it is important to note that Democratization has been effective even in poor countries like Benin, Mali, and Malawi that belong to the lowest of income, economic and human development categories. Larry Diamond too is a firm believer that high economic development is no requirement for democracy to take root in a country. He uses data from the 1999-2001 World Value Survey findings, which showed that in 80 countries varying from the extremely rich to the extremely poor, “no less than 80 percent of people on average say democracy is the best system.”


The concept and mobilization of Democracy can be subjective from country to country, region to region. However the most core elements of it can be implemented and can be found beneficial to people in all parts of the world, not merely because it is what is considered right, but because it has an appeal to anyone and everyone who believes they should be protected by a safety net of consistent reliable governance. Amartya Sen clarifies this the best: “The distinguishing mark of a universal value is not that it already enjoys universal acceptance but that people everywhere have reason to see it as valuable.”


Larry Diamond, The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2008

Phiippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, “What Democracy is…and is Not,” Journal of Democracy 2, 3 (Summer 1991): 75-88.

The Journal of Democracy, Diamond

Larry Diamond, “Democracy’s Third Wave Today,” Current History November 2011: 299-307.

Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy 10, 3 (1999): 3-17.

Is democracy a Western idea? Diego Von


[1] Spirit of Democracy, Diamond, Chapter 1

[2] Spirit of Democracy, Diamond, Chapter 1

[3] Spirit of Democracy, Diamond, Chapter 1

[4]Texas A&M University, Inter-cultural cross-fertilization of ideas with respect to theories of democracy.

[5] Spirit of Democracy, Diamond

[6] Spirit of Democracy, Diamond, Chapter 1

[7] Spirit of Democracy, Diamond,29

[8] Spirit of Democracy, Diamond, Page 28


One thought on “Democracy: Western Concept or Universal Value?

  1. Sent from my iPad Dear Thisuri, Your latest article ” becoming me”is wonderful and excellent . You are still a child but your ideas are great. I have read your other writings as well but not the two novels which I can imagine now, how., exiting they are ,.I’ll read them as early as possible as I am a person who is nearly four times of age as your’s . I believe that you are a young intellectual and a humanist and the country needs the young people of your caliber . I wish you every success. Thank you little daughter Parakrama Abeygunawardane .

    Sent from my iPad


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