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Relistening to the BBC's History of Democracy broadcast in July 2011. The historian on the show talked about the low point for democracies being 1941 when there were just 11 parliamentary democracies remaining across the globe.

So, there was Britain and the US of course. Then there were the European neutrals, Ireland, Switzerland and Sweden. That's five. The commonwealth democracies: Canada, Australia and NZ. Let's add South Africa too (they had a parliament).

Maybe Finland (even though allied to the Nazis, possibly still democratic?) Ten?

So, I only make that nine or ten. Which country or countries am I missing?

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Was the US ever a parliamentary democracy? –  Orion Oct 14 '11 at 21:36
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This index is pretty absurd though, for example Greece, France, Italy, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, India, Hungary are "flawed democracies" –  Squark Oct 15 '11 at 15:44
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@Squark Did you read their criteria? I wouldn't say Poland is a perfect democracy, either. –  quant_dev Oct 16 '11 at 15:02
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There were elected governments in some colonies as well during 1941, though their powers were probably severely limited. Example - India (first national election in 1933). –  apoorv020 Oct 18 '11 at 10:36
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The source of the statement appears to be The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane (Wikipedia). I would suppose the book describes the criteria for election and the countries elected, but I have no access to the book. Can anyone help? –  Wilhelm Oct 26 '11 at 3:21
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Since Samuel Huntington is quite popular in political science (which I guess BBC derived its source from), I suspect that this 11 democracies is based on Huntington's thesis of Third Wave Democracy.

According to Huntington, the globe experienced three waves of democracy, starting from USA in 1828. For this first wave, Huntington used Jonathan Sunshine's minimal qualification for democratic state: (1) 50 percent of adult males are eligible to vote; and (2) a responsible executive who either must maintain majority support in an elected parliament or is chosen in periodic popular elections.

At the peak of first wave democracy, there were 29 democratic states in the world. Then Italy rose to fascism in 1922, and the reversal of first wave democracy begun.

The first wave had its worst in 1942, where there were only a few states remain democratic:

  1. Finland
  2. Iceland
  3. Ireland
  4. Sweden
  5. Switzerland
  6. United Kingdom
  7. Australia
  8. Canada
  9. New Zealand
  10. United States
  11. Chile

You can read more about this on Huntington's Third Wave Democracy, or Roland Rich's introduction on his Pacific Asia in Quest of Democracy.

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Note: This is a partial and indicative list. I am looking for more information to improve it.

Update 2: It seems there is some controversy over the definition of democracy itself. Until further clarity it would be difficult to populate any such list.


Parliamentary Democray

  • Switzerland (1802)
  • Haiti (1860)
  • Estonia (1918) (See comment below from @lins314159 and my subsequent reply)
  • Lativa (1918) (See comment below from lins314159 and my subsequent reply)
  • Finland (1919)
  • Turkey (1923)
  • Ireland (1936)
  • Lebanon (1941)

That makes it - 7

Presidential System of Democracy

Constitutional Monarchy

  • UK (1688) (I am not sure of its inclusion, because if this is included then a significant region of western Europe may also be included so also Australia and New Zealand, which will take the number way beyond 11)
  • Canada (1867) Independence through British North American Act 1867.

That makes it - 11

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@lins314159 Thanks! I am removing their inclusion for now, until I get further clarity. Also, here is the qualification on the link itself The three Baltic states were parliamentary republics after declaring their independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, but were all occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. After regaining independence by 1991, all three countries resumed to parliamentary democracy. –  check123 Oct 15 '11 at 6:56
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@ExpatEgghead That is precisely the issue. As Rory points out, there are difficulties in defining democracy and thus it now hinders upon the OP to clear his view of democracy. –  check123 Oct 17 '11 at 6:04
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The UK is both a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, so I'm not convinced that placing it in its own category reflects how it is governed. It could be argued that it is more similar in its structure of government to, say, Ireland (prime minister as head of government, with a titular non-executive head of state) than Switzerland (ruling council which acts as both head of state and head of government). –  Steve Melnikoff Oct 17 '11 at 12:39
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@Rory: Not at all. Please do not confuse universal suffrage (which only appeared in any country during the last century) and democracy! The former is a subset of the latter. –  Noldorin Oct 18 '11 at 14:22
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How can you even question the inclusion of the UK? I don't see the relevance of it being a monarchy. It still is today, as are Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Denmark... as opposed to the republics of, say, Cuba, North Korea and China (PRC). –  suriv Oct 19 '11 at 0:19
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Depends on how you define "democracy". Do you mean "one person, one vote" (universal adult suffrage)? Up until the early years of the 20th century women couldn't vote.

One could claim the USA didn't have full adult suffrage until after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Likewise South Africa wasn't exactly a paragon of "one person, one vote" until the end of apartheid.

If however you define "democracy" as "anything that's not fascist or communist", then the situation changes. (Victors writing the history books and all that)

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Rory makes a good point. In that case I would argue that Iceland should have been on the list as a constitutional monarchy but in 1941 it was occupied by the British and then later by the USA. The date of 1941 does complicate matters. Why isn't Australia and New Zealand on this list? –  ExpatEgghead Oct 17 '11 at 6:08
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Thinking about it more, I believe I could make a good case for the UK not being in the list as all normal democratic processes were suspended for the duration. Only by-elections were held, generally uncontested and the composition of the government did not change. As the whole of the UK was essentially under a benign marital law, I would suggest only the USA was a functioning democracy in 1941. –  ExpatEgghead Oct 17 '11 at 6:15
    
If you are including a country that was a democracy, but then invaded, then you have to include lots of countries that the Nazis invaded, such as France, countries in eastern & central Europe. Germany was a democracy until the Nazi Party were elected/took over, under this "used to be a decoracy" rule, does that mean Nazi Germany was a democracy in 1941‽ –  Rory Oct 17 '11 at 11:19
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The UK just didn't have any elections for 10 years between 1935 and 1940. That is a long time, but the people who were there were elected in the first place. So it was more of a long running elected government. No massively democractic, but not really undemocratic either. –  Rory Oct 17 '11 at 11:24
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@Anixx, this assertion is simply not true. British constitutional history is fascinating on precisely this topic. Research the Glorious Revolution, Burke, the Regency Crisis, etc. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 5 '13 at 14:42
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Chile has a long tradition of democracy and by 1941 already had 100 years of democracy, albeit with brief interludes. In 1941 Pedro Aguirre Cerda was president of Chile, elected in 1938. He died at the end of 1941 and was replaced by Jeónimo Mendez until April 1942, when Juan Antonio Rios won the election. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidents_of_Chile

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