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?

  • 16
    Was the US ever a parliamentary democracy?
    – Orion
    Oct 14, 2011 at 21:36
  • 3
    This index is pretty absurd though, for example Greece, France, Italy, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, India, Hungary are "flawed democracies"
    – Vanessa
    Oct 15, 2011 at 15:44
  • 2
    @Squark Did you read their criteria? I wouldn't say Poland is a perfect democracy, either.
    – quant_dev
    Oct 16, 2011 at 15:02
  • 2
    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, 2011 at 10:36
  • 3
    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, 2011 at 3:21

5 Answers 5


Since Samuel Huntington is quite popular in political science (which I guess the BBC derived its source from), I suspect that this group of 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 began.

The first wave had its worst year in 1942, where there were only a few states which remained 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.

  • 1
    Finland was a dictatorship.
    – Anixx
    Feb 2, 2018 at 11:36
  • 1
    @Anixx - How so?
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 2, 2018 at 15:56

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)
  • Finland (1919)
  • Turkey (1923)
  • Ireland (1936)
  • Lebanon (1941)

That makes it - 6

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 - 10

  • 2
    @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, 2011 at 6:56
  • 2
    1688 for the UK is strange date (the Glorious Revolution), up until 100 years ago vast parts of the country could not vote at all (e.g. women (until 1918 (or 1930), people who didn't own land (1918), catholics (1829), etc.), as such it's a strange interpretation of "democracy" when only 1 out of 6 adult males could vote. Oct 15, 2011 at 12:22
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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, 2011 at 6:04
  • 6
    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). Oct 17, 2011 at 12:39
  • 6
    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, 2011 at 0:19

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)

  • 3
    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? Oct 17, 2011 at 6:08
  • 1
    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. Oct 17, 2011 at 6:15
  • 1
    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. Oct 17, 2011 at 11:24
  • 3
    @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.
    – MCW
    Aug 5, 2013 at 14:42
  • 1
    @Anixx, have you ever heard of the Magna Carta? The lords of England started curtailing the power of the British king over 800 years ago... The British monarch is nothing more then a figurehead today.
    – Ryan
    Jan 4, 2017 at 19:50

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


Ireland (1936)... I don’t want to open a can of worms but there are good arguments for that to read any of the following

Parliamentary Democracy: Ireland (1922) Ireland (1937) (One could also argue that it transitioned in 1949)

Constitutional Monarchy: Ireland (1922) Ireland (1936) Ireland (1937)

It depends how you define constitutional monarchy. Ireland was definitely one in 1922 (or at least was the same as U.K. and Canada). In 1936 a new constitution was established, which transferred some powers of the King (delegated to the Governor General) to the new President (effective 1937) However the King remained head of state officially (particularly when it came to foreign affairs and diplomatic relations) and Ireland remained in the Commonwealth.

The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 made Ireland a republic and removed any remaining powers of the King (automatically leaving the Commonwealth). At that point, Ireland was (and remains) a parliamentary democracy with an elected President as head of state (similar to Italy and Germany today) and with the president as the guardian of the constitution.

  • 1
    Welcome to History SE. Sources would improve this answer and increase the likelihood of people responding positively to your post. Feb 2, 2018 at 3:42
  • 1
    I'm not sure that this actually answers the question that was asked - it appears to be an extended comment about the state of Ireland.
    – Steve Bird
    Feb 2, 2018 at 6:10

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