Events in Ukraine point to the vulnerabilities of democracy in the modern world and the fact that elections alone are not enough to create a government that is perceived as legitimate. When the Berlin Wall fell there was a great deal of optimism that democracy would sweep into formerly Soviet-dominated nations. The publics in these countries embraced democracy with enthusiasm and hope.
But now Ukraine has become a key example of what can happen when the population loses confidence in their elected government, setting off latent centrifugal forces in the society, and making it vulnerable to the machinations of outside forces.
In polling conducted in Ukraine in 2008 by WorldPublicOpinion.org, overwhelming majorities embraced the democratic principles that governments should be selected through elections and that the will of the people should govern. But already large majorities said that their country was being governed by big interests looking out for themselves, rather than for the common good. Sound familiar?
In polling conduced late last year by IFES, Ukrainians’ confidence in their elected government had reached remarkable lows. Three quarters said that ordinary people have no influence on decisions made by the government. Overwhelming majorities said that politicians cannot be trusted and only listen to rich people. Only one in twenty said that the political parties serve the interests of the people.
Perhaps most disturbing, Ukrainians appear to be losing confidence in democracy per se. The percentage of Ukrainians who said that democracy is the preferred system of government is just 37%–down nine points from just a year before.
In the Eastern part of the country, where many Russian speakers live and where ties to Russia are strongest, the percentage endorsing democracy is even lower at just 28%. Thus it is not surprising that many in this part of the country are responsive to the autocratic signals emanating from Russia.
While democratic institutions have deeper roots in the US, we should not overlook the fact that many of the views that Ukrainians have of their government are present in the American public as well and thus Voice Of the People is working to revitalize American democracy by giving the people a greater voice.
All around the world people are struggling to realize democratic ideals, and the failure to do so has far reaching consequences, not only for domestic affairs, but for stability in international relations.