Veeramalla Anjaiah, Seoul
Democracy has long been among the most contested concepts in political science as well as political philosophy, and a universally accepted view of democracy is yet to be obtained, though it exists in virtually all types of states and in almost every region of the world, Jean Blondel, a professor emeritus at the European University Institute in Italy, said.
Some skeptics believe that democracy is largely a Western, Judeo-Christian phenomenon. But in reality, democracy is present in countries adhering to every major religious or philosophical tradition: Christian, Hindu, Islam, Buddha, Confucian and Jewish.
Not only that, the existing democracies in the world differ from each other in the extent to which they approach the goals of democratization and make the task of finding an ideal model of democracy.
""There are differences in the institutions of democracy and in the style of democracy,"" Prof. Takashi Inoguchi from the University of Tokyo, Japan said.
Around 30 political scientists -- including Blondel and Inoguchi -- from Asia and Europe presented their arguments on democracy and tried to explore the possibility of finding a universal definition of democracy at a conference entitled ""Democracy in Asia, Europe and the World: Toward a Universal definition?"" in Seoul last week.
The two-day conference, which was jointly organized by the Singapore-based Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) and the Korean Association of International Studies (KAIS) and ended on Friday, touched on the broader issues that have pertinent applications for democracy -- both in theory and practice -- at all levels of political life and the theoretical issues related to conceptions of democracy in Asia and Europe.
Though Europe is the birthplace of democratic theory -- whether it is ""ancient"" or ""modern"" -- and has attained a higher level of democratization than that which has been attained in other parts of the world including Asia, democracy there is still not free from deficits.
""They (democratic deficits) provide challenges to European democracies. Such challenges concern, for, example, the need to maintain a high level of electoral participation, the means to accommodate non-European migrants into European societies, the increasing tendency to resort to referendums, the consolidation of democracy in former European socialist countries, and the appropriate form of democracy for the European Union,"" Tatu Vanhanen, a professor emeritus at the University of Helsinki, Finland, said.
Paradoxically, very low percentages of people participate in elections in Europe, the center of liberal democracy.
Whereas in Asian democracies -- where most states reject or are reluctant to apply liberal democracy using the argument of so-called ""Asian values"" -- the public's participation in elections is remarkable, reaching between 60 percent and 90 percent.
According to Robert Dahl, the author of Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, ""a key characteristic of a democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.""
In its Human Development Report 2002, the United Nations Development Program defined democracy as ""a political system that enables people to freely choose an effective, honest, transparent and accountable government.""
Besides discussing the various definitions and forms of democracy, the scholars from Asia also strongly repudiated the argument of some Western scholars that the ""Asian values,"" which also include Confucian and Islamic values, are not compatible with democracy.
""It is surprising that only the countries with strong Confucian traditions have developed democratic political cultures at the systematic and procedural levels. It is proved that Confucian values do not present a major obstacle to democratic development in East Asia,"" Doh Chul-shin, a professor at the University of Missouri, USA, said.
""The democracies in Malaysia and Indonesia do not have problems with Islamic values,"" Prof. Johan Saravanamuttu from the Science University of Malaysia said, adding to Doh's analysis.
Inoguchi, who made an interesting Asia-Europe Survey in 18 Asian and European countries, including Indonesia, in 2000, said globalization has undermined democratic institutions to a certain extent.
For example, according to the survey, people have higher confidence in institutions that are not necessarily governed by democratic principles. They are the military, the police, the civil service and the courts.
They have lower confidence in such democratic institutions as political parties, parliament, the elected government and political leaders.
Three Southeast Asian democracies, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, have a common trusted troika -- the civil service, the military and the media -- ranked as top three institutions.
""Indonesia places the civil service as the most highly trusted (70-80 percent), Thailand the military (80-90 percent) and the Philippines the media (70-80 percent),"" Inoguchi said.
Despite of the fact that it may be a difficult task to find a universal definition of democracy, given various differences and types of democracy, the participants at the conference agreed that there are some key common characteristics of democracy.
These common features -- civil society, a multiparty system, free and fair elections, the rule of law, a free and independent media, an independent judiciary and so on -- may qualify as a formulation for a universal definition of democracy, but to a limited level.
Vanhanen's argument at the meeting is relevant in this context.
""The central argument is that democracies tend to face similar challenges in all parts of the world because the key characteristics and goals of democracy are more or less the same.