Findings from the ESS: Democracy


Dr. Mónica Ferrin of the University of Zurich reflects on the inclusion of the Round 6 (2012/13) rotating module: Europeans' understandings and evaluations of democracy. Ferrin was part of the team that designed the module.

The rotating module on Democracy in Round 6 provides a detailed account of how Europeans think democracy should be and of how Europeans think their democratic systems actually are - or how they perform.

This is an issue of key importance in light of the alleged legitimacy crisis European democracies have undergone in the past decades. Round 6 reveals relevant findings in this regard.

First, there is strong commitment to democracy among the citizens, independently of the democratic quality of the country in which they live. Not only do Europeans think that democracy is a good thing per se, but they value all ideal characteristics of democracy, such as freedom of expression and accountability.

Second, there is a shared understanding among Europeans of what is essential in a democracy: equality before the law and free and fair elections are the two essential features of democracy for most people in all European countries.

On top of that, some Europeans add a long list of issues requiring attention with regard to democracy (from politicians paying more attention to citizens’ needs, to increasing citizens’ participation in decision-making, etc.). As it stands, the most demanding citizens live in countries where the quality of democracy is lower than the European average.

Third, there is a large gap between what Europeans expect from democracy in the ideal and what they get from their democratic systems in practice. Although citizens’ evaluations vary across dimensions of democracy and across country, all democracies fall short of citizens’ ideals.

This is particularly the case in relation to the outcomes of democracy (social equality and protection from poverty), where the gap is most alarming. Round 6 provides a powerful tool for politicians to understand what citizens are dissatisfied with in their democratic countries and to know the sources of disenchantment.

Round 6 is also useful to identify potential flaws in citizens’ involvement, since we find that bad evaluations of democratic performance relate to abstention. Indeed, among the non-voters, evaluations of the different aspects of democracy are significantly worse than among the voters.

This finding has important implications for the study of citizens’ involvement. It supplies an additional explanation of why people abstain from voting which might alert European governments: long term dissatisfaction with democracy might not only threaten democratic support in a country but - since it is sharper among non-voters - it might also put into danger the legitimacy of decisions taken by the political representatives.

Photo: Claudio Divizia/