According to the Oxford English Dictionary, democracy is
“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives”
while the Collins Dictionary gives as first definition
“government by the people or their elected representatives”.
According to dictionaries, legitimacy is the one and only ingredient for a democracy recipe
countless elected governments over the history changed their nature and became autocracies.
Hitler and Mussolini won regular elections and so many actual dictators even nowadays. Who watched the events in Egypt a few years ago, or more recently in Turkey, understands the problem.
That’s why a modern democracy cannot just be legitimate because even a fully legitimate government could take arbitrary decisions, betraying the popular mandate.
The necessary completion of legitimacy is accountability.
Political bodies are held accountable for their choices when they assume full responsibility. Of course, this means also accepting the consequences for the wrong choices, furthermore for the illegal ones.
There is a wide range of accountability tools:
a parliament able to dismiss the government that it doesn’t trust anymore; an impeachment procedure for serious misconduct of ministers or heads of state; a court able to stop or repeal laws contrary to the fundamental social contract (the Constitution, the bills of rights); some constitutional body able to dissolve the parliament; the right of the electorate to chose new parliament members when disappointed by the previous ones… and the list could go on and on…
Citizens have the right to know how the public money is used, to which extent the objectives have been achieved and what expectations have been met; they have the right to appeal to a judiciary authority if their rights are violated and if those responsible for public interests are taking illicit advantages from their positions.
We are sometimes so accostumed to this other side of democracy that sometimes we end up forgetting how it is essential…. arriving to commit the mistake of thinking that “exporting democracy” (if ever democracy is exportable) just means organizing free elections. A nice democratic exercise but – without accountability – almost useless.
Now, you’ll ask, does accountability exist at supranational level?
Well, there is something, here and there. Often accountability is just hanging on the thin thread of responsibility of national representatives in front of their governments or their parliaments (if democratic!). But here is the good news: it’s slowly growing.
The XX century didn’t see much of that, but now a number of international organisations are establishing mechanisms for individual or collective claims (like the World Bank Inspection Panel); ombudsmen (as UN Ombudsman’ Office created in 2002), independent audit offices.
And we have to give merit to civil society which has struggled for that.
Of course, there is still much to improve. In a real supranational democracy, both political and legal accountability have to be equally developed.
Once more, the European Union arrived first -with its Court of Justice and its institutional system of checks and balances-, even if there is still more than something to improve in the field of economic governance.
In South America, several supranational courts followed the same path. Regional organizations have an advantage over the global ones: a common background of shared values helps.
But what’s more interesting about accountability is that is not so relevant if member states are democratic or not as accountability channels – when established – are open to all the citizens and NGOs, no matter where they are, while legitimacy channels often cut off a good number of them.
This seems to me a good reason to work on the other side of democracy.
If you want to learn more about accountability of international organizations, you can download here the Berlin Report by the International Law Association