Bühlmann et al. (2008) - The quality of democracy: democracy barometer for established democracies

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Bühlmann, Marc; Merkel, Wolfgang; Wessels, Bernhard; Müller, Lisa (2008): The quality of democracy: democracy barometer for established democracies. In: National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) . Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century (Working Paper No. 10a)


The Working Paper is an analytical framework that suggests ways how to measure the quality of democracy. It derives its perspective and key-elements from deductions from classical theory of democracy as well as from inductions from empirical insights about the institutional compositions in established democracies on which the paper focusses. It defines the quality of democracy by the quality of the interplay of five so-called “partial regimes” (electoral regime, political rights, civil rights, horizontal accountability, and effective power to govern) that together can provide the basis to an equilibrium of three normative core-elements of a democracy: freedom, equality and control. Suggestions are given how to operationalize the described constructs and concepts to be deployed as a “democracy barometer” – which therefore competes with democracy-measures like the Freedom House Index and others.


By discussing classical and newer political philosophy and theory of democracy the authors conclude that some core principles are compulsive to regard a given political system as a democracy: freedom on the one hand and equality on the other hand. Here the authors follow a strain in political philosophy that regards the relationship between freedom and equality as one with tensions. Therefore – as a meta-concept – control is introduced as a third major principle and as a moderator between the two competing poles freedom and equality. By analyzing democratic institutions, the authors defining five “partial regimes” and their interplay as the basis to sustain the three major principles of democracy. From this perspective freedom is guaranteed by the partial regime of the civil rights (1), equality by the political rights (2) while control is established through the electoral regime (3), horizontal accountability (4) and effective power to govern (5). Each of the partial regimes fulfill specific functions (p. 29, table 2):

  1. Civil rights guarantee (a) individual liberty and (b) the rule of law
  2. Political rights provide the preconditions of (a) participation, (b) responsiveness, and (c) transparency
  3. The electoral regime makes (a) vertical accountability and (b) representation possible
  4. Horizontal accountability guarantees (a) mutual constraints of constitutional powers
  5. Effective power to govern means (a) governmental autonomy

Each of these functions can further be differentiated into their basic components (p. 41, table 3):

  1. individual liberty and the rule of law contain (i) individual rights protection, (ii) equality before the law, and equal access top courts
  2. participation, responsiveness, and transparency cover (i) Equal rights to participate, (ii) Freedom to associate, (iii) Freedom of opinion, (iiii) Informational openness
  3. vertical accountability and representation require (i) Free and fair elections, (ii) Universal active suffrage, and (iii) Universal passive suffrage
  4. Horizontal accountability includes (i) Checks and balances, (ii) Independence of the judiciary, and (iii) Rule of law constraint
  5. governmental autonomy can be differentiated into (i) the effective power to implement democratic decisions and (ii) global restrictions

The interplay between the five partial regimes is conceptualized as “embedded democracy”:
Embedded internally in the ways the partial regimes interact (e.g. how civil rights are out of reach of majority decisions and therefore protecting against a tyranny of the majority) and embedded externally in the socioeconomic context, the civil society, and the regional and international integration (e.g. how supranational institutions and international integration challenge the effective power to govern and the electoral regime as well).


In the Annex (p. 49 – 53) a rich list of possible indicators suggests how to measure the quality of democracy as it is conceptualized by the authors. The possible indicators for empirical measurement therefore derive directly from the components of the functions of the partial regimes of the core-principles of democracy (as described above).