Democracy & Consensus-Building

The Commonwealth is a complex association. It encompasses 2 billion people (living in 53 countries, and associated overseas and external territories) with a range of faiths, races, cultures and traditions. The sheer scale of the organisation means that challenges are inevitable. But there are many success stories too – not least that throughout the Commonwealth are many common principles along with consensus on a diverse range of issues. This is no mean achievement.

The aim of Programme 2 – part of Goal 1 (To support member countries to prevent or resolve conflicts, strengthen democratic practices and the rule of law, and achieve greater respect for human rights) – is to build stronger democratic processes across the Commonwealth on political issues. This necessitates that it will be engaged with strengthening democratic institutions (such as through Commonwealth Observer Groups and Commonwealth Expert Teams at election times), and supporting stronger electoral processes and more democratic practices (using technical assistance in a range of specialist fields).

In the past, the Commonwealth definitions of ‘democracy’, ‘democratic institutions’ and ‘democratic practices’ have been clearly spelt out – not least in the Commonwealth Declarations of 1971 (Singapore) and 1991 (Harare, Zimbabwe), which set out its fundamental political values (See the ‘CHOGM’ section earlier in this book). Further, the Latimer House principles of 2003 define and differentiate the roles of the three branches of government: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. In addition the Trinidad and Tobago Affirmation of 2009 brings all these principles together and further reinforces the Commonwealth’s commitment to them.

Yet despite the Commonwealth sharing common principles based on these declarations, the sheer size and diversity of the association means that democracy within it takes on a variety of forms, some regrettable twists and turns, a number of positive advances and, always, a range of challenges.


Regrettable outcomes

On 1 September 2009, the Commonwealth was forced to fully suspend Fiji Islands. In the wake of its 2006 elections, the problems caused by a military coup have been exacerbated by the abrogation of the Constitution and increasingly authoritarian rule. Despite the Commonwealth urging Fiji’s interim government to establish a reasonable road map towards elections as soon as possible, this has not yet happened.

In the past, both Nigeria and Pakistan have also been suspended but reinstated when democracy was restored. It is hoped that the same will happen to Fiji and the Commonwealth looks forward to it returning to the fold.


Positive advances

Elsewhere, the Commonwealth has seen positive advances – such as in Bangladesh and Ghana.

Bangladesh held credible elections at the end of 2008, leading to the restoration of parliamentary democracy in the country following nearly two years under emergency rule.

In Ghana, also at the end of 2008, a very close election resulted in defeat for the incumbent government but kudos for the country, as the outcome was graciously accepted and democracy in the country further entrenched.

But it is not the place of the Commonwealth to be complacent about democratic gains; as history has shown, democracy can stall or even go backwards. There are no guarantees that democracy will follow, ever onward, a pre-determined path. To give the process the best possible chance, it needs to be nurtured, protected and promoted.



Identifying challenges and working to overcome them is part of the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and it uses its good offices to address conflict and support peace-building throughout the Commonwealth’s member nations. One area in which the Commonwealth has made substantial progress in recent years is expanding democratic space and deepening good governance. That said, a number of challenges remain.


Abuse and corruption

One of the greatest challenges that face a number of developing democracies is the abuse of incumbency – that is, the attempts by those in office to re-arrange the political process to ensure their positions are safe.

This kind of abuse is often entangled with issues of patronage and corruption, which eat away at the fabric of society and the soul of the Commonwealth. One way to deal with this sensitive area is to build confidence into the political process through limiting terms of office. This can help to encourage the emergence of new, younger political forces which are vital for the vibrancy and dynamism of a country’s development.

Leaders who restrict democratic space in a country by creating a virtual one-party state can limit media freedoms and civil society, using state institutions and resources for the benefit of the ruling party and amending the Constitution to their personal benefit.

Such a country’s political processes serve to undermine democracy, resulting in loss of faith in the system by the people affected. This is one reason why the Commonwealth focuses on fair and democratic elections, and has been able to expose tension, conflict and violence during the election process.
Recently the Commonwealth has provided technical assistance or observed elections in Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Ghana, Malawi, Maldives, Mozambique and Swaziland. A genuine, credible election, reflecting the will of the people, determines the credibility and legitimacy of the elected authority.

The Commonwealth is currently working towards creating a Network of National Election Management Bodies (see later) to increase its promotion of good practices and the effectiveness of its support for these crucial bodies, as well as facilitating co-operation between them. For example, Ghana has shown how a strong and independent election commission, which is transparent and inclusive, can create confidence in the process and thereby the result, even where the final difference between the two leading candidates is very narrow.



If parliaments and politics are to be representative and inclusive, then it must be ensured that all sectors of society can and do participate. For example, the number of women in parliament and other elected bodies is a long way from proportionally representing the approximately one billion women throughout the Commonwealth. This, along with appropriate representation of youth, is something that needs to be addressed.


Flaws and weaknesses

As we have seen earlier, many countries continue to face the challenge of consolidating democratic practices and institutions, with the result that in some, conflict can emerge from flawed elections, political exclusion and a lack of full participation. As a neutral stakeholder, the Commonwealth Secretariat is in a unique position to contribute significantly towards consensus-building and co-ordinated international action. The focus of Programme 2 lies on two elements

  • the electoral cycle of member states, and
  • political developments – national and international.

Although political analysts can often make predictions and with regard to possible democratic upheaval, the Commonwealth Secretariat still needs to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to any political uncertainties and events. Therefore, a level of flexibility needs to be built into its activity planning to enable it to cope with all eventualities.

It would be fair to say that shortcomings exist (for example, The Economist’s democracy index still sees half of the Commonwealth members ranked as so-called ‘flawed democracies’, ‘hybrid regimes’ or ‘authoritarian regimes’), but the Commonwealth is doing better than several other groupings and this level of honesty is essential in order to face the challenges.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index of 2008 suggested that democracy had come to a halt; indeed, calculations made using the index suggested that less than one-fifth of the world’s population lives in a ‘full democracy’, the remainder living in ‘flawed democracies’ or ‘hybrid’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’.

Even though this survey did not conclude that there is a ‘roll-back’ of democracy, it did state that the threat of backsliding now outweighs the possibility of further gains. It could be deemed that such a prognosis is alarming and requires vigilance.

The study also found that, even in more successful newly democratised countries, many voters express discontent, feeling that they are losing out during the transition. In other, more established, democracies there is concern at declining levels of popular participation and the discussion is about how to get people – particularly young people – more engaged in the democratic process.

On the plus side, since 1991, some 12 Commonwealth countries have moved from being single-party or military-run states, to multi-party systems. And so it would seem the challenges are great in all our countries, even where impressive advances have been made. However we must always guard against complacency or the notion that further advance is inevitable or the job is done. Democracy is a constant ‘work in progress’ and the Commonwealth is here to help with the work.



Deepening democracy – thereby ensuring it is substantive and not a facade – is at the heart of the work in Programme 2. The Commonwealth promotes and supports member states in a variety of ways, including:

  • improving the quality of member countries’ democratic practices – particularly the conduct of elections
  • deepening democratic culture – including promoting constructive relations between government and opposition, and
  • capacity-building of key institutions – including election management bodies.


Election observation

The Commonwealth observes elections in some of its member states, on request. It is a signatory to the International Declaration of Principles on Election Observation, which it feels is an important undertaking because it places international and regional standards for democratic elections front and centre – emphasising the onus on states to attain the standards to which they have committed themselves – that is, holding them accountable.

The Commonwealth has made the reference to relevant regional, Commonwealth and other international standards the core of the mandate for its Observer Groups. This is important because it creates:

  • a consistency among international organisations observing elections
  • a transparency of the modalities for assessing an election
  • a better understanding on behalf of governments and election commissions of what is required.

If its work in promoting democracy is to be effective, then it needs to be:

  • clear on the standards states should be aspiring to
  • honest about any shortcomings
  • supportive in seeking improvements for the future.

This must be its approach to election observation and its political engagement on elections.


Network of Commonwealth National Election Management Bodies

The Commonwealth Secretariat plans to establish a Network of National Election Management Bodies (EMBs). EMBs are a key democratic institution, playing a vital role in determining the credibility of an election and the integrity of the political process.
The creation of such a network would therefore help to raise the standard of these key institutions and thereby provide great value to members in strengthening the culture of democracy in their respective countries.

The Commonwealth has had a number of pertinent experiences with contrasting instances of where an independent and capable EMB ensured the integrity of the process and the post-electoral political stability in a country, as against instances where an EMB was not sufficiently independent or capable and thereby lacked the political confidence, resulting in a contentious election and the resultant political and even actual conflict in a country.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has therefore decided to invest more time and energy in seeking to support election management bodies across the Commonwealth, with a view to increasing their capacity, promoting good electoral practices for them to follow and raising the political profile among member states for the need to adequately support an EMB and ensure its capacity, integrity and independence.


Role of government and opposition

The Commonwealth Secretariat has worked hard to raise awareness around the Commonwealth of the role and responsibility of government and opposition. This remains an ongoing engagement, as it is so crucial to the quality of the democratic process among its member states.

In too many countries there is a ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality, resulting in the lack of political space for effective opposition.

There is also often a failure to separate between party and state, which is extremely damaging, making important public institutions such as the military, judiciary, election commission and state media hostage to the incumbent.

The Commonwealth believes that it is imperative that governments provide for credible and independent institutions and adequate political space for an effective opposition. At the same time opposition parties must respect the rule of law and engage in a meaningful and constructive manner in the political process.



The focus of Programme 2 (Democracy and Consensus-building) is to see:

  • increased evidence of adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes
  • democratic processes and institutions strengthened – including through the role of the media and civil society
  • increased and effective participation of women, youth, other vulnerable groups and civil society organisations in decision-making institutions and processes.

In order to attain these, the Programme will:

  • use positive feedback from governments on the effectiveness of interventions, consultations and meetings such as CHOGM, CMAG and Foreign Ministers Meetings
  • encourage a higher and more transparent level of dialogue and debate regarding democratic processes and systems
  • encourage greater levels of participation by women, youth and civil society groups in democratic processes
  • encourage the media to play a more active role in democratic processes across Commonwealth countries.