Economic Freedom: Essential Principles

Essential Principles

"[A] free economy is most suitable to a free polity."
Ezra Solomon, The Free Society Papers, 1989

A Migrant Mother and her Children during the Great Depression

Although no international covenants clearly guarantee economic freedom as is the case with political and civil rights, few political theorists today doubt the connection between a free or market-based economy and a free political system. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, political and economic liberalism were intertwined philosophies that heralded the expansion of both individual freedom and property ownership. These two characteristics have been generally associated with the rise and success of democracies in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yet, the strict application of economic liberalism — the absence or withdrawal of government interference or involvement in the economy — has generally led to high concentrations of wealth and economic power by private corporations and individuals, high levels of poverty and inequality, and the lack of protection of consumers or the environment. The absence of government regulation or involvement in the economy is widely considered by economists to have brought about economic catastrophes like the Panics of the 19th century and the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Europe and the United States, social democratic parties responded to such economic conditions and catastrophes by placing greater regulations on corporations and businesses, fostering trade unions for workers, enacting more egalitarian tax policies, and establishing social and economic rights through a welfare state in which government provides basic economic and social support to different groups, especially the poor and unemployed. Such parties, however, still accepted basic aspects of a free market economy (private property, banking, and commerce; market-driven prices for goods and services; the accumulation of private wealth). Conservative parties in Europe have retained classical economic liberalism as their guiding philosophy (advocating less state regulation of labor and markets, free trade, and privatization of most government services) but in turn generally have accepted the basic foundations of a welfare state and restrictions on corporations to prevent malfeasance, protect the environment, and safeguard consumers from harmful products. In the United States, however, the conservative Republican Party has split on the issue of whether to accept the basic foundations of a welfare state and many adherents, adopting a more absolutist philosophy (see below), now reject government intervention in most or all aspects of the economy.

What constitutes economic freedom? Is there an inherent tension between economic freedom and democratic governance? What degree of economic freedom is needed for democracy to flourish? Is it like freedom of speech, a principle that should be restricted only minimally, or is it more akin to the framework of representative government — with many different types and variants?

Absolutist Principles and Smithian Economics

Economic freedom, like political freedom, has many definitions tied to different political viewpoints or ideologies. Adam Smith is generally recognized as having first woven the ideas of political and economic liberalism together in his work The Wealth of Nations, written in the late 18th century. He argued against the state’s dominant control over trade and the accumulation of economic wealth practiced by most monarchies — mercantilism  — in favor of individual commerce and the private determination of prices through “the invisible hand” of a free market governed by supply and demand. Smith generally advocated a laissez faire (“let to do”) policy by the state towards private economic activity, but also put forward a broader social theory that corporations and individuals should be restrained in their tendency to monopolize or collude, to pay low wages (he supported “combinations of workers” for purposes of bargaining with employers for better wages), and the over-accumulation of profit and wealth. In general, Smith advocated a society in which there was general prosperity. (“No society,” Smith wrote, “can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”)

But most famous modern free-market theorists, such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises, generally ignore Smith's broader theories and focus on his advocacy of laissez-faire and advocate an economic philosophy of minimal or no government involvement the economy. For these later theorists, any state intervention in the economy (such as establishing a minimum wage, instituting environmental controls, or guaranteeing the right of collective bargaining) is considered to be a harmful infringement on economic freedom and the first step to “economic slavery.”  Reflecting this laissez faire philosophy, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that conducts an annual survey of economic freedom, states:

The highest form of economic freedom provides an absolute right of property ownership, fully realized freedoms of movement for labor, capital, and goods, and an absolute absence of coercion or constraint of economic liberty beyond the extent necessary for citizens to protect and maintain liberty itself. In other words, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, and that freedom is both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state.

On its own, this may seem a compelling statement of economic freedom. But most democratic governments routinely violate its absolutist proscriptions and intervene in the economy in many ways that today are considered basic protections of workers and society: establishing a minimum wage, controlling the levels of pollutants by industry, safeguarding consumers from harmful products, preventing monopolization over commerce, regulating the trade of stocks, futures, and bonds to prevent manipulation of prices by “insiders,” among many other actions that the broader society has determined is appropriate in a democracy to protect itself from exploitation by individuals and corporations with too much accumulated economic power. Perhaps, some less absolutist principles are thus in order.

More Common Principles

One approach has been to look at the clash between democracy and Communist dictatorship in the 20th century, which highlighted the profound importance of both economic and political freedom. Under communism, state control over property and the economy was essential to totalitarian political control. The state's economic tyranny restricted individual freedom and thwarted any development of opposing power to the Communist Party.

Drawing on this experience and its contrast with democratic societies, economist Ezra Solomon, a former member of the U.S. president's Council of Economic Advisers, proposed an alternative approach to thinking about economic freedom, reconnecting it to a political foundation. In his essay "The Economy in a Free Society," he writes:

[A] free economy is most suitable to a free polity for it allows the broadest scope of liberty in the free exchange of goods and services between individuals and groups. . . . Private property and free markets do limit the power of the state by diffusing its control over the economic lives of its citizens. Individual liberty in making economic decisions limits the power of the state to control the political lives of the citizenry.

In this approach, property rights and individual freedom to engage in economic activity guards against the tyranny of the state, but diffuse ownership of property and the broad engagement of citizens in private economic transactions also has the effect of preventing too great accumulation of power by ownership by one individual or group (an oligarchy). Violations of economic freedom can occur both due to the state’s excessive control or its failure to prevent corporations or privileged elites who have amassed great fortunes from using their economic power to threaten individual freedoms or social well-being. In theory, democracy enables voters to choose how they wish to adjust the balance both between state intervention and economic freedom and the balance between economic freedom and the broader well-being of society as well as workers’ rights to form trade unions and bargain collectively (see Freedom of Association section). Over the last 70 years, most democracies have alternated between the political party ideologies described above: on the one side parties that favor greater state intervention in the economy and on the other, political parties advocating a more laissez faire policy. Generally, however, developed countries with democracies (such as members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) have mixed economic systems and policies that prevent economic monopolization and private concentration of economic power.

Property rights and individual freedom to engage in economic activity not only guard against the tyranny of the state but also the abuse of power by privileged economic elites.

Economic and Political Correlations

In the last 40 years, basic principles of economic liberalism have generally advanced together with those of democracy and political freedom. In some cases, economic liberalism followed the achievement of political freedom (as in most countries of Eastern Europe), while in others economic liberalism has propelled political change (as in Taiwan and South Korea). Yet, in all these countries, some of the basic concepts of economic freedom as defined by Ezra Solomon above — less state dominance over individual decision making and the ability of free markets to diffuse state power — played a key role in political transitions. Seymour Martin Lipset, the renowned American sociologist, proposed that economic development, modernization, and a rise of a middle class being able to exercise greater economic power through its ownership of property helped increase people's expectations for both economic improvement and political freedom, thereby helping to bring about democratic transition (see his articles in Resources).

The connection between some degree of economic freedom and democracy can be made by a comparison of economic and political conditions. In the 2015 United Nations Human Development Index, of the forty-nine countries and territories in the category “Very High Development,” forty-one have the status of “free” in Freedom House’s 2015 Survey of Freedom in the World and most have the highest freedom ranking of 1. Only two “Very High Development” countries have Freedom House’s status of “partly free” (Hong Kong and Singapore) and six are designated “not free” (the Gulf oil states and Brunei). Even when one broadens the scope of comparison, the correlation between political and economic freedom is quite strong. Of the top 105 countries having “very high” or “high” development, 68 have the status “free” by Freedom House, 20 “partly free,” and 17 “not free” (most of the “not free” countries are energy states whose economies are based on oil and gas resources). There are some countries categorized as “free” by Freedom House that are at the lesser developed or bottom levels of the Human Development Index, but most countries at these lower levels are in Freedom House’s “not free” or “partly free” category.

There are some clear reasons for this general correlation (which, it should be noted, is also found using the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom survey). One is that the political freedoms and civil liberties that undergird democracy tend also to benefit economic growth. Freedom of expression, for example, allows the free flow of information needed for rational economic decisions, while state regulations generally punish individuals and corporations for providing false information to investors or buyers (see Section on Freedom of Expression). Freedom of association protects the right of trade unions to represent workers’ interests and to improve their standard of living (see section on Freedom of Association).

Another reason for the correlation, according to economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, is that democracies are more likely to develop their human resources through broadly based health and education programs and investment in infrastructure. The tendency is strong for there to be large majorities in democratic societies favoring policies to invest in public goods benefiting the common welfare such as public education and transportation infrastructure — all of which, Sen argues, lead to greater growth. Similarly, democracies are more likely to protect the general society against economic downturns such as the Great Depression through social welfare programs or, as after the Great Recession of 2008-9, enacting greater regulations to help restrict harmful speculation.  The correlations are not exact. And today political parties favoring laissez faire reject such correlations and favor policies to end government protections and allow freer markets without impediments. Particularly in the United States, disagreements between the two main political parties about the government’s size and role in the economy have become increasingly divisive. But what is also generally clear is that democracies offer the political freedoms that allow citizens the possibility to debate the best policies to advance economic freedom and to temper the abuse of economic power by both the state and private actors.

Contrary Phenomenons

Another general phenomenon, however, should not be ignored that contradicts the correlation between economic and political freedom. Today, one sees the rise of an alternate authoritarian model that combines free market capitalism and political dictatorship. The People’s Republic of China is today the leading example of a politically authoritarian regime, in this case a communist dictatorship, adopting a so-called free market economic system (see Country Studies in Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association). Vietnam has followed China’s model, but in both cases general economic well-being, including per capita income, badly trails democracies with mixed economic systems. Other authoritarian models, such as Malaysia and Singapore, are justified on the theory that “Asian cultural values” are incompatible with democracy. These countries, which have achieved much higher standards of living, also continue to resist any transition to democracy. Analysts, however, tend to ignore the heavy role of the state in each of these countries’ economy and each regime’s reliance on both foreign investment and heavy repression to resolve the clear contradictions of such a model. Regardless, the success of such countries as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all of which have fully developed democratic systems and a mixed free market system, indicate that neither the communist-capitalist hybrid nor the authoritarian-capitalist “Asian” model has any broad applicability for common principles of economic freedom (see also discussion in Human Rights).

The Multiparty System: Study Questions

 Suggested Study Questions and Activities

Teachers: The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary.

Essential Principles


What are alternatives to a multiparty system? Can any of these be democratic? Why is the multiparty system so essential to democracy?


A country's political parties are usually a reflection of its recent history. Examine a study of a country ranked “free” by Freedom House’s Survey of Freedom from this or another section in Democracy Web. Using online sources, find out the platforms of the major political parties represented in its parliament. What do the platforms tell an observer about the country's history and democratic development? Present your findings to the class, and compare them with other students' observations for their assigned countries.



How does Israel's parliamentary system compare to the Netherlands? What are similarities and differences in the results of these two systems with lower parliamentary thresholds? Do low thresholds benefit or impair the democratic process?


Using online news resources, find articles reporting on the 2015 elections for the Israeli Knesset and the formation of the government. How did the higher 3.5 percent threshold for parliament affect the elections. Were there substantially different results? Has there been an increase or decrease in representation of diverse interests?



Why do ethnic parties play such an important role in Malaysia?  What is the justification for ethnically based policies such as affirmative action for bumiputera (indigenous Malay)?


Examine the Country Studies and the Survey of Freedom in the World 2015 Reports for Malaysia and Botswana (Chapter 5: Accountability) and compare the two former colonial countries’ electoral systems and outcomes. In each country, the ruling coalition has won every election since independence. What are the differences between these two cases? What considerations did Freedom House make in determining Botswana as Free and Malaysia Partly Free?

Review media coverage of the 2013 Malaysia elections as well as reports of international and domestic monitors (like Bersih). Did the campaign and the results meet standards for a free and fair election? Should Malaysia’s standing be improved as a result in Freedom House’s rankings?



How was Syria’s political system adopted under the Ba’ath party similar to that in the Soviet Union. What role did the Syrian Ba’ath party play similar to the Soviet Communist Party. When Bashar al Assad succeeded his father, why did he initially adopt reform initiatives? Was there any real change?


Have students compare the descriptions of the Arab Spring protest movement in the country studies of Tunisia and Syria and use the Resource sections in each Democracy Web category as well as other online and news sources to examine the period of the protests in 2010-11. Both countries were one-party dictatorships. What has contributed to one country moving towards democracy and the other country reconsolidating one-party rule?

The Multiparty System: Resources


Essential Principles 

The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. New Haven, CT: Yale Law School, 2008. 
     Federalist essay No. 10 by James Madison.

Blondel, Jean. "Types of Party Systems," in The West European Party System, edited by Peter Mair. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1990).

"Political Parties," in Principles of Democracy. Bureau of International Information Programs.Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2005. (Link.)

Farrell, David M. Comparing Electoral Systems. Macmillan: London, 1998.

International Party Organizations
     Centrist Democrat International (link)
     International Democrat Union (link)
     Liberal International (link)
     Socialist International (link)
     Transnational Radical Party (link)
     (See also “Political Resources on Net” for lists and links to political parties, internationals, et. al.)


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Israel. See, e.g.: 
     Books and Arts: “A History of Israel” by Ari Shavit, December 14, 2013.

The New York Times: World Topics: Israel. See, e.g.:
“A Conscientious Objector Poses Challenge to the Israeli Military,” July 20, 2013.
     “Israel and the Apartheid Slander,” by Judge Richard Goldstone, October 31, 2011.
     “A Plan For Peace That Still Might Be,” New York Times Magazine, February 7, 2011.

B’Tselem: Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (link).

Israel Democracy Institute (Home Page).

Jewish Virtual Library: (Home Page). See also section "The Arab Boycott"

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for Israel).

Winograd Commission examining the war in Lebanon (Final Report).


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Malaysia. See, e.g.: 
     “Long Arms: Malaysian Politics and the Law,” March 15, 2014
     “Malaysia’s Elections: A Tawdry Result,” May 6, 2013
     “Malaysia’s Elections: A Time of Gifts,” April 11, 2013
     "Video Nasties,” March 23, 2013

The New York Times: World Topics: Malaysia. See, e.g.:
     “No End of Scrutiny Over Millions Sent to Malaysian Leader’s Accounts,” February 5, 2016.
     “Malaysia’s Deep Political Rifts Exposed Amid Mystery of Missing Flight,” March 19, 2014.
     “Malaysian Opposition Leader Sentenced in Sodomy Case,” March 8, 2014.
     “Malaysia’s Governing Coalition Keeps Hold on Power,” May 5, 2013.

Anwar, Ibrahim, "Universal Values and Muslim Democracy." Journal of Democracy 17, no. 3 (July 2006)

Carter Center: Country Profile: Malaysia, Human Rights Defenders Initiative

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: Malaysia
     “Smoke and Mirrors: Malaysia’s New Security Act.” Reprinted from Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 167, June 14, 2012.

US Dept. of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for Malaysia).


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Syria. See, e.g.:
     “Death of A Country” and “The Country Formerly Known as Syria,” February 13, 2013

The New York Times: World Topics: Syria and Crisis in Syria. See, e.g.: 
     “Death Toll in War Over 470,000, Group Finds,” February 11, 2016.
     “Syrians Desperate to Escape What UN Calls ‘Extermination’ by Government,” February 9, 2016.
     “Victory in Syrian Election Is Show of Assad’s Control,” June 4, 2014
     “Three Years of Strife and Cruelty Puts Syria in Free Fall,” March 17, 2014.
     “Among the Wounded in Syria’s War: Ancient History,” March 8, 2014.
     “The Syria the World Forgot,” June 8, 2013.     

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: Syria.
     See also: “Increased Use of Banned Weapon: Daily Cluster Munitions Attacks,” February 8, 2016.

New Yorker magazine
     Anderson, Jon Lee, “Letter from Syria: The Implosion,” February 27, 2012.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (Home Page).

United Nations
     Report of the Independent Commission Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (the Hariri Assassination): 2005.
     Report of the UN Mission on the Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic: September 16, 2013.
     Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic: September 25, 2013.
     UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (Home Page).

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for Syria).

The Multiparty System: Country Studies — Syria

 Syria Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 7; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties 7.



The territory of Syria was a central pathway of ancient civilizations. It was conquered by Hittite, Persian, Greek, and Roman armies and subsequently was ruled by Persian, Arab, Turkic, Mongol, and Ottoman empires. In the modern era, Syria was under French administration through a League of Nations mandate until it gained independence in 1944. Since a 1963 coup brought the Arab Socialist Ba'ath (Renaissance) Party to power, Syria has been among the most repressive countries in the world. In response to a peaceful protest movement in 2011 arising from the Arab Spring, state security forces acted with brutal force, provoking an armed uprising against the rule of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. In this conflict, the military and police have used indiscriminate force against civilians in fighting with guerilla armies, which have also violated laws of war. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, 470,000 people have died as a result of the war, more than three million people have gone into exile, and 6.5 million people are internally displaced, mostly by actions of the government but also due to those of armed fighters, especially those of the Islamic State, which seized significant territory. Many of the country’s cities and much of its ancient heritage has been destroyed. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned and subjected to brutality and torture. A U.N. investigation confirmed that the regime used chemical weapons in 2013 in attacking a rebel-held Damascus suburb; other chemical weapons attacks have been reported. Rebel armies initially seized significant territories, but the Syrian armed forces, now aided by Russian military intervention, reestablished military control over much of Syria by the end of 2015 and early 2016. 

Since 1963, elections have been controlled by the Ba’ath party; no other parties have competed for power. The government fully dominates political, social, and economic life. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are sharply curtailed. Military and security forces have repressed all dissent. Freedom House has consistently ranked Syria as “not free,” among the world’s worst dictatorships. Transparency International ranks Syria among the most corrupt countries (173rd out of 176 countries). 

Syria, the 89th largest country in the world by area (186 million square miles), borders Turkey to the North, Iraq to the East, and Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel to the west and south. The official population estimate in 2016 was 18.5 million people (a decline of 4 million since 2012), with 75 percent classified as Sunni Muslim, 13 percent Shi’a (largely Alawite), 10 percent Christian, and 3 percent Druze (a minority Arab group with polyconfessional beliefs). Ethnic Kurds, ten percent of the population, are counted among Sunni Muslims. In 2010, before the uprising, the IMF ranked Syria 110th out of 180 countries and territories in GDP per capita (about $5,200 per annum). From this time, the economic situation has deteriorated markedly. 


Early History 

Syria's capital, Damascus, is the world’s oldest known continuously inhabited city, dating to the fourth millennium BC. Home to a long succession of ancient city-states and empires, Syria stood at the crossroads of civilizations based in Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. The Persians, coming from farther east in what is now Iran, conquered the entire region in the sixth century BC. Two centuries later, they were displaced by Alexander the Great and his successors.'s capital, Damascus, is the oldest known continuously inhabited city, dating to the fourth millennium BC.

The Romans took control of Syria in the first century BC. The Arab conquest in the seventh century AD led to the population’s conversion to Islam. Damascus served as the capital of the Muslim world in its first century, under the Umayyad caliphate, but it lost prominence when the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphate was established in AD 750. The region experienced periods of both prosperity and disorder over the following centuries, including migrations of Turks from Central Asia, Christian and Mongol invasions, and Egyptian domination. The Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Syria in 1516 and maintained at least nominal control over the territory until 1918.  

Colonialism and Dictatorship

Syria's modern history begins after the final fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Prince Faisal of the Hashemite family, had led British-backed Arab forces out of the Arabian Peninsula in fighting Ottoman troops during the war. His forces entered Damascus in 1918 and soon established an Arab kingdom there, even as French troops occupied the coast. Against the will of Arab nationalists, the League of Nations in 1920 established mandates dividing the entire region between Great Britain (controlling Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq) and France (controlling Syria and Lebanon). France squelched Faisal's new state in Syria (the United Kingdom later made Faisal king of Iraq and his brother the ruler of Jordan). Nationalist unrest continued, however, and French officials took grudging steps toward granting Syrian independence. 

When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940, Syria came under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy regime but then was captured by British and Free French forces in 1941. After holding elections in 1943, Syria received international recognition as an independent republic in 1944 and joined the United Nations in 1945. French forces fully evacuated the next year. Unstable civilian rule and defeat on the battlefield in 1948 by the new state of Israel led to a series of military coups in 1949, 1951, and 1954. As part of the pan-Arab movement, Syria joined Egypt in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic. In part, this was done to suppress the growing influence of the Syrian Communist Party. However, Syrian leaders chafed under the domination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser and the country withdrew from the UAR in 1961 to form a new Syrian Arab Republic. Syria aligned itself with the Soviet Union as opposed to its former colonial powers, France and Great Britain, which were seen as sponsors of Israel, with which Syria remained in a state of war. The post-Soviet Russian Federation continues to be one of Syria’s main allies in the region. 

The Ba'ath Coup and the Assad Family Dynasty

After Syrian independence was re-established in 1961, another series of coups ended in 1963 with the Ba'ath Party, which espoused Arab nationalism and socialism, restored to power. (The Ba'ath Party in Iraq came to power a month earlier, but the two Ba’ath branches did not cooperate.) Assad ended the pattern of frequent coups that had roiled the country since independence by ruthlessly suppressing political dissent. . . .

Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad seized power following the country's defeat in the 1967 war with Israel (which seized the strategic Golan Heights from Syria) and a subsequent disastrous military intervention against the King of Jordan in 1970. Assad appeared to represent an ideologically moderate Ba'ath faction based in his own minority Alawite sect, a mystical branch of Shi’a Islam. Remaining in power thirty years until his death in 2000, Assad ended the pattern of frequent coups that had roiled the country since independence by ruthlessly suppressing political dissent. The most significant challenge to his rule was an Islamist uprising by Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, which Assad put down with a fierce military attack that left an estimated 20,000 people dead. In a dynastic succession, Bashar al-Assad, the middle son of Hafez, replaced his late father as president in 2000. (Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, is commander of Syria’s Republican Guard; the eldest brother died in a car accident.)

Syrian Intervention and Regional Alliances

Ba'athist Syria positioned itself as the champion of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause against Israel. Syria was a major participant in all the Arab-Israeli wars against Israel (1948, 1967, and 1973) and under the Ba’athist regime it hosted a number of Palestinian militant and terrorist organizations on its territory. When Syria backed non-Arab Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, however, it harmed its relations with other Arab states and its standing as an Arab leader. Iran’s government continues to be a key ally of Syria’s Shi’ite leadership. Before the recent uprising, Syria had secret peace talks with Israel about the return of the Golan Heights, but these broke down after being publicized.

Syria’s main interest in the region has been neighboring Lebanon. In 1976, Syria intervened in Lebanon’s civil war, which had broken out among ethnic and religious factions the year before. Over the next three decades, even after the fighting had subsided, Syria’s troops and intelligence agents remained in the country and Damascus dominated Lebanon’s politics and economy. During this time, Syria supported the buildup of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite terrorist organization that arose after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982 (see Country Study of Israel). Syria was pressured to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in 2005 due to the international and Lebanese outcry over involvement by Syria’s intelligence services in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician who opposed the Syrian occupation. Syria has continued to interfere in Lebanese politics through Hezbollah, which was also implicated in the Hariri assassination but nevertheless took part in forming subsequent governments. Hezbollah forces are currently fighting in Syria against rebel forces.

Hafez al-Assad portrayed on a roadside billboard

Multiparty System 

There is no functioning multiparty system in Syria. In the 250-seat unicameral parliament, the Ba'ath Party leads the National Progressive Front, which includes several loyal leftist parties. Any lawmakers not in the Front are "independents" who have been carefully vetted by the authorities. Elections were formally held in 2012 but boycotted by the opposition, resulting in 173 members from the Front (166 from the Ba’ath party) and 77 so-called independents. Power is concentrated in the hands of the president. Previously, the president was nominated to a seven-year term by the Ba'ath Party leadership and formally approved by the parliament before being confirmed in a referendum that lacked any other candidates. Changes made to the constitution in 2012 introduced the limited possibility for competition in direct elections and a two-term limit. Bashar al Assad ignored the term-limit rule in order to for a third term in 2014, which he won overwhelmingly with only token opposition. The 1973 constitution explicitly established the Ba'ath Party as the "leading party in the society and the state," a position similar to that of the Communist Party in the constitution of the former Soviet Union. Criticism of the government or suspected disloyalty brings quick reprisals, including arrest, torture, and murder. Control is maintained through an elaborate internal security network incorporating police, intelligence, and military forces and a network of civilian agents. 

Individual advancement through the ranks of the party, government, and military has depended on loyalty and personal connections. Hafez al-Assad favored members of his Alawite sect, a mystical Shi’a group making up 12 percent of the population. This practice has been continued by Bashar, although he is also allied with several Sunni groups that receive patronage. 

The Assad Succession 

At first, the succession of Bashar al-Assad to power brought some hope of change. In his first six months in office in 2000, al-Assad ordered the release of 600 political prisoners, allowed relatively open public discussion and dialogue, and took some initial steps at reform. It was a period some referred to as “the Damascus Spring.” But it ended quickly with al-Assad ordering renewed repression and arrests of many of those he had encouraged to speak up for reform. A small number of activists continued to challenge the regime internally by defending human rights and building civic networks, but many activists emigrated to oppose the regime from abroad. Thereafter, al-Assad reinforced the state’s repressive apparatus and maintained the minority Alawites’ control over police, security, and other government functions. Internationally, he resisted the U.N.’s investigation into the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 (see above). Syria continued to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs and arm the militant Hezbollah Shi’ite movement. [The Damascus Spring] ended quickly with al-Assad ordering renewed repression and arrests of many of those who he had encouraged to voice support for reform and democracy.

The Arab Spring Uprising, Assad’s Crackdown, and the Civil War

Following popular pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries in late 2010 and early 2011, Bashar al-Assad hinted at making mild changes to the constitution. When no action was taken, large numbers of people took to the streets in March 2011 in pro-democracy protests in Damascus and the city of Deraa to demand the release of political prisoners and a new constitution. Al-Assad ordered tanks and soldiers to put down the protests in Deraa and authorized police to fire on protesters in Damascus. Subsequent protests in Damascus and other cities were mostly met with brute force, although some protests were so massive that the government allowed them to take place without attack. In June 2011, claiming that armed attacks on security forces had killed 120 soldiers, al-Assad, announced an all-out war on the opposition. The government began military actions in the northwest city of Jisr al-Sigur followed by attacks on other cities where a new Free Syrian Army, made up of government deserters and volunteers, emerged. In October 2011, the Syrian National Council was formed made up of moderate and mostly secular domestic and exile groups to coordinate opposition actions to the regime. The Syrian government cracked down on all dissent, while the military stepped up attacks on major cities where rebels were active, such as Homs, killing indiscriminately and firing without regard to civilians or historical sites.

Current Issues

On August 21, 2013, chemical weapons were used in an attack on rebel-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus, killing up to 1,400 civilians, many of them women and children. The use of chemical weapons in the attack was confirmed by a U.N. weapons inspectors’ report issued a month later (see Resources). Chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict had been reported previously, but not confirmed. The August 21 attack prompted the threat of military force by US President Obama, who had previously stated he would act to stop the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. A U.S. air strike was forestalled by an agreement reached with the Russian Federation and the Syrian government to surrender and eliminate all chemical weapons stockpiles by Syria (reported to be third largest in the world). The Syrian government also agreed to sign the international treaty banning chemical weapons. UN inspectors confirmed that the Assad government generally complied with the terms of the U.S.-Russia agreement, but there have continued to be unconfirmed reports of the use of chemical weapons.

At the outset of the civil war, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) showed surprising durability and strength. It withstood heavy assaults by Syrian government troops, tanks, artillery, and planes to keep hold of key cities and areas. Most of the FSA’s leaders joined with other groups in exile to form an opposition alliance called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), headquartered in Turkey and recognized by some foreign governments as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Its aim was to negotiate an end to the Assad regime and to establish a democratic government. The stability of the SOC, however, was difficult to maintain amid leadership changes and an inability to extend its authority to govern rebel-held territories. The SOC lost control over more extremist groups within the armed uprising that rapidly grew in strength. By mid-2014, the Syrian government reestablished military control over much of the country, but rebel forces maintained hold of key areas.

The extremist groups, mostly tied to the al Qaeda terrorist network, formally broke from the National Coalition in 2014 to form a rebel alliance committed to establishing a caliphate in Greater Syria. These forces also committed brutality against civilians (carrying out beheadings and amputations) and often battled with the secular FSA rather than the Syrian army. In June 2014, the largest and most extreme group, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), suddenly expanded its holdings in eastern Syria to occupy significant Sunni-populated territories in Iraq. Having separated from al Qaeda, ISIS declared itself the ruler of a new Sunni caliphate called the Islamic State and carried out multiple atrocities against both Iraqis and Syrians. It especially targeted Shi’a, Yazidi, and Kurdish minorities as well as Sunnis violating its strict Islamic laws. In response to the atrocities and the threat to the stability of Iraq, the US organized a coalition of NATO and Middle Eastern countries to carry out sustained air strikes against the Islamic State and also increased its assistance to Iraq’s military and less extreme rebel forces in Syria. The al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front has nominally rejoined the secular opposition for purposes of international negotiations but continues attacks on the FSA. The Islamic State, while losing 40 percent of its territory since the US-led military campaign against it was launched, has expanded terror operations to other countries and carried out multiple terrorist attacks in France, the US, Turkey, and Egypt.

President Bashar al-Assad has refused to resign and has defied all international initiatives to bring an end to the violence even as the death toll and other impacts from his government’s military actions mounted. Despite a two-term limit established in a revised 2012 constitution, he insisted on obtaining a third term as president in early June 2014 “elections,” which were fully controlled and had only token opposition. Syria’s allies, Russia and China, prevented stronger international sanctions from being imposed by the United Nations, while the Russian government continued to provide arms to the Assad regime. In late 2015, as reports increased that Syria’s armed forces had weakened from defections and fighting, the Russian Federation established air, ground and naval bases in Syria and began coordinated military strikes with the Syrian government against opposition forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the operations were directed at defeating the Islamic State, but in fact most were aimed against positions held by the FSA. Putin has subsequently withdrawn much of the Russian military force but Russian air strikes continue to support Syrian government forces, which have retaken several key cities and other rebel-held territory.

After failing in two previous efforts at peace talks in 2013 and 2014-15, the UN attempted to restart talks a third time in early 2016 to resolve the conflict. Although a cease-fire was negotiated with the assistance of the US Secretary of State, Syrian military attacks continued, including on rebel-held parts of Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo. Peace talks were quickly suspended when the Syrian government refused to halt its increasingly successful military operations.

The Humanitarian and Refugee Crisis

The civil war in Syria, and especially the unchecked brutality of the Syrian government against its own people, has resulted in one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since the end of World War II.

The UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICI), established in 2011, continued its mandate to chronicle human rights abuses by the government. In its 7th report, issued in February 2014, the Commission totaled its findings over three years: more than 6.5 million people had been internally displaced; more than 2.6 million people, half of them children, had fled to neighboring countries; and nearly 150,000 people had been killed. The numbers only continued to rise. In early 2016, the Syrian Center for Policy Research issued a report that 470,000 people had died as a result of the war, including from starvation. The UN estimated that four million people have gone into exile while a total of 12 million people have been displaced. In February 2016, the IICI’s 10th report detailed the systematic arrest and torture of tens of thousands of Syrians. Most have died in imprisonment or were left to die from wounds inflicted by torture. The IICI wrote that this was just “one part of a broader campaign of murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.”

By the summer of 2015, conditions in refugee camps in neighboring countries as well as the internal situation in Syria, propelled up to one million Syrians to join others fleeing conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and north Africa to try to gain refuge in Europe. This mass migration brought about the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Some European countries closed their borders and even countries welcoming the refugees, like Germany, were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the migration and took action to halt the refugee flow from refugee camps in Turkey (see also Country Study of Turkey). The denial of access to international humanitarian groups in Syria by the government and some rebel groups, especially IS, raised the danger of increased starvation and the spread of disease. It is estimated that there are approximately four million refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe, much of Syria’s ancient historical sites, which were preserved over millennia, have been ruined in indiscriminate warfare by the Syrian government or deliberately destroyed by the Islamic State.

The Multiparty System: Country Studies — Malaysia

Malaysia Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Partly Free. Freedom Ranking: 4; Political Rights: 4; Civil Liberties 4.



The Federation of Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. The titular head of state, called the paramount ruler, is elected on a rotating basis from among 9 hereditary chiefs of Malaysia’s 13 states. The parliament is bicameral, with an elected lower house and a largely appointed upper house. The governing coalition, the National Front, has ruled Malaysia since its initial independence in 1957 — the world’s longest ruling coalition. In elections in 2008 and again in May 2013, the BN’s parliamentary majority was substantially reduced by the success of a coalition of three opposition parties, which also won control of five states. More recently, government leaders have been the subject of financial and political scandals. Malaysia is not considered an electoral democracy by Freedom House — which categorizes the country as “partly free” — due to the political dominance of the National Front, the government’s control over the election process, and its repression of opposition.

The Federation of Malaysia is made up of two main territories separated by the South China Sea in Southeast Asia. East Malaysia is located on the northern quarter of the large Borneo island; West Malaysia, where most of the population resides, forms the southern portion of the Malay Peninsula, south of Thailand. The western part, then known as the Federation of Malaya, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. It absorbed the eastern states on Borneo island in 1963 to become Malaysia. Singapore, at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, also joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 but then withdrew two years later to become an independent state (see Singapore Country Study). Malaysia has 31 million people with a mixed population of ethnic Malays (50.4 percent), Chinese (24 percent), Indians (8 percent), and indigenous groups (11 percent). It is also home to a large number of migrant workers.

Since independence and especially since 1980, Malaysia has recorded impressive economic growth, generally through foreign investment in the export manufacturing sector. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Malaysia ranked 35th in the world in 2014 in nominal GDP ($338 billion in total output). In nominal per capita GDP, Malaysia ranked 62nd in 2015 (at $10,073 per annum). It was 55th out of 176 countries in the world in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Survey index.


Early History

Malaysia's first human habitants date back 40,000 years. Its indigenous population was originally called Negrito; later it was called Malay. Indian and Chinese traders began traveling to the region roughly 2,000 years ago, by which time political entities described as sultanates emerged. The Indian and Chinese traders strongly influenced the population, with Hinduism and Buddhism becoming the dominant religions. Starting in the second century AD, a number of small Malay states arose that relied on maritime commerce. Between the seventh and fourteenth centuries, much of the area now known as Malaysia was controlled mostly by the Srivijaya Empire, based on the island of Sumatra (now part of Indonesia). War with neighboring kingdoms led to the Srivijaya Empire’s decline, which strengthened competition over the lucrative trade route through the key access to East Asia, the Strait of Malacca.

Islamic Influence, European Dominance

Around the 14th century, greater trade with the Arab world and Indian Muslims helped to spread Islam in the region, adding to the existing blend of indigenous, Hindu, and Buddhist beliefs. The state of Malacca, founded around AD 1400 by a local ruler and serving as a leading commercial center, adopted Islam as the official religion. The Portuguese commander Alfonso de Albuquerque, whose predecessors had explored the coast of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean and conquered Malacca in 1511. This led to conflict with new Muslim sultanates on Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula and a decline in Malacca's importance as a trading port. The Netherlands, which was expanding its empire on territories that later formed Indonesia, captured the city in 1641. The British became active on the Malay Peninsula in the late 18th century and occupied Dutch possessions during the Napoleonic wars. It established a base also in Singapore in 1819 (see Country Studies of Indonesia and Singapore).

British Malaya

An 1824 treaty between the British and Dutch divided the region roughly along the borders of modern Malaysia and Indonesia, with Britain controlling the Malaysia territories. Great Britain gradually established a network of protectorates and colonies that left the existing sultanates with varying degrees of autonomy. Meanwhile, the British compelled Siam (Thailand) to give up control of some Malay states in 1909, setting the current northern border on the Malay Peninsula. The British encouraged the migration of Chinese and Indian workers, who arrived in the country in large number during the 19th and early 20th centuries and played distinct roles in the economy and society. The Chinese formed mining communities to extract tin and gold and settled in towns to engage in commerce. Many Indians were imported as administrators and laborers for agricultural plantations producing cash crops like rubber. The ethnic Malay population largely remained in rural villages but also continued to dominate the state structures of the sultanates.

Postwar Insurgency

After the Allies freed the Malay territories from a brutal Japanese occupation during World War II, ethnic Malaysian leaders and local rulers feared a breakdown of political order and welcomed the return of British administration. British colonial power, however, had been greatly weakened by the war and Malaysia’s different ethnic and political groups had conflicting visions for the postwar order. When the British sought to create a Malayan Union that merged the various peninsular states and provided equal citizenship for all ethnic groups, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) emerged to oppose the plan and preserve the political privileges of ethnic Malays. As a result, the British created the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and left the various sultanates intact within the larger structure. The ethnic Chinese-dominated Communist Party of Malaya, which had fought the Japanese and supported the initial union plan, began a decade-long insurgency, backed by Communist China. As the British put down the rebellion (often with considerable brutality), the colonial authorities brokered a compromise among non-Communist, ethnic-based political parties. These included UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). The three groups formed a governing coalition known as the People’s Alliance (later called Barisan Nasional), which ever since has dominated Malaysia's modern politics.


By the time of the Federation of Malaya's formal declaration of independence in 1957, the People’s Alliance had agreed that the more prosperous non-Malay ethnic groups, which played dominant roles in the merchant economy, would enjoy citizenship and cultural autonomy while bumiputera — literally meaning “sons of the soil” and referring to ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups — retained special privileges, especially in education and the economy. Singapore and the northern Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, governed until then by the British, were united with the Federation to create Malaysia in 1963. But Singapore, whose dominant ethnic Chinese population and leaders threatened the Malays' political position in the federation, withdrew in 1965 to become a separate city-state (see Country Study of Singapore). Within the new structure, Western or peninsular Malaysia has 11 states and 2 federal territories forming the Federation of Malaysia; Eastern Malaysia has two large states and one federal territory.

Multiparty System

[T]he 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA) . . . and other laws affecting political activity were originally adopted to deal with the Communist insurgency but since 1969 have been used by post-independence governments to effectively restrict political dissent and criticism of the government.  

The head of Malaysia's constitutional monarchy, known as the paramount ruler and commonly called king, is elected for a five-year term by the hereditary rulers of the nine states with monarchies, with the tradition that the office rotates among the nine states. (Four states with titular leaders do not participate in the monarchical selection.) The powers of the king are largely ceremonial. He nominates the head of the leading party or coalition in the lower house of parliament as prime minister and, at the prime minister’s recommendation, other lawmakers as cabinet members. Also at the prime minister’s recommendation, the king appoints 44 of the 70 members of the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, who may serve two three-year terms. The 13 state legislatures elect the Senate’s remaining 26 members.

The lower house (Dewan Rakyat), which has dominant law-making powers, consists of 222 members elected from single-member districts for five-year terms in a “first past the post” electoral system. Elections are by universal suffrage. Since the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957, elections have been dominated by the People’s Alliance and its successor coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), or National Front. The BN is dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and includes also the United Traditional Bumiputera Party from the Sarawak region; junior coalition partners representing ethnic Chinese and Indian communities; as well as 10 smaller parties.

The electoral system and the Electoral Commission are skewed in favor of the ruling coalition (see below). The rule of law is also seriously compromised by the government’s influence. Opposition politicians are frequently subject to criminal proceedings and defamation law suits. Many of the laws date from British colonial rule and, even when they have been amended, highly restrict freedom of association, assembly, media, and speech.

There is a guarantee of religious freedom in the constitution, but that guarantee is routinely violated in both law and practice. All ethnic Malays are registered as Muslim and are required to practice Sunni Islam. The Shi’a denomination is banned. Sharia (Islamic law) courts have jurisdiction in all cases involving Islam; civil (non-religious) courts have ruled that individual Malays cannot renounce Islam and must submit to the religious courts. Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths are practiced by Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese minorities, but they face discrimination, government restrictions, and sometimes violence.

The 1969 Race Riots and Positive Discrimination

UMNO's leadership was seriously challenged in the 1969 elections, when the ruling coalition lost ground to the opposition Democratic Action Party and other groups, which drew much of its support from the ethnic Chinese community seeking an end to special privileges for bumiputera. The election results sparked riots in which thousands of Chinese homes and businesses were destroyed. Dozens of people were killed. The government invoked emergency powers under the 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA) and suspended Parliament for nearly two years. This law and others affecting political activity were originally adopted by the British to deal with the Communist insurgency, but since 1969 have been used by post-independence governments to effectively restrict political dissent and criticism of the government.

After the 1969 riots, the government adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP) aimed at boosting development and eradicating economic disparities among ethnic groups. Affirmative action and quota policies were established to promote bumiputera in education, business, and employment. While causing resentment among minority groups, the policies have apparently succeeded in raising bumiputera ownership in the private sector. A 2006 study found that ethnic Malay ownership had already significantly surpassed the 30 percent target for Malays and other indigenous groups. But the government, seeking to keep the policy in place, disputed the accuracy of the study. Prominent opposition politicians like Anwar Ibrahim have argued that the affirmative action policies have left the bumiputera population dependent on artificial supports without substantially improving their economic or social position.

Anwar Ibrahim

UNMO’s Dominance

The 1969 riots impelled UMNO to rename the governing coalition from the People’s Alliance to National Front, or Barisan Nasional (BN), and to expand its cooperation with other ethnic and regional parties. From that time, BN secured sweeping electoral victories and until 2008 enjoyed greater than two-thirds parliamentary majorities. In this period, UMNO’s Mahathir bin Mohamad was Malaysia’s dominant political figure and became a leading international exponent of “Asian exceptionalism” — the theory that Asians prefer authoritarianism to democracy. As prime minister from 1981 until his retirement in 2003, Mahathir governed without significant opposition. The opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) competed under highly restrictive conditions and gained small numbers of seats in the Lower House.

From 1999 to 2008: Emergence of an Opposition

In 1998, an opposition movement arose after the popular deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was dismissed by Mahathir for criticizing government policies. The party that emerged from this movement, the National Justice Party (later renamed the People's Justice Party, or PKR), formed a united opposition front with the DAP and PAS to contest the 1999 elections. While UMNO and its allies in the Barisan Nasional remained firmly in control of Parliament, the coalition lost some 20 percent of its seats to the opposition parties. The government responded to this election rebuff by charging and subsequently convicting Anwar Ibrahim on dubious charges of sodomy and corruption, which had been brought before the elections to weaken the opposition movement. The 1999 conviction for sodomy was overturned on appeal and, having served five years on the separate corruption charge, which was upheld, he was released in 2004.

One provision [of the election law] prohibited candidates from promoting ‘feelings of ill-will, discontent, or hostility’;  the vague wording was used to stifle criticism of the governing coalition.

Under Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir's successor as prime minister, the Barisan Nasional (BN) assumed its previous supremacy, claiming more than 90 percent of the seats in the Lower House in 2004 elections. Opposition parties captured just 20 of the 222 seats and a similar low proportion of the seats in state-level elections. The large election margin was achieved by the government’s gerrymandering of district boundaries and imposing unfair conditions for the elections. Among other things, the campaign period was limited to seven days, the media favored the ruling party, and the electoral law prevented most opposition campaigning. One provision prohibited candidates from promoting “feelings of ill-will, discontent, or hostility"; the vague wording was used to stifle criticism of the governing coalition.

Although electoral conditions remained similarly unfair in 2008 elections, discontent with the ruling party allowed a renamed opposition coalition, now called the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), to achieve a stunning result. For the first time since independence, the ruling BN coalition lost its two-thirds majority in the lower house, winning just 140 of 222 seats (63 percent), and thus its ability to alter the constitution at will. The People’s Alliance also won five state legislatures. Anwar Ibrahim himself won a seat from a rural district in a later by-election.

The Campaign Against Anwar Ibrahim

The BN’s poor electoral performance forced Prime Minister Badawi to step down and he was succeeded by his deputy prime minister, Najib Razak. The government responded to the election “loss” by immediately charging opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim with a new count of sodomy. The victim, however, turned out to be a paid agent of the government who had a personal relationship with the prosecuting attorney. In slow-moving proceedings, Anwar was acquitted on appeal in January 2012. The government used other means to try to marginalize Anwar and other opposition leaders. In 2010, Anwar was suspended from parliament for allegedly insulting the prime minister. In September 2011, Mohamad Sabu, the deputy president of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), was charged with defaming police officers and soldiers after he criticized government actions in combatting communist guerillas in the 1950s. A number of other opposition politicians were charged under the Sedition Act.

The Campaign for Fair Elections

Meanwhile, 62 non-governmental organizations created a coalition called the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) to put pressure on the government to change the ruling party’s automatic dominance in future elections and to create conditions for a free election contest. It organized a wide range of activities, including three large demonstrations in July 2011, April 2012, and July 2012, all of which were violently dispersed by riot police, with 1,700 people arrested in the April 2012 rally. Anwar Ibrahim was arrested after the April 2012 rally and charged with inciting riots (the charges were later dropped). The government has also encouraged attacks on the home of one of Bersih’s leader, an Indian.

In response to the 2008 election results and Bersih’s campaign, Prime Minister Najib Razak proposed a number of reforms. In 2012, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOMSA, replaced the notorious 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA). Other new laws and amendments to existing laws were submitted supposedly to limit the government’s repressive apparatus. But Human Rights Watch wrote that overall the new laws actually “tightened restrictions or banned outright activities already under constraint, added limits to previously unrestricted activities, and broadened police apprehension and surveillance powers in new and innovative ways.”

Current Issues

The latest elections were held on May 5, 2013 after a brief formal one-month election campaign. The run-up to the campaign included frequent state media and official attacks on the opposition parties and candidates, including the release of fake videos of Anwar Ibrahim in supposedly compromising sexual situations. Nevertheless, the opposition carved out even more space for its formal campaign than in 2008 and hoped to defeat the BN for the first time since independence. Turnout was an unprecedented 85 percent of the country’s 13.3 million voters.

The announced election results showed 51 percent of the overall vote went to Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) and 47 percent to Barisan Nasional (BN). Even so, the ruling coalition retained a 60 percent majority of seats in the federal parliament (133 seats to 89 for opposition parties). As previously, gerrymandering and weighted districts favored UMNO-dominated rural areas. Voter intimidation and electoral fraud prevented further opposition victories. Despite public testimony confirming electoral manipulation by the government, the People’s Alliance lost all court challenges filed in 31 districts. Najib Razak, whose popularity in opinion polls at the time was greater than UNMO, retained his post as prime minister and UNMO party chairman.

Since the elections, the government ordered new large economic development projects benefitting bumiputera while at the same time ordering multiple arrests of opposition leaders. At the government’s request, the Court of Appeal in March 2014 reversed its earlier ruling overturning the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim and affirmed the original 2008 conviction for sodomy. Anwar appealed the new ruling, which barred him from his current seat in parliament and prevented him from running for other office. (The ruling came one week before Anwar was to be nominated as a candidate for a by-election to an assembly seat in Selangor; his likely victory could have propelled him to the governorship of Malaysia’s richest federal state.) In addition, Anwar’s lawyer was convicted on charges of violating the 1950 Sedition Act, another remnant of British colonial law. The lawyer was issued a large fine and forced to step down from his seat in parliament. Eight other opposition members, including the deputy chairman of the People’s Alliance faced charges under the Sedition Act. In March 2014, Mohammed Sabu, the former PAS deputy chairman now leading a new opposition party, lost a defamation suit brought by the head of the Election Commission for articles Sabu wrote implicating the commissioner with election fraud in Sabak.

The government, however, has faced numerous challenges. The prolonged and botched investigation of the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew increased public doubts about the government’s competence. The subsequent downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian missile in July 2014 raised further questions as to the state airline’s judgment in allowing a flight pattern over war-torn territory controlled by separatists fighting the Ukraine government. The crash resulted in the loss of 283 lives.

More recently, corruption scandals involving the prime minister and other officials have dominated the news. In January 2016, Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali announced that he had closed his investigation into a $681 million dollar transfer into Prime Minister Rajak’s private bank accounts. He determined that the sum had been a private donation from the Saudi government and that Rajak had returned $621 of it as unused. Saudi officials stated that it was a private investment of a Saudi prince for a building development, but the attorney general’s statement left it unclear as to what the donation had been for and how the unreturned $61 million was used. The Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has appealed the attorney general’s determination, while former Prime Minister Mahathir has publicly called for Rajak’s resignation. It is widely suspected that the money went to the campaigns of UNMO politicians in the 2013 election campaign. Around the same time, the Swiss attorney general’s office announced it had found evidence that $4 billion intended for state-owned companies had been misappropriated from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, an account controlled by the prime minister.

The Multiparty System: Country Studies — Israel

Israel Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Rating: 1.5; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 2.



Israel was established in May 1948, six months after the United Nations (UN) endorsed a partition plan to divide Palestine, then under British administration, into Jewish and Arab states. The rejection of the UN plan by Arab states led to a series of wars, military conflicts, and ongoing terrorist actions that posed serious threats to Israel’s existence and left the issue of Palestinian statehood and the fate of Palestinian refugees unresolved.

Israel is a stable multi-party parliamentary democracy. In all of Freedom House’s Surveys of Freedom in the World since 1973, Israel has been the only country in the Middle East categorized as “free” and has ranked highest in the region in all individual scores of political freedoms and civil liberties. At present, ten parties and coalition blocs are seated in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament. They represent a wide variety of political views and interests among the majority Jewish population and minority Arab and Druze populations (the Joint List coalition of Arab-Israeli parties won a record 10.5 percent of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections). A right-wing coalition led by the Likud Party formed the current government in power following elections in 2015.

Israel is a small country. Excluding territories occupied since 1967, it ranks 149th in size among 194 countries at just 20,800 square kilometers. Following periods of large-scale Jewish emigration from Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and North Africa, Israel's population has grown from less than one million at its founding to eight million today, with roughly 75 percent being Jewish, 20 percent Arab, and 5 percent non-Arab Muslims, Christians, and Jewish immigrants not registered or not recognized as Jewish by the Interior Ministry. The Jewish population of Israel is commonly grouped under the labels Ashkenazim (those of European origin) and Sephardim (those of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or other non-European origin). Druze, a monotheistic, poly-confessional faith, is conflated with the Arab Israeli population but its members are subject to conscription in the army. Approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers reside in parts of the occupied territories. (No occupied territory or settlement is recognized as part of Israel by any other country or international institution.)

Despite its small size and population, Israel's economy, specializing in agriculture, trade, tourism, and technology, was ranked 37th in the world in 2014 in nominal gross domestic product (GDP), with $306 billion in total economic output, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In nominal GDP per capita, Israel ranked 22nd highest in the world at $37,200 in 2015 (IMF), slightly above the European Union average. It ranks 28th out of 176 countries in the world in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Survey index. 


Establishment of the State of Israel

The founding of Israel fulfilled the long-held aims of the Zionist movement, which, beginning in the 19th century, sought to establish an autonomous Jewish community or state in the Jews' ancient homeland. After Britain took control of the area, then known as Palestine, during World War I, it issued the Balfour Declaration, which expressed support for a Jewish national homeland and encouraged Jewish immigration. Britain continued to administer the territory under a League of Nations mandate during the 1920s and 1930s during which time around 350,000 Jews escaping persecution in Europe emigrated to Palestine. The Holocaust — Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of six million European Jews during World War II — led to a renewed effort to establish a Jewish state, despite objections by Arab countries. As violence mounted in Palestine involving Jewish militias, Arab groups, and British forces, the UN General Assembly in November 1947 approved a plan to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem as an internationally administered zone. Jewish leaders agreed to the plan and declared the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. The United Kingdom, which had continued to administer Palestine under UN auspices, formally ended its mandate the next day.

Survivors of the Holocaust in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp

 Military, Economic, and Diplomatic Struggles

Arab countries and Palestinian Arab leaders rejected the UN partition plan and the establishment of Israel, setting the stage for ongoing conflict. There have been four short, intense wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973). These were ended through UN and US diplomacy that sought to preclude a wider confrontation during the Cold War. In the first war, five Arab states invaded Israel immediately after its declaration of statehood. Israeli forces, having already defeated Palestinian militias, repelled the Arab armies and secured a UN-brokered armistice in January 1949 that slightly expanded Israel’s borders and left Egypt in control of the Gaza Strip and Sinai while Transjordan (renamed Jordan) had control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the area the UN intended for a Palestinian state. Jordan annexed the territories it held in 1950. Most of the Palestinian population that fled Israel during the conflict ended up in permanent refugee camps across the region. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike before a planned Egyptian attack and seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Jordan and Syria carried out their own attacks, at which point Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights along Syria's border before a cease-fire was concluded. In 1973, Arab countries launched a surprise attack on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. While Israel initially suffered serious defeats, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) recovered to rebuff the attack, leading to another US-brokered cease-fire with little change to the borders and Israel still in control of occupied territories from the 1967 war.

In addition to open warfare, Arab governments organized a boycott on goods and services from the Jewish territories starting in 1945 and then from Israel itself after 1948. At first, the boycott was widely observed but he United States imposed sanctions on countries and companies participating in it, which reduced participation. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority withdrew from the Arab Boycott following their respective peace agreements with Israel (see below). Today, only Lebanon and Syria formally adhere to the boycott, but other countries still observe it. Arab states also made frequent attempts to isolate Israel diplomatically. The most notable case was in 1975, when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism to be "a form of racism" and delegitimized the basis for Israel's founding. The resolution was eventually rescinded by the General Assembly in 1991.

In addition to open warfare, Arab governments organized a boycott on goods and services from the Jewish territories . . . [and] made frequent attempts to isolate Israel diplomatically.

The Camp David and Oslo Peace Accords

In 1977, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, now determined to end the state of war with Israel, traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli leaders. His stunning peace initiative led to the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978, the first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. As part of the treaty, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, captured in the 1967 war, to Egypt. Momentum for a region-wide peace ended, however, when Sadat was assassinated in 1979 by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Around this time, Israel increasingly clashed with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas striking both civilian and military targets from southern Lebanon. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) invaded the country in 1982 in an attempt to root out guerrilla bases based in refugee camps and end ongoing terrorist attacks on Israel. The IDF maintained a reduced presence during Lebanon’s civil war. When Israel fully withdrew its forces in 2000, southern Lebanon was left largely in the control of Hezbollah, an Islamist, anti-Israel militia supported by much of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim community and backed militarily by Iran and Syria.

After four years of a failed Palestinian intifada (“uprising” in Arabic) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in 1991 the PLO agreed to peace negotiations with Israel under Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. These continued with his successor, Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, resulting in the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The Accords provided for PLO recognition of Israel and its renunciation of terrorism in exchange for phased Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and establishment of Palestinian autonomy under a PLO-led Palestinian Authority. The terms also envisioned the eventual creation of a Palestinian state through further negotiations. The Oslo Accords led King Hussein of Jordan to sign a bilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

Yitzhak Rabin

Since Oslo: Two Failed Negotiations

Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo agreement. The right-wing Likud party, which was increasingly skeptical of any peace process, won early elections. As a result of renewed terrorist violence by Palestinian militants, the Likud government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stalled implementation of the 1993 Peace Accords. But Likud and Netanyahu were defeated decisively in 1999 elections for the Knesset and the office of prime minister as the Israel electorate supported Labor and others supporting a resumption of peace negotiations. In 2000, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak agreed to a comprehensive settlement, including establishment of a Palestinian state, in talks brokered by the US. But in a sudden turnabout, the agreement was rejected by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. A second intifada broke out that year that was led by the Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas and joined by elements of the PLO. Over five years, terrorist attacks and suicide bombers killed nearly two thousand Israeli citizens. The Israeli military responded by reoccupying some areas previously yielded to the Palestinian Authority. The attacks continued but subsided after Israel carried out systematic anti-terror operations, imposed harsh new security measures and erected a controversial security barrier along the border.

After Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, considered a moderate, was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, raising renewed hopes for peace negotiations. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the Likud Party unilaterally withdrew Israeli forces and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Disagreements within Likud over the policy led Sharon to create a new party, Kadima, which won the 2005 election. After Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, his successor Ehud Olmert undertook secret talks with Abbas in 2007-08 that Olmert later claimed also were near final settlement. But before they could be concluded, Olmert was forced to resign in 2008 due to corruption charges.

The Peace Process Stalls

With the holding of new elections in 2009, peace negotiations again stalled over preconditions set by incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Among other issues, Israel demanded recognition of Israel “as a Jewish state”; the Palestinian Authority demanded a halt to all Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Through an initiative of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli–Palestinian talks resumed in August 2013 without either side meeting the other’s preconditions, but with several concessions undertaken on both sides (Israel agreed to a series of releases of Palestinians in Israeli jails, including many convicted of terrorist attacks, while the Palestinian Authority agreed not to pursue further statehood recognition in international for a). The aim was to reach a comprehensive framework for final status negotiations in mid-2014, but talks again subsequently broke down (see Current Issues below).

If the negotiations resume, there remain significant disagreements over Palestinian demands for “a right to return” to displaced property in Israel, security commitments, the final status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Israeli settlements in West Bank territory, among other issues. The settlements are a significant issue for any peace agreement. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel assumed administration of East Jerusalem and, without annexation, made Jerusalem its capital. The government also approved settlements by Israeli citizens of border areas for security reasons to bolster Israel's defenses in the Jordan rift valley. After 1977, Likud-led governments began placing settlements adjacent to Palestinian population centers in areas beyond the 1967 borders it considers to be part of biblical Israel. Likud-led governments generally expanded settlements to new areas while Labor and centrist party-led governments restricted them to existing settlements. Today, it would be difficult for Israel to dismantle all settlements, especially the suburb-like areas around Jerusalem. Still, in opinion polls, a majority of Israelis consistently support a future two-state peace agreement that would involve a significant withdrawal of settlements from occupied territories in exchange for a secure peace. This was done in the Sinai in compliance with the Camp David Accords and unilaterally in the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Security Threats Continued

Israel has continued to face ongoing military and terrorist threats in the last decade. In response to numerous missile and guerilla attacks by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah near the border, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a major aerial bombardment of Hezbollah positions across Lebanon. When the air campaign was suspended due to high civilian casualties, the subsequent Israeli ground incursion of the southern border area was slowed by Hezbollah forces, which also fired thousands of rockets directly at Israeli population centers. An armistice negotiated in August 2006 resulted in the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the border, replaced by UN peacekeeping forces and Lebanese government troops. Hezbollah remained largely in control of southern Lebanon.

In response to increased rocket attacks on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s takeover of the territory in 2007, the IDF carried out attacks on suspected terrorist sites in urban areas in Gaza, but, as in Lebanon, these resulted in numerous civilian casualties. A second major conflict with Hamas erupted in the summer of 2014. Over two months, Hamas launched more than 10,000 rockets at Israeli civilian centers. The IDF carried out major air and ground operations against Hamas in Gaza to end the attacks, in the process uncovering hundreds of miles of tunnels reaching from Gaza into Israeli territory to carry out terror attacks. Since Hamas hid its missile launching areas within civilian centers, the IDF’s operation resulted in heavy civilian casualties and damage to buildings, housing, and infrastructure. A cease fire was agreed to in September that remains in effect. Generally, other Arab neighbors remain in formal states of hostility or war with Israel and continue to refuse to recognize its existence. Extremist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and parts of the PLO are pledged to destroy the state of Israel. In the last decade, Iran’s leaders have repeatedly stated that Israel should not exist and provide military backing to all extremist groups committed to Israel’s destruction.

Throughout numerous wars, acts of terrorism, political crises, and many internal and social conflicts, Israel has remained a vibrant and stable multi-party democracy — the only such example thus far in the Middle East.

Multiparty System

Throughout numerous wars, acts of terrorism, political crises, and many internal and social conflicts, Israel has remained a vibrant and stable multi-party democracy — the only such example thus far in the Middle East. Freedom of association, assembly, speech, and religion are largely respected. Israel’s media is independent and representing diverse political views (see Israel’s Country Report in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press: 2016). Internet access is unhindered and uncensored. The rule of law functions to limit the abuse of state power, as well as to temper state policies, including towards citizens in occupied territories. The judiciary is an independent branch of government. The Supreme Court has repeatedly acted to nullify laws and government actions it judges to be contrary to constitutional principles, including those deemed discriminatory to Arab Israeli citizens and Palestinians.

Israel has a parliamentary system with a 120-seat unicameral legislature, which in Hebrew is called the Knesset. The president, elected by the Knesset for a seven-year term, has limited powers as a largely ceremonial head-of-state, however he or she may act as a final check on power. Prime ministers were directly elected for a brief period between 1996 and 2001, but otherwise the president has had the authority to nominate a prime minister to form a government. This is usually but not always the head of the leading party in elections and depends on the possibilities of the leading party to form a functioning coalition government. Executive power is exercised by the prime minister and the cabinet, who must be collectively approved by a vote of confidence of the Knesset. The Knesset may vote singularly to remove a cabinet member or in a no-confidence motion to bring down the government.

Members of the Knesset are elected to four-year terms, but the prime minister may call new elections before the scheduled end of term. In elections, voters choose among national party lists according to a strict proportional representation system. Until 1982, the threshold for a party entering parliament was just 1 percent. In 2006, the threshold had risen to 2 percent and in 2014, it was raised to 3.25 percent. While Israel’s politics has been dominated by two main ideological parties since independence (Labor on the left  and Likud on the right), many other major and smaller parties, including religious, personality-based, and Arab-Israeli minority parties, have been a constant presence in Israeli politics. From 1951 to 2015, elections resulted in at least ten and as many as fifteen parties being represented in the Knesset. Twelve parties were represented in the previous three parliaments using the 2 percent threshold adopted in 2006. With the higher 3.25 threshold in the 2015 elections, ten parties and coalitions (representing a total of 13 parties) qualified for seats. No government has formed without forming a coalition.

Israeli Elections, Parties, and Coalitions

From 1948 until 1977, Israel was governed by a succession of coalition governments led by the social democratic Labor Party and its antecedents. After 1977, when the right-wing Likud party won elections, there was an alternation of Likud-led, Labor-led, and Likud-Labor unity governments. In 1996, direct elections for prime minister were introduced. The first direct election was won by Benjamin Netanyahu. The second, in 1999, was won by Labor leader Ehud Barak. The third, in 2001, was won by a new Likud leader, Ariel Sharon. A former general, he promised a hardline security policy against the second intifada (see above) and won 62 percent of the vote, one of the strongest electoral performances in Israel’s history. But Likud still lacked a majority in parliament and Sharon formed a unity government with Labor and a number of smaller parties. Direct elections for prime minister were abandoned after 2001.

A new dynamic began after Likud won a plurality in the 2003 elections. At first, Sharon formed a coalition with four right-wing secular and religious parties, but he faced serious challenges to his leadership within Likud over a new policy he proposed — called “security through disengagement” — namely to dismantle settlements and withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and some parts of the West Bank. Sharon, still quite popular, left Likud in 2005 to create a new centrist party, Kadima (Forward), in order to carry out his new policies. Leading members of both Likud and Labor defected to join. Soon thereafter, however, Sharon was felled by a debilitating stroke. Under his successor, Ehud Olmert, the party still won an unprecedented first-time victory in March 2006, with a plurality of 22 percent. Labor came in second with 15 percent and Likud (again led by Sharon’s rival, former Prime Minister Netanyahu), had its worst performance in more than 30 years. Kadima formed a center-left coalition with Labor and smaller parties, the only time in Israeli politics a party other than Labor or Likud led a government.

In the fall of 2008, Prime Minister, Olmert was forced to resign due to corruption charges involving property deals he oversaw as Mayor of Jerusalem. (He was the first Israeli prime minister to stand trial or be convicted of criminal charges, although Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the most serious bribery conviction in December 2015 on procedural grounds. He served 18 months in prison on lesser charges.) Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who had led the Olmert-Abbas negotiations (see above), became head of a caretaker government. She succeeded in gaining a second victory for Kadima over Likud in early elections, but quite narrowly, 28 to 27 seats (with each getting 22 percent of the vote). This time, however, Labor had its worst showing in its history, declining to fourth place with 10 percent. A new ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, advocating the removal of a large part of the Arab population from Israel through territorial exchanges with the West Bank, surged to come in third with 15 seats. In this situation, Kadima failed to put together a majority coalition and Likud was asked to form a government.

The Role of Smaller Parties

Throughout  Israel's history, smaller parties have had a large role in creating its governments and tend to complicate the politics and policies of coalitions. 

Throughout Israel's history, smaller parties have had a large role in creating its governments and tend to complicate the politics and policies of coalitions. The goals and ideologies of these smaller parties usually require meeting specific special interests or policies. The most significant smaller parties in the past have been two Orthodox religious parties, which regularly get 12-13 percent of the vote and 15-16 seats. These have received various concessions for leading what is termed the “religious establishment” in exchange for their support in left- or right-led coalition governments. More recently, nationalist parties favoring the expansion of settlements in occupied territories (and rejecting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) have become linchpins to right coalition governments. Since 2005, personality-based and splinter parties have created a new centrist bloc that seeks an end to concessions to religious and nationalist parties and support a two-state solution, but these have strong disagreements with the Labor Party on economic issues. A small left-wing peace party, Meretz, gets around 4 to 5 percent, and allies itself with the Labor Party on most issues.

Three Arab-Israeli parties (United Arab List, Hadash, and Balad) have a strong representation in the 120-seat parliament, regularly netting 10-12 seats. These parties have never been included in a governing coalition due to their ideological opposition to Zionism and their general public sympathy with Israel's adversaries. Many Israeli Arab leaders argue that the use of Jewish symbols in the country's flag and national anthem and immigration laws favoring repatriation of Jews are incompatible with democracy. Most Jewish Israeli leaders and some Arab Israeli leaders maintain that full civic equality for Arabs can be attained within the framework of a Jewish nation state. Attempts by some politicians to ban Arab Israeli parties from participating in elections on the grounds that they reject the "Jewish and democratic character of the state" have been repeatedly rebuffed by the government's legal adviser and by the Supreme Court. Recently, the Court also acted to reinstate a leader of one of the parties after she had been stripped of her Knesset seat due to her controversial statements interpreted to support terrorist actions against Israel.

Recent Elections and Challenges

The results of the 2009 elections brought new challenges to forming governments in Israel’s multi-party system. When Kadima failed to put together a majority coalition, Likud’s Netanyahu pieced together a partnership that included Labor and the religious right wing parties. While the unity coalition lasted four years, it ended up dividing the Labor Party.

In the January 2013 elections, Likud moved further right by merging with Yisrael Beiteinu, but the new Likud got just 23 percent — much less than the two parties running separately received in 2009. The Labor Party again had disappointing results, coming in third at 11 percent behind a new centrist party called Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), led by a popular media personality who was advocating a “middle class” platform and secular policies against the religious bloc. It gained 15 percent of the vote in its first outing, while Kadima fell to 2 percent (an unprecedented drop from its previous election win). Hatnuah, a new splinter party led by former Prime Minister Tzipi Livni and former Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz, won 5 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the pro-settlement Jewish Home and the two establishment religious parties won a much larger total than previously, netting 30 seats in all, or one-fourth of the vote. Netanyahu again formed an unlikely coalition by joining together with the two new centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah, and the far-right Jewish Home. By putting the religious parties in opposition, the government succeeded in eliminating the unpopular exemption for military service for religious reasons and certain religious subsidies. But, with divergent views on the budget and the peace process, the coalition faltered after the collapse of peace negotiations in 2014 and the war in Gaza.

Seeking a mandate to carry out a stronger security and foreign policy, Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed through the higher 3.25 percent threshold and called early elections for March 2015. Labor and Hatnuah joined together to form a new coalition, Zionist Union, led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, the son of one of Israel’s founding fathers. Campaigning on a center-left and secular platform, the Zionist Union appeared set to match or surpass Likud. Netanyahu, however, appealed to his right constituency with strong security planks and also last-minute chauvinist warnings about an increased Arab Israeli vote (he later distanced himself from his election statements due to domestic and international pressure). Likud, running without Yisrael Beiteinu, equaled its 2009 and 2013 result (23 percent) and garnered a plurality of 30 seats. The Zionist Union received 18.5 percent and 24 seats, less than hoped, while a Joint List coalition of the three Arab-Israeli parties, came in third, at 10.5 percent and 13 seats. Yesh Atid and a new centrist party, Kulanu, led by a popular former Likud minister, won 11 and 10 seats respectively (each receiving about 8 percent of the vote). Yisrael Beitanu dropped to 5 percent, less than the settler party Jewish Home at 7 percent. The two religious parties received 13 seats with 11 percent of the vote. The left-wing Meretz gained 5 seats with nearly 4 percent of the vote.

Current Issues

The results of the 2015 elections led to prolonged negotiations to form a coalition government. In the end, Netanyahu failed to convince the Zionist Union to join a unity government. He was elected Prime Minister as head of a slim majority coalition made up of Likud, the splinter Likud party Kulanu, the nationalist party Jewish Home, and the two Orthodox parties. This has meant the restoration of some concessions for a generally unpopular Orthodox religious establishment and the renewed expansion of settlements in the West Bank, making less likely a resumption of the peace process.

Overall, Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained Likud’s electoral strength in the last three elections based on his advocacy for stronger security policies, tougher responses to terror attacks, and his strong stance against the recent nuclear accord with Iran. Public support for harder-line security policies increased due to recent conflicts in the Gaza and West Bank (see above). There is also a high level of public concern regarding the danger of spillover from the Syrian war and the continued threats of Iranian leaders to Israel’s existence. At the same time, Israeli public opinion polls continue to register strong majorities for more secular policies in domestic affairs (such as ending religious preferences in marriage and easing restrictions on activities on the Sabbath) as well as for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would involve a withdrawal of settlements from occupied territories. But a growing concordance of Likud with nationalist and religious parties has made it more difficult to forge a center-left government that would reflect majority opinion on these two issues. Likud and its centrist partner Kulanu are aware of the disconnection between the majority governing coalition and majority public sentiment on these issues. For example, a majority in the cabinet overrode the religious parties’ objections and recently confirmed a decision to allow women to pray at a designated area of the Western Wall, a holy place of worship for Jews in Jerusalem. The decision followed a multi-year campaign of women who had defied the previous ban on women praying at the Wall. The campaign was supported also by many diaspora organizations that have become increasingly vocal in their positions on Israeli domestic issues.

The current government’s security policies and expansion of settlements have also increased tensions with Palestinians. In the wake of the elections, the security situation worsened. Beginning in the summer of 2015 and accelerating in October, there was a wave of violence carried out by young Palestinians, mostly from East Jerusalem and West Bank but also from within Israel. Individual attacks with knives, guns, and explosives have killed and maimed dozens of Israeli citizens, security personnel, and tourists in a campaign reminiscent of the first two intifiadahs. The attackers, who refuse surrender, are usually killed. The violence began in response to an arson attack by extremist Jewish settlers on a Palestinian home that killed a toddler and also rumors that Israel planned to change rules regarding worship at the Al Aksa Mosque, also known as the Noble Sanctuary. Under a joint administration with Jordan, the rules allow Jews to visit the mosque, also considered the site of the First and Second Temples, but not to pray. The rumors intensified as some Israeli politicians made public visits to the site and advocated changes in the rules. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu has banned such visits and came to an agreement with King Abdullah of Jordan on stronger monitoring of the site. He also ordered strict controls on movements of Palestinians in East Jerusalem in response to the violence.

In January 2016, Israeli courts convicted and sentenced the perpetrators of the arson attack in July. A lighter sentence for one of the perpetrators who was found not to have taken direct part in the murder was met with protest by the victim’s Palestinian family, who appealed the sentence to the Supreme Court. The arson attack, as well as other cases of attacks by settlers on Palestinians, has unsettled the Israeli public and Israeli politics. Israel’s police and security forces have intensified investigations into what they believe is a new extremist network in settlement areas on the West Bank aimed at organizing vigilante attacks on Palestinians. A number of arrests have been made of Jewish settlers responsible for the attacks and for organizing the network.

The forging of the Joint List from the three Arab-Israeli parties was a new development in Israeli politics and gave Palestinian politicians a stronger presence in the Knesset. The unwritten consensus to exclude these parties from government tended to depress Arab Israeli participation in previous national elections. In turn, these parties tended to focus their concerns on issues of Palestinian nationalism rather than domestic representation of minority interests. Arab Israeli voters have consistently turned out in higher numbers in municipal elections where their votes had more weight and direct impact. In the 2015 national elections, the Joint List’s leaders appealed for votes based on an increased focus on issues of discrimination (for example in the budget and education) and the role of Arab Israeli citizens in Israeli society. The higher Arab-Israeli voter turnout brought the Joint List an unprecedented representation in the Knesset. Since the elections, however, the Knesset has been roiled by several incidents involving Joint List members, especially sympathy visits of three leaders to the homes of Palestinian families on the West Bank whose sons were killed by Israeli police in attacks on Israeli citizens and security officers. The three leaders were censured and their voting privileges in parliamentary committees temporarily suspended. At the same time, the government-approved budget has greatly increased funding for development and public spending in Arab-Israeli communities.

As seen in both past and recent elections, Israel's parliamentary system allows the full political representation of the country’s ideologically, ethnically, and religiously diverse society. But recent elections have also resulted in a splintered multi-party system with a complex array of interests and ideologies that makes it difficult to forge consensus policies. Israel continues to face enormous challenges to its security, identity, and even democratic character. Yet, despite these challenges and the continuous threats to its existence since its founding, Israel has achieved remarkable political stability and is the region’s only democracy with a multi-party system. Its independent judiciary and other institutions, such as a free media and active civil society, contribute to the survival and strength of Israeli democracy.

The Multiparty System: History


Ancient Democracy

Political groups in ancient Greek democracy and in the Roman Republic were typically headed by leaders whose wealth, oratorical skills, or achievements could sway the citizenry. The factions often formed around two main societal interests — the wealthy aristocracy and the common property holders, traders, and artisans. These groups held different views of democracy in much the same way political parties do today. The most famous Athenian politician, Pericles, won enduring majorities of the citizens' assembly in part through his success at extending political participation to the “lower classes” of small property holders and traders, and in part through his adept management of Athens's foreign policy.  Unlike Athens, Rome was governed through layers of representative institutions and officials according to class and wealth. The Senate represented the elite landowning class, known as patricians, while the Council of the Plebeians represented the rest of the citizenry, including smaller landowners, merchants, and farmers. In this setting, there were no political parties as such but rather supporters or opponents of individual politicians based on personal interests or on their views regarding the balance of Senatorial privilege and plebeian power and rights.

History of British Political Parties first modern 

political parties were  

founded in Great

Britain and had their

roots in the Exlusion

Crisis of 1679-81.


known as Tories  

favored the defense of  

hereditary succession.

The first modern political parties were founded in Great Britain and had their roots in the Exclusion Crisis of 1679–81. Traditionalists known as Tories favored the defense of hereditary succession within the House of Stuart. Another faction, the Whigs, tried to pass an Exclusion Bill to prevent James, the brother of the Stuart King Charles II, from succession to the monarchy due to his profession of Roman Catholicism. If crowned, the Whigs believed James would threaten England's national church and return the influence of the Vatican to control the British state. Although James II assumed the throne on his brother’s death in 1685, he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in favor of his daughter, Mary, and her Dutch Protestant husband, William of Orange, who led a quick military campaign against James’s loyalists. In the second quarter of the 19th century, the Whigs, who had generally represented the upper middle class, merged with newly enfranchised middle-class groups to form the Liberal Party. The Liberals supported free trade, the eradication of slavery, and political reform, including expanding the franchise, or voting rights, to non-property owners. The more aristocratic Tories, or Conservatives, protected the interests of large (or titled) landowners and (evolving from their original tenet) defended the official Church of England. Generally, the Tories opposed expansions of the franchise.

As the Liberal Party dwindled in the early 20th century, the Conservatives increasingly replaced Liberals as champions of business interests. The Labour Party, which formed in the early 1900s, drew its strength from the trade union movement, which had gained strength towards the end of the 19th century. The Labour Party was the country's first explicitly working-class party and advocated a gradual transition to socialism. Over time, it came to dominate the “left” side of the political spectrum, while the Conservatives represented the “right” (see Essential Principles). In the 1980s, the greatly weakened Liberals merged with a centrist Social Democrats Party, a faction that had broken from the Labour Party, to form the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats won 23 percent of the vote in 2010 to become a significant third party in Parliament and coalition partner in government with the Conservative Party. In the 2015 elections, however, they lost support as the Conservatives won a full majority of the 650 seats in parliament. Regional legislatures were established in Wales and Scotland in 1997 and nationalist parties have since arisen in each, adding to the country's political diversity. Indeed, the Scottish National Party succeeded in putting independence of Scotland to a referendum. Although the referendum lost in September 2014, the SNP won all of Scotland’s districts from the Labour Party in the UK’s 2015 general elections to become parliament’s third largest party, with 56 seats.

History of Parties in the United States

In the United States, the first parties were the Federalist Party and the Democratic Republican Party. The Federalists favored a strong national government and commercial interests; the Democratic Republicans were anti-Federalists, supporting state autonomy and farming interests (including the protection of slavery). The Federalists held the presidency under George Washington and his successor, John Adams, but in 1800 Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams, ushering in 40 years of Democratic Republican dominance. The name was changed to the Democratic Party in 1828 under Andrew Jackson and the renamed party's first national convention was held in 1832. Succeeding the defunct Federalists, a Whig Party, supporting strong federal involvement in the economy, formed in 1834 in opposition to Jackson's Democrats. But the Whigs foundered by the early 1850s over the issue of slavery and how strongly to oppose it. The Republican Party emerged in 1854 as the antislavery party. Its candidate for president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln, defeated the Democrats’ Stephen Douglas. Since then, the Republicans and Democrats have been the two main parties vying for power. Short-lived third parties and independents have occasionally affected national and local policies (most notably the Progressive Party and the Socialists in the early 1900s).

Mostly, however, America’s changing politics have existed within a two-party system. The Republicans were long associated with the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery and the Democrats were linked to the protection of states’ rights (which after Reconstruction meant protecting Jim Crow segregation). However, the two parties' ideologies overlapped and shifted considerably over time, in part because they had to remain broad and complex enough to garner support across the country. After Theodore Roosevelt left the party to run as the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912, the Republican Party championed more business interests and free markets, while Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt brought about the New Deal government programs during the 1930s after the Great Depression. As Democratic presidents pressed forward with major civil rights reforms amid other societal changes in the 1960s, the Republicans also began to adopt conservative stances on issues of race and traditional values. The Democratic Party, which defended the legacy of the New Deal, came to represent the interests of labor unions and took more liberal or progressive positions on civil rights and social questions. In foreign policy, the parties have at times joined together on major issues (such as opposing the Soviet Union). At others, they have traded roles as philosophical internationalists and isolationists or opted to support or critique a president's handling of specific foreign crises on a case by case basis.

European Political Parties

As in Great Britain, political parties in continental Europe can be roughly grouped into conservatives, liberals, and social democrats. At the end of the 19th century, Christian Democratic parties also emerged, competing with socialist groups through a combination of progressive socioeconomic ideas and a defense of traditional Christian moral values. Socialist movements developed into more moderate social democratic or labor parties and were among the first to draw true mass support from grassroots party organizations and trade unions. Conservative and liberal parties often merged, while some Christian Democratic parties took on a strong pro-business orientation. Many other groups competed within parliamentary systems, including rural, regional, and ethnic parties. Social Christian parties split from Christian Democrats as the latter became more pro-business. Starting in the 1970s, Green parties were formed in many countries, although they achieved little electoral success outside Northern Europe. In Germany, the Greens participated in a coalition government with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005.

Starting in the 1920s, fascist movements, espousing a form of extreme, militaristic nationalism, gained power in Germany, Italy, and Japan. They were outlawed after these countries, united in the Axis alliance, were defeated in World War II by the US and Allied powers. While other countries, like Spain, adopted fascism as a model, the ideology largely lost appeal after 1945.

Starting in the mid-19th century, communist movements (in contrast to more moderate left groups such as social democrats), advocated revolutionary violence to carry out complete economic and social transformation. In Russia, a Communist faction known as the Bolsheviks seized power by force in November 1917 and established one of the most brutal dictatorships in history, reconstituting the Russian empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR or Soviet Union). It also sought to organize new or existing Communist parties as its loyal agents in other countries. Communist parties in the Soviet bloc were discredited following the collapse of Communist rule in 1989–91, but some successfully transformed themselves into social democratic parties. In other parts of the world, small Communist parties continue to operate within democratic states. Communist Parties also still control a number of dictatorships modeled originally on the Soviet Union (China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba).

In Europe, new chauvinist and nationalist parties arose in the 1980s and 1990s arguing for restrictions on immigration and curtailment of civil rights. They have had some success. For example, France’s National Front Party leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, reached the runoff of the 2002 presidential election, and today the party, led by Le Pen’s daughter, polls higher than the two traditional major parties in France (see Country Study). Joerg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party joined a coalition government in 2000 and the Pim Fortuyn List joined a coalition as the second leading party in the Netherlands after the 2002 elections. in Great Britain,

political parties in

continental Europe can

be roughly grouped into

conservatives, liberals,

and social democrats.

Political Parties Around the World 

In other parts of the world where democracy has emerged, political parties have developed in distinct ways according to their countries’ political history, but often have similar characteristics as those in the US and Europe. Many evolved from anticolonial independence movements or formed to represent new or existing religious, ethnic, and interest groups. In India, for example, the two major parties are the secular, left-leaning Indian National Congress, which was originally established in the 19th century to advocate reform and independence from British rule, and the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party, founded in the 20th century largely to support Hindu nationalism but since its founding also espousing liberal economics. In South Africa, the African National Congress has transformed itself from the leading anti-apartheid organization into the dominant party in the legislature, governing in coalition with Communist and trade union allies. Many parties in the countries of the former Soviet bloc have their roots either in former Communist parties or the opposition groups that arose to end Communist rule.

Although democracy is limited in most of the Middle East, parties have emerged to advocate nationalist, conservative monarchist, or Islamist ideologies, or to represent ethnic or religious minorities. The Baath socialist parties in Syria and Iraq allied with the Soviet Union, but ended up being instruments for authoritarian leaders. In Tunisia, where free elections were held following the Arab Spring movement that overthrew an authoritarian government, a moderate Islamist party emerged as the leading party, but a major secular party won a genuine multi-party contest in 2014 elections. other parts of the world where democracy has emerged, political parties have developed in distinct ways, but having similar characteristics as those in the US and Europe.

As shown throughout the world, the existence of multiple political parties that can compete in fair elections is essential to democracy. The type, size, and viewpoint of the parties may differ markedly. They generally fall along a traditional political spectrum, with the “Right” today representing a conservative or capitalist orientation and the “Left” representing egalitarian principles that support the involvement of the state for solutions to policy problems. But political parties often stand for complex interests or non-ideological constituencies that defy such simple categorization. While parties are a vital part of democracy, not all parties are democratic. Within democracies, non-democratic parties and candidates emerge to champion anti-democratic principles and in some cases use the electoral process to gain power — phenomena that informed citizens must be on guard against. Within authoritarian states or other forms of dictatorship, ruling parties serve merely as instruments of control. Genuine opposition parties offering a political alternative to society and advocating change by peaceful means are usually suppressed in such countries.

The Multiparty System: Essential Principles

Essential Principles 

"A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are
both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

Political parties have often been portrayed in the popular media as corrupt or incompetent and are frequently viewed as the cause of government gridlock or the failure of democratically elected governments to deal with urgent issues. Political parties may become vehicles for powerful economic interests seeking to dominate the political process for their own private interests or serve as the basis for anti-democratic ideologies, such as fascism or communism, that seek political control over the society. Such negative manifestations of political parties, however, do not negate their essential importance as representative institutions in a democracy, nor the positive impact they may have within them. Political parties are the indispensable vehicles for citizens to engage in the democratic process — no modern democracy has existed without them.

More than two centuries of political history have shown that no democracy can survive without a multiparty system in which the people are free to organize themselves into rival political organizations. 

In general, political parties are formed to reflect the spectrum of the people's views, interests, and needs, from their highest ideals to their basest instincts. As the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill suggests in the quote above, political parties in electoral democracies generally act together to create a balance or compromise between opposing and differing views. Just as importantly, political parties have been the means for inspiring and mobilizing voters to support fundamental political change when it is needed. Even in today’s age of dispersed social communications, idealistic citizens seeking change turn to political parties to carry it out.

More than two centuries of political history have shown that no democracy can survive without a multiparty system in which the people are free to organize themselves into rival political organizations or rival factions within political organizations. Absent the organization of free and independent political parties, power is generally exploited by narrow cliques that pursue their own interests or it is monopolized by a single party that suppresses dissent and dispenses patronage to supporters. 

Democracy Is Representative

The founders of the United States, both Federalists seeking a strong national government and Anti-Federalists opposing them, had a strong aversion to democracy. To them, democracy was direct popular rule and often cited the Greek political philosopher Aristotle, who defined democracy as "rule by the passionate, ignorant, demagogue-dominated ‘voice of the people' . . . [that is] sure to produce first injustice, then anarchy, and finally tyranny." What we know today as democracy is representative government. It was this form of self-governance that the founders believed would provide the best protection of liberty against tyranny and also the best means for reflecting the varied opinions and will of the people. In their view, only representative government, with its capacity for debate and deliberation, permitted the balancing of individual interests in a large political community. 

The Necessity of Political Parties  

Yet, many of the founders were hostile to the idea of political parties. James Madison's Federalist Papers essay No. 10 famously argues that the organization of "factions" (meaning parties) would pose a serious danger to the new union. But America’s own early elections, in which the founders divided among Federalists and anti-Federalists, showed how necessary — and natural — political parties were as a democratic instrument for representative government (see History). They are the means by which citizens identify themselves politically. They organize citizens around ideological and policy platforms, establish the basis for voters to choose their representatives, and collectively represent the broad and diverse interests of the people. It is only in the framework of a pluralist party system that self-governance as the founders conceived it could be carried out.

Types of Electoral Systems & Their Influence on Parties

The multiparty system has many variants, representing the history of the struggle for democracy in different countries (see also History in Free Elections). Political parties in democratic countries are allowed generally to develop on their own, without specific constitutional provisions or mandates defining their number or nature. But partisan patterns are strongly influenced by a country's electoral framework. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, legislative elections are mostly conducted under a "first past the post" system. The candidate with the most votes — whether a majority or a simple plurality — wins the electoral contest. Legislative contests are held in geographically defined, single-member districts. This system favors the development of a small number of large parties since minor parties have difficulty contesting multiple districts. 

Under proportional representation (PR) systems, used in most other countries, legislative seats are allocated according to a party's percentage of the vote nationally, regionally, or locally (depending on the election). This means that smaller parties can gain representation without actually defeating larger parties. Because many parties take seats in the legislature, coalitions of two or more parties are often needed to obtain a majority of members in parliament to vote in favor of forming a government, although sometimes one party may dominate to get a majority on its own. There are many forms of proportional representation or PR. Some electoral systems divide the vote into regional multi-seat districts, or require parties to win a minimum percentage to gain representation, or use different formulas (some quite complicated) to convert vote percentages into seats. PR systems generally have thresholds for the percentage of votes needed for political parties to gain seats in parliament. These range from less than 1 percent in the Netherlands to 10 percent in Turkey. Obviously, more parties gain representation with lower threshold requirements.

Aside from the respective electoral frameworks that help to create them, there is no clear dividing line between two-party dominant systems like that of the United States and United Kingdom and multi-party systems. Even where two large parties dominate they must represent broad interests and sometimes have a number of shifting factions within them. Also, even in “first past the post” systems, third and fourth parties arise as alternative outlets, while in multi-party systems with proportional representation, two larger, broad-based parties routinely serve as the core or dominant parties of rival coalitions. 

Platforms and Ideologies

Major political parties generally represent different ideologies, namely sets of ideas about the role of government and the organization of society. In Europe, parties can be grouped under a few general labels according to their places on the political and ideological spectrum. The terms “right” and “left” were originally used to identify the two main sides of the political spectrum in the French Revolution: those wanting to keep a constitutional monarchy were seated on the right of the assembly hall and those favoring a citizens’ republic on the left. “Right” now encompasses several political groupings supporting the maintenance of the existing order of things: these include Conservatives, who defend political, economic, and social traditions and practices; Christian Democrats, who support traditional religious values and social welfare within a capitalist system; and Liberals, who are backers of free market economic principles but base their ideology on secular freedoms and not religious morals. “Left” is used to categorize several types of parties: Social Democrats and Socialists, who advocate egalitarianism and a strong state role in the economy, including ownership of property; Greens, who give priority to protecting and preserving the natural environment; and other groupings that are skeptical of business or oppose traditional social institutions or values. International organizations for each of these ideological groupings allow similar parties from different countries to exchange strategies and advice or be represented in regional or cross-regional bodies (see also History and Resources). 

There are ideological movements that reject the central tenets of multiparty electoral democracy but exploit the system's freedoms and processes to seek power when there is opportunity to do so. These include fascism; Soviet and Chinese communism and their variants; and some forms of religious fundamentalism and ethnic or racial nationalism. Generally, parties with such ideologies use a utopian vision for the future to justify the imposition of a dictatorship either by violent revolution or through a coup backed by military, police, or paramilitary organizations. Other parties may sometimes be allowed to exist under their rule, but they are generally surrogates or puppet parties. Real political power is exercised solely by the governing ideological party. In these single-party systems, the ruling party is also a source of patronage, the main vehicle for personal advancement in politics and society, and a mechanism for strictly enforcing conformity to the dominant ideology. Underground parties or movements organize against such regimes, but at the risk of severe repression. Communist parties have also regularly participated in elections in democratic countries but generally have lacked large enough support to create or participate in a government. Often, these arose in support of (or as agents of) the Soviet Union, but several evolved to accept the basic democratic structure of politics in their country. Communist parties declined significantly following the collapse of communist systems in 1989–91, although in Eastern Europe “post-communist parties” were reformed and often continued to hold power.


The multiparty system is often criticized for the emergence of partisan conflicts and political standoffs in decision making, resulting in political gridlock. While partisan conflict and gridlock are indeed problems — it has been a recent characteristic in American democracy — the multiparty system is the fundamental and necessary bulwark of a democracy and in US history has been the means for resolving its most fundamental conflicts and crises. No other model has emerged to replace the party system. Generally, parties bring people with common interests together and provide a forum for the discussion of key issues and public policies. By joining and voting for a political party, people have the opportunity to express their support for its policy platform rather than simply endorse an individual personality. They can also peacefully express opposition to the policies of a rival party or use their vote to reject the “system” as it is currently functioning. Elections are the opportunity to give a popular mandate to leaders to implement their party’s program and hold them accountable if they stray from the voters’ wishes or if their initiatives fail in practice. The regular rotation of power among parties prevents the entrenchment of power and tends to curb corruption and cronyism.

Ultimately, though, the multi-party system — and democracy — relies on the respect of opposition parties for the will of the people as expressed in elections. Generally, opposition parties that obstruct the legislative or governing initiatives of majority parties tend to lose support. At the same time, democracy also relies on the understanding of ruling parties that they may soon be in the opposition. This usually keeps ruling parties from abusing the rights of their opponents so that their own rights will be protected in the event they are no longer in power (see also Majority Rule, Minority Rights). 

Accountability and Transparency: Study Questions

 Suggested Study Questions and Activities

Teachers: The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary.

Essential Principles


Why are transparency laws and anticorruption laws necessary? Could democracy survive today without anticorruption laws? When were such laws established? Before they were established, what level of corruption existed in democratic countries? Without such laws, what other hindrances existed to limit corruption?


Accountability and transparency involve nearly all aspects of democratic governance. List the characteristics of accountability and transparency mentioned in the essential principles and history sections and in the country studies. Discuss the features that are essential and those that are less important for the well-being of democracy.

Discuss the characteristics of accountability and transparency in light of the 2016 presidential election campaign. What issues have been raised regarding American elections since the Citizens United decision?

Identify instances in the History section where corruption has existed in an electoral democracy. Find other instances using additional sources. What were the consequences of the corruption? What led to the uncovering of the corruption and what happened to end it? What aspects of democracy were necessary to challenge public corruption?



What makes Botswana a democracy? Although only one party has won all elections since independence, what makes it different from dictatorial countries ruled by a single party? Compared to neighboring South Africa, how does Botswana score on the different measures of democratic accountability in Freedom House’s most recent Survey of Freedom Country Report? 


Examine the most recent annual survey by Freedom House and that of Transparency International (TI). Why is Botswana ranked Free by Freedom House and considered the least corrupt country in Africa byTI? Defend your opinion using other resources (see Resources). Are there factors you would consider that are perhaps not included in the Transparency International and Freedom House reports? What are current issues relate to accountability and transparency as described in the Essential Priniciples section? Answer the question: are democratic practices improving or worsening in Botsawana?



What role has corruption played in the Philippines since independence? How did it affect the adoption of dictatorship and democracy at different periods of its post-independence history? What was the most important factor in opposing government corruption?


The Philippines is an electoral democracy that Freedom House downgraded in rank to “partly free” in 2006. Identify the reasons for the different ranking by Freedom House. What role did corruption and lack of accountability and transparency play in the downgrade. Given recent improvements in its score, why does Freedom House still rank the country only “partly free” in its 2015 survey? Discuss the concrete issues that influenced Freedom House's ranking of the Philippines.



For the entire post-Soviet period, Kazakhstan has been dominated by one man, Nursultan Nazarbayev. How has Nazarbayev consolidated his power? What instruments of power has he used?


From the Country Study and other sources (Freedom House, Eurasianet), identify instances in the last decade where civil society has challenged the authoritarian control of President Nazarbayev. Is there opposition to Nazarbayev’s rule? Given the total control over the government, what issues would you use to organize opposition?

Accountability and Transparency: Resources


Essential Principles

Council of Europe, Anti-Corruption Standards.

Diamond, Larry. "Building a System of Comprehensive Accountability to Control Corruption." 2003.

Dilani, Diane. League of Women Voters.
     “The Legal Framework of Transparency and Accountability within the Context of Privatization.”

Center for Responsive Politics (home page).

Freedom House.
     "Combating Impunity: Transitional Justice and Anti-Corruption." 2013.

Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. Free Press: New York, 1998.

Katz, Ellen M. “Transparency in Government—How American Citizens Influence Public Policy.” U.S. Department of State: Washington, DC, 1999.

Open Government Partnership (home page).

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD home page). See standards and model legislation governing public institutions (

United Nations. Convention Against Corruption (2005).


The New York Times: World Topics: Botswana.

Auditor General, Government of Botswana: Home Page.
     See: Reports of the Auditor General on the Accounts of the Botswana Government.

Bibliography and Guide to Sources on Botswana, by Neil Parsons. 2007.

Bohm, John and Molutsi, Patrick, eds., Democracy in Botswana. University Press: Ohio, 1990.

The Guardian. “Botswana Bushmen: 'If You Deny Us the Right To Hunt, You Are Killing Us.'Apr 18, 2014.

Tlou, Thomas, and Alec Campbell. History of Botswana, 2nd ed. Gaborone, Botswana: Macmillan, 1997.

Transparency International (home page). See current year Corruption Perceptions Index and country report on Botswana.

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to most current year Country Reports and drop down menu for Botswana).


Economist: Topics Index: Philippines. See, e.g.:
     “Banyan: The Surprisingly Successful President of the Philippines,” May 31, 2014.

The New York Times: World Topics: Philippines.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: Philippines.

Mendoza, Jr., Amado. “’People Power’ in the Philippines: 1983-86,” Chapter 11, pp. 179-196. Civil Resistance and Power Politics. Editors: A. Roberts and T. G. Ash. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Transparency and Accountability Network (home page).

Transparency International (home page).

See current year Corruption Perceptions Index and country report on Philippines.

See also: Transparency International: Philippines Chapter.

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to most current year Country Reports and drop down menu for Philippines).


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Kazakhstan. See, e.g.: 
     “Intimations of Mortality: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” April 6, 2013.
      “No Choice: Elections in Central Asia,” April 4, 2015.

The New York Times: World Topics: Kazakhstan.

Energy Information Administration, Country Briefs: Kazakhstan. Washington, DC: Department of Energy. Kazakhstan Page.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2015: Kazakhstan. See also:
     “Striking Oil, Striking Workers,” Special Report, September 2012.
     “Kazakhstan’s Labor Rights Debacle,” Special Report, September 2012.

Institute for War and Peace Reporting: “Kazakh Labor Bill Sidelines Independent Trade Unions.” 2013.

Kazakhstan Bureau of Human Rights (home page in English).

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. See news and features on Kazakhstan.

Transparency International (home page).
      See current year Corruption Perceptions Index and country report on Kazakhstan.
      See also: Transparency International: Kazakhstan Chapter.

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to most current year Country Reports and drop down menu for Kazakhstan).