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Project: The Changing Nature of Democracy

Democracy is widely argued to be essential for the fulfillment of individual and collective aspirations, the articulation of interests, and the nurturing of civil society. Globalizing forces have underpinned the dissemination of this message. The spread of democratic governance seems inevitable. Yet the march of democratization is highly contested, and there is little consensus on what democracy is or should be. While the leading international actors are pursuing a rigorous liberal agenda based upon the belief that democracy and market-oriented economics are conducive to a peaceful 'international society', many voices are resisting the model of democracy that this presumes. The proliferation of democracy defies a universal model. Moreover, this proliferation cannot obscure the problems that have appeared in many democratic countries. Established democracies are increasingly mired in disillusionment, stagnation, and bureaucratic overload. The procedural tenets for democracy may well exist, but the spirit of democracy - a public sphere of debate in the context of political transparency, accountability and representation - is questionable.

The parallel transition to free-market economics and democracy has likewise posed difficulties for many countries. A number of democratic experiments are in jeopardy, and democracy has not been able to meet all the demands that confront these transitional societies. In some circumstances, democratization has proved to be a politically destabilizing and socially uncomfortable process.

This project examines the changing and broadening agenda of democracy and the problems that have been encountered in the democratization process. A colloquium took place in July 1996 in Oxford, which established the main theoretical issues in the field of democracy and democratization. The volume The Changing Nature of Democracy was published as a result of this landmark conference. Within the context of the global project themes introduced here, regional workshops have been held, or are planned, to examine in greater detail the particularities of democracy and prospects in different settings. In the spring of 1997 a workshop was held in Malaysia, focusing on democracy in Asia. Another workshop was held in Hungary in September 1997 on Eastern Europe, and a further one in October 1998 on Democracy in Africa. Further regional workshops will bring a variety of people together to examine democracy in the Middle East and Latin America.