Blending electoral democracy with political meritocracy: Michael Lyons

Jan 8, 2021

“Democracies” come in many shades of grey, from liberal to illiberal, authoritarian to “managed”, and more. A convergence of East and the West towards something akin to “post-democracy” might bring a much-improved world order, and a safer planet.

Conflicting Political Ideologies

Just because nations pursue differing political systems is no justification for hostility by one state against another. Nor can such hostility be justified on the grounds of race, history, language, culture, colour, religion or geography.

A fundamental requirement for membership of the EU is a guarantee of democracy. However, there is a wide variety of political systems, including monarchies and republics,  among EU nations. Modern monarchies are parliamentary, but among the republics, some presidents are elected by direct popular vote; others by the parliament or by a special body. Some have unicameral systems with only a single chamber while others are bicameral with a lower house and an upper house.

According to a 2019 Freedom House report, Hungary is no longer a democracy and Poland is about to go down the same path. Both are members of the EU. Russia considers itself a “managed” democracy, whereas China, a one-party state, does not pretend to be a democracy (although it experiments extensively with democratic concepts).

Sovereignty requires that every state has the right to determine its own system of government, and that no outside power has the right to impose its views on, or to interfere with those of another state.

Illiberal Actions

Beijing is constantly reminded of the 1989 Tiananmen Square disaster. On the 31st anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the Washington Post published an article, “From Tiananmen Square to Lafayette Square“, reporting on how protests had broken out in 380 cities across 50 US states, and that after demonstrations turned violent in Washington, police and military officers used riot shields, batons, and gas to clear protesters.

Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China is the only one that has not fought any foreign wars, away from its borders since World War II. America, Russia, the UK, and France have done so.

In his book The False Promise of Liberal Order, Patrick Porter points to many American achievements brought about by illiberal means, including economic coercion and wars. Madeleine Albright proclaimed: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”

America launched 188 military interventions between 1992 and 2017. The US waged war in Korea (killing 1 million Koreans and 400,000 Chinese), Vietnam (killing about one million combatants and 365,000 civilians), and in the Middle East.

Liberal order has become one of upholding liberal values through armed pacification permanent war for permanent peace!

Good and effective government

Western obsession with ideological differences – liberal democracy versus a one-party state (such as China) – distracts from the real issue of providing good and effective government for the people. In his book The China Model, Daniel A. Bell analysis the merits and the flaws of both electoral democracies and political meritocracies and suggests that democracies can learn from meritocratic practices while meritocracies can learn from democratic practices.

Singapore and China are examples of political meritocracies.


In How Democracy Ends, David Runciman argues that contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual. He asks: “Why not replace it?” Runciman suggests that pragmatic 21st-century authoritarianism may be an alternative to contemporary democracy. Instead of short-term rewards, such authoritarianism offers long-term benefits. Plato argued that democracy means ruling by the ignorant and putting power in the hands of people who do not know what they are doing.

No rational person would want to be ruled by an incompetent leader lacking a basic understanding of the key issues. It is inconceivable that any society would accept medical treatment from someone with no medical training or take legal advice from a person who knows nothing about the law. Yet, in the most important role of all – the leadership of a nation – most democracies require no qualifications whatsoever. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the USA, the most advanced, richest, and powerful nation.

Under current US policy, President Trump – like all presidents in the atomic age – has the sole authority to unleash nuclear Armageddon on the world. One might think the process of running for president of the United States would weed out individuals who are unfit for this awesome responsibility. It does not.


The People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since 1965. Its leaders have high levels of education, expertise and experience. Singapore is not a “true” electoral democracy with free and fair elections. Its rise has been guided by meritocratically selected leaders. Lee Kuan Yew (former prime minister and founder of modern-day Singapore) graduated with a double first-class honours degree from Cambridge. His son (the current prime minister) graduated from the same university, scoring 12 more alphas than his nearest competitor. Singapore places a high premium on top class education.

China is learning from Singapore. The use of examinations as a mechanism to search for political talent has deep roots in Chinese culture where aspiring leaders are subject to demanding and competitive examinations. Only a tiny percentage of the very best make it to the top.

The China Model describes the Chinese system as democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle and meritocracy at the top. At the village level, committees are elected by the villagers themselves. Some East and South-East Asian nations have opted for a middle way between liberal Western democracy and authoritarian rule, preferring a form of managed democracy.

In his book When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter, Sydney University Professor John Keane reminds the reader that there are approximately 150,000 popular, mostly peaceful protests in China each year. He talks of “post-democracy” in China, freed from the curse of “free and fair” elections and showbiz democracy. He cautions against closed minds, saying that although the Chinese have a one-party political system, they have been experimenting with different forms of democracy “made in China”.

Blending Democracy and Meritocracy

Professor Keane suggests that the China model could turn out to be a better functioning model than those Western democracies that are bogged down in dysfunction, and he asks – “Might this be the future of democracy?”

It is surely possible for democracy and meritocracy to be successfully blended. Such a system would require that political leaders continue to be elected by the people, but that only suitably qualified candidates with the necessary expertise and experience to lead would be permitted to stand for election. There can be no one size fits all. A diversity of education (which might include history, science, law, economics, agriculture, foreign affairs, diplomacy, or medicine), talent and experience is required.

The single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in human history has occurred in China. Nevertheless, it is likely that as wealth increases and Chinese living standards improve, there will be increased demands for greater freedom of speech and voter participation.

If the election of well-educated, trained and experienced leaders can be achieved in the democratic West, this will minimise the risk of incompetent leadership. As China evolves towards greater freedoms and political participation, it is likely to become more democratic.

A convergence of East and the West towards something akin to John Keane’s “post-democracy” might bring a much-improved world order, and a safer planet.

Michael Lyons is a Sydney lawyer. He researches and writes on geopolitics and the search for world peace. His writings are published at

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