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Elections everywhere, but what about democracy? by Brooks Spector

Human rightsElections everywhere, but what about democracy? by Brooks Spector

Pakistan election A voter casts her ballot during the general elections at a polling station in Peshawar. A string of militant attacks cast a long shadow South Africa’s recent national election finally grabbed national attention – even stealing the headlines from the Oscar Pistorius trial, at least for a while. But beyond South Africa, there are also elections about to happen for the European Parliament, in Ukraine, the final round of the Afghan election comes up shortly, and then, a bit later in the year, there are midterm elections across the US as well. And then, of course, Iraq just had its parliamentary election a couple of weeks ago.

Most important of all, perhaps, was the Indian election in the world’s most populous democracy. This election more than decimated the country’s venerable Congress Party in the national parliament as Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party carried off a devastating victory. The Financial Times, in noting this victory, observed that “India’s next Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said little about his plans to restart the country’s stuttering economy following Friday’s landslide victory in national elections. But the sheer scale of that triumph has already raised hopes for a rapid restoration in its battered fortunes.” 2014 is a big year for elections – and, presumably, democracy as well.

Sometimes, the idea and practice of elections have come to be seen as synonymous with the larger concept of democracy itself. Should that be the case? In South Africa, for example, at the national level, voters merely get to select a political party via one vote. All of the remaining choices are left to the winning party to carry out at their own pace and in in terms of their own processes. Parliamentary candidates are selected and ranked by internal party meetings and officials. The majority party’s caucus nominates and votes in the country’s president. Finally, parties assign individual parliamentarians to districts that have been drawn up by the parties themselves, rather than have the voters directly select their representatives.

The whole rich panoply of democratic participation across the nation has effectively come down to that one, solitary mark on a five-yearly ballot paper. (On the local level, on a different election two years later, there is the opportunity for selecting a local councillor for voters in their district, town or city.) That’s about it. Some can argue that this is not exactly the full-throated fulfilment of the implicit promise of “the struggle” to achieve a government that would be of, by and for the people. And the decline in voter participation may well be a sign that, more and more, voters have recognised the limitations of this circumscribed popular participation in their own governance and opted out of the process in growing numbers and simply stayed home.

But is the achievement of democracy something that solely depends on that modest act of putting one’s X on a piece of paper – or is there more at work? Historically, the legitimacy and acceptability of a government in the eyes of the governed was seen as a key feature of its likely success. In the way Plato had discussed it in ancient Athens, it is closely entwined with a government’s quality of justice. (Plato’s idea of justice was not limited to courts; but, rather, it was a part of the system as a whole.)

And Plato offered a further important insight. He offered a typology of government, effectively weighing their relative costs and benefits – antedating the task of MBAs by more than 2 000 years. Plato said there were five basic types of government – in descending order of virtue: rule by an aristocracy, by a timocracy (those seeking power and glory), by an oligarchy, then by a democracy. Unfortunately, democracy almost inevitably decays into the rule of the mob and bloody tyranny. Plato obviously wasn’t much of a democrat, preferring the natural rule of an aristocracy that supported a philosopher king so as to govern with wisdom, virtue and justice.

Later political philosophers worried more about the questions of legitimacy and representation – in addition to that earlier platonic value of justice. Wrestling with an aspect of this problem, Thomas Hobbes argued that without government, life became famously nasty, brutish and short, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau replied that the state of nature usually came complete with its own checks and balances. From this argument, John Locke and the American revolutionaries such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson insisted that governments were necessary, but that they could only derive their limited powers from the consent of those they governed.

And that, of course, led to Abraham Lincoln’s statement that governments ultimately drew their legitimacy from whether or not they
were of, by and for the people. Earlier, Edmund Burke had taken up the crucial question of the nature of the representation of citizens for these decisions – addressing whether representatives should vote unthinkingly for a party’s policy line, await the instructions of the electorate before voting on anything, or exercise their own judgement for the benefit of the nation, regardless of party or populace.

As a major cautionary note, Karl Marx argued that there are much deeper economic forces that actually drove government decisions as well as create the broad social conditions of society. Stemming from Marx’ insight, theorists like Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca explained that one clique within the ruling oligarchy might be replaced by another, but society’s deep divisions endured regardless.

As an alternative perspective, examining the historical development of governance in East Asia, Karl Wittfogel had argued the need to manage the vast hydraulic resources to cultivate East Asia’s basic agricultural crop – rice – brought forth a very different style of governance. There, a managerial class of priest engineers and a strong ruler found ways to direct people effectively in large groups, lest the nation starve.

This quick stroll through key ideas underpinning or questioning the fundamentals of democracy points to the intertwined questions of legitimacy, representation, leadership and effectiveness. Some critics insist, for example, that American democracy, despite those ostensibly titanic struggles between the two political parties, is really just the alternation of elite groups; the two parties are simply opposite sides of one coin while an economic elite pulls the strings, even most Americans would disagree with that rather cynical view.

But consider the upcoming election for the European Parliament. There, elections for 751 representatives will take place in 28 nations from May 22 to 24. But, despite this broad participation, there is wide concern that the European Parliament increasingly is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. This, despite the fact it brings in the broad representation of millions of people, dozens of national parties, and the crucial fact that the EU and its parliament has real regulatory power over major elements of the entire European economy.

As the Economist noted this week, “Yet the greater objections to the parliament are over its failure to meet its real purpose, which is to give the EU democratic legitimacy. Debate over the ‘democratic deficit’ is as old as the European project. A first answer was to set up a European assembly, consisting of nominated national MPs. But in 1979 this was replaced by a directly elected parliament…

Heather Grabbe of the Brussels-based Open Society Foundations criticises Strasbourg for acting less like a proper parliament than like a group of lobbyists who spend money and pass laws but do not connect with voters. Charles Grant, of the London-based Centre for European Reform, notes that ‘the parliament has serious shortcomings as an institution… much of the time its priority appears to be more power for itself.’ And Alex Stubb, Finland’s trade minister and a former MEP, says ‘national MPs tend to have responsibility without power. MEPs tend to have power without responsibility.’ ”

Meanwhile, in South Africa, too often the ANC seems to have opted for Plato’s advice rather than that of Locke, Lincoln, Burke and Madison, opting for a select aristocracy to exercise justice and governance. Or perhaps the model selected is an unconscious nod to some of the principles in Wittfogel’s model of oriental despotism. In that sense, management of the nation calls for a politically motivated technocratic regime that allocates resources to selected economic sectors.

But the challenges of effective democratic representation can be even more difficult. Following final completion of their respective elections, while the new governments of Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine may well have been elected by broad stretches of their respective societies, each may continue to suffer from crises of legitimacy. To the extent the actual elections do not also contribute to the conscious construction of a broadly accepted national consensus on what it actually means to be, respectively, Iraqi, Afghan or Ukrainian, as a result of the deep religious, ethnic, language and historical divisions, the resulting governments will continue to represent collections of warring opinions, and the electorate has given little or no nod of legitimacy to the resulting governments.

As the Washington Post editorialised on the Iraqi election, “The turnout, a reported 58 percent, was higher than in most US presidential elections. Iraqis remain eager to practice democracy, even if their rulers are not. Unfortunately, the voting appears more likely to accelerate than arrest Iraq’s descent into the mass bloodshed and disintegration that has overtaken neighbouring Syria. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office eight years, appears confident that his Shiite party will win a plurality of votes, allowing him to continue what has been an increasingly authoritarian and sectarian rule. With heavy backing from Iran, Ir
aq’s strongman hopes to corral dissident Shiite parties and perhaps Kurds into a new coalition, though that process could take months. Even if he fails, Maliki’s opponents may lack the muscle to remove him from office.”

Is there a way out of all these traps? First of all, perhaps, the path forward lies the embrace of an expanded notion of what constitutes democratic participation. This speaks to Jay Naidoo’s notion of active citizenship and Alexis de Tocqueville’s recognition of the importance of voluntary associations, as well as the acceptance by those in authority that these alternative pathways are just as important as the voting that happens periodically.

And as far as those elected representatives go, there is a great need for citizens to have fuller control over and involvement in the selection processes of individual representatives from beginning to end. Moreover, citizens must be able to reach out to the ones they have elected and demand help from them. This is especially true when these representatives must exercise their judgement over important economic and political policies – whether that is in the EU, India or South Africa.

To make those choices for their officials, citizens must also have access to the kinds of information and civic education that can ensure citizens understand the broad network of rights and responsibilities – and how some decisions can actually imperil the larger democratic project of a nation. Finally, government officials need to take on board a much greater level of humility – and an understanding they have been elected as temporary members of a governing elite – and not as the contemporary equivalent of one of Wittfogel’s ancient oriental despots. – Daily Maverick

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