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     Volume 4 Issue 48 | May 27, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Democratic Deficits

Farah Ghuznavi

Democracy - it's sometimes hard to live with, but even harder to live without. Let me explain. Despite its imperfections, democracy is probably the best political system currently on offer (at least, as far as I'm concerned, it's preferable to most of the alternatives e.g. military rule, dictatorship, theocracy etc), not least because it allows the individual an opportunity to get rid of a government that isn't working i.e. an escape clause of sorts.

Democracy does, however, have some shortcomings. The first is that in a democratic system, in order to replace the ruling party with a more effective one, you must actually have a functioning opposition that offers a realistic alternative. The lack of effective alternatives is unfortunately more common than one might think. In Bangladesh, many of us feel it quite acutely. The change of government that takes place, like clockwork, every five years or so says more, I suspect, about voters' desperation for change, rather than speaking in favour of any particular political party. It's like one long protest vote…

The second major problem, even with a functioning democratic system, is that it risks being reduced to the lowest common denominator i.e. a few key issues on which a majority of people agree. That does not have to be a bad thing, provided the voters are making a reasoned and informed choice. However, it does leave room for abuse when a charismatic leadership successfully manipulates voters into moving in a certain direction, based not on informed choice or rationality, but demagoguery. One of the worst examples of this was the gradual rise of Nazism in Germany.

But there are more recent examples, which have resulted in varying degrees of damage. In the recent British elections, the negative tone taken on immigration by some parties was not only depressing, but singularly misleading, since Home Office figures state that legal immigrants make a net contribution of around £2.5 billion to the UK economy! Illegal immigrants cannot access state services to abuse them, anyway. Yet I personally met people who claimed that there were too many of "those people over here"! Those views undoubtedly existed before, but the tone taken by some politicians has allowed the racists to appear "respectable"...

When nationalist or ethnic tensions are allowed (or actively fostered) to become out-of-control, the price can be truly horrific e.g. the Rwandan genocide, the Balkans conflict and the Gujarat massacres, where extremist movements captured popular support. So the issue is not to ensure that democracy reflects the views of the majority, but that it also protects the rights of minorities - which can be a harder balance to maintain than we sometimes realise.

A third problem which is commonly spoken of at the moment is that of apathy, where the democratic system functions and individuals retain their voting rights, but for one reason or another, people fail to vote. In the US, the self-proclaimed greatest democracy in the world, there was great excitement because turnout in the (highly polarised) 2004 presidential elections was 60.7 percent i.e. the highest since 1968! The fact that sometimes the electoral system does not reflect the popular vote anyway, doesn't help e.g. in the UK, there is much anger that the current Labour government has a Parliamentary majority, despite only winning 36 percent of the popular vote.

There does seem to be a problem in many developed countries over apathy among voters, particularly the young. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they take for granted the kind of functioning systems that most of us living in other parts of the world are still fighting to establish. Perhaps it is because the rise of consumerism has seen a shift of their interest away from politics. In some cases, among the underclass within those countries (e.g. the inner-city African-American populations in the US), people have not received proper voter education - or they feel powerless and disenfranchised - and don't see the point in voting.

The most problematic thing about this of course, is the fact that it becomes a mutually-reinforcing situation. It is undoubtedly the poor and the disenfranchised that most need their voices to be heard within a democracy. If they don't vote, they will most definitely not be heard. And to put it cynically, if they are not even seen as a potential vote bank, the politicians will not bother to seek their support or listen to their problems.

Some countries have found ways to promote interest among the population in political affairs. They have done so by promoting grass-roots systems for people to make their voices heard, by investing in schools and education to ensure that people are more capable of making informed decisions, and by putting in place mechanisms to ensure that people participate in the political process e.g. Canada has concentrated on social investment in terms of health and education; Australia holds elections on Saturdays and voting is mandatory.

Ironically, it is probably the people living in countries with fledgling democracies, or where they are still struggling to establish democracy, who have the greatest appreciation of how important such a political system is. A few years ago, when I went to the voting centre at election time, a young girl aged perhaps 18 or 19 came out of the booth while I was still waiting to go in. She was almost crying with excitement, as she announced to all of us, "Ami vote disi -- ki shukh!!" (I have voted -- I am so happy!!). After waiting several hours in the hot, sweaty crush of bodies, it was hard not to be moved by her excitement.

The sad thing is how often the optimism and hope with which we cast our votes are not borne out in the quality of governance that we receive. And yet people continue to hope. Despite brutal repression, somehow the opposition in Zimbabwe continues to stand up to the Mugabe regime, year after year. Facing a government that meets dissent with ruthless violence, Uzbek protesters remain active even after the recent massacre of civilians. And in some Eastern European countries, recent years have even seen the establishment of democracy by peaceful means i.e. the velvet, orange and rose revolutions.

But new democracies are a little bit like fairy tales. Nobody ever tells you what happens after the hero and heroine ride off into the sunset. They may indeed live happily ever after, but as in all marriages, it is likely to require some hard work! Similarly, democracy, once established, has to be nurtured properly. It requires active participation from an electorate which is capable of analysing and assessing the performance of a government, and demands transparency and accountability, with failures to deliver being punished by loss of support. Sadly enough, if the government senses that the people are unwilling or unable to sufficiently hold on to account, things can go wrong - in ways both big and small - all too soon. So perhaps the key element to effective democracy lies in - first, establishing a system that really works (and for most countries, this remains the key challenge); and then, never taking it for granted that it will continue to work without active scrutiny and participation!

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