- 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.
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
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
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"...
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
(R) thedailystar.net 2005