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Today is the International Day of Democracy 

The staunchest adherents to democracy and democratic standards are those who have been its harshest critics. This is in itself the panacea and problem of democracy as it constitutes two sides of the same coin. Whilst democracy is understood to be a widely accepted and a largely welcomed form of government, it becomes its own enemy depending on the environment in which it is practiced and promoted, but chiefly owing to those who engage in it. Although the Greeks introduced the system it was perhaps personalities such as Winston Churchill who spoke repeatedly about its characteristics, identifying democracy as ‘the worst form of government except for all the others’, and yet it was he who also said that ‘the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter’. Even a century ago as Churchill rose in the career through democratic means he comprehended the dual nature of this ancient principle and how it could cut both ways. It all depended on how it was used and the milieu in which it was practiced.

When the Greeks bestowed the system on the world as far back as 507 BC, Cleisthenes oversaw the establishment of a mechanism of political reforms called ‘demokratia’. Herein the ‘people’ identified by ‘demos’ and ‘power’ defined by ‘kratos’ came together to create the first clearly identified democratic structure of governance that the world had known. Of significance is the placement of people before power in the coining of the word, wherein it would be rule by the people. Lincoln built on the understanding when he referred to democracy as being government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’

Democracy as a system has proved to be effective as evidenced when a country the size of India goes to the polls where every single person counts in the electoral process. Furthermore the system is considered to be liberal, providing choices amidst competition which is supposed to be healthy as it improves the overall standard. The grouse therefore should not be with the system, but with its adherents. It is often argued that for too long countries and their peoples have suffered at the hands of leadership that democratically embraced such positions which have thereafter been contorted to fulfil personal ambitions much to the detriment of the populace. Hitler comes to mind as an individual who rose to power through democratic means yet ensured that his complete control was firmly established through varied means of ensconced action that rendered the people mere pawns.

In revisiting Lincoln and his assertion, people remain the cornerstone, the bedrock and structure of democratic governance. He would have been appalled, if not ashamed at the developments in the United States of America on January 6, 2021. Ironically, on January 6, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt in delivering his state of the Union Address called for the need to protect freedom in his iconic speech on ‘Four Freedoms’. He referred to protecting universal freedom that all people possessed.  Stressing the true value of democracy, he cautioned against the absence of freedom and the rampant effect it would have on America and the rest of the world. He was speaking at the beginning of a year which remains significant as the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 drew the United States into the Second World War and heralded the position and platform that was created for and by that country from then to date.

Eighty years later another President, Donald J. Trump stood outside the White House and urged his supporters to use those very same freedoms that his predecessor had described and to march on Capitol Hill. While addressing the crowds he urged them to never give up their struggle to see him re-elected to the office of President. Trump stressed that “We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” Seen as a clarion call to his supporters, the words of the President were an encouragement of the masses, their attack on the halls of democracy and the death of people, as well as vandalism of state property and hours of carnage and destruction, all of which was beamed across the world.

The assault on Capitol Hill personifies ‘Extremist Democracy’ where one uses the freedom argued for in democracy to attack democracy itself. Irrespective of that incident or the thousands that occur around the world on a daily basis wherein democracy faces the brunt of the freedom it advocates, it is noteworthy that people remain the most critical factor. Whether it was in the times of the ancient Greeks or the strongest of American or other presidents, it is the people that need to be focused upon. People put people in positions of leadership. Individuals vote for individuals. Such personalities go on to assume exalted places of hierarchy in a state. The common denominator remains people themselves.

Democratic Deficit?

Is the global community facing a democracy deficit? Has humanity come to a point at which it looks around and realizes that there is an insufficient level of democracy in political institutions? Is there an absence or lack of progress of key democratic institutions, and where there are such institutions have they failed? A retrospect glance at countries around the world over the last century indicates a clear rise in the number of democracies, or countries that can be classified to be adherents to varied forms of democratic values.

The Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit bases its research on five segments: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. It has further classified countries to fall into four categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid democracies and authoritarian regimes. In 2020, it was found that 23 countries were identified as full democracies, 52 were said to be flawed democracies, 35 hybrid democracies and 57 countries labelled as possessing authoritarian regimes. When considering the presence of some degree of democracy prevalent in countries, 65.9% or a total of 110 countries were identified whilst 34.1% or 57 countries were said to possess no democracy. Although not a factor for jubilation, it is satisfying to note that 64.1% of the global population reside in countries deemed to have some degree of democracy.

The presence of a democracy deficit needs to be therefore examined from levels of democracy within institutions, or a lack of progress of such institutions. Whilst America has weathered many a storm, the latest being the catastrophe of January 06, 2021, it still tries to retain democracy at its core even in the election of its president, wherein all those who throw in their hats stand a chance to be elected as the party candidate. However the system is such that it is finally the Electoral College that decides on the victor, and not the people as was witnessed in 2016, 2000, 1888, 1876 and 1824.

The United Kingdom made a decision in 2016, wherein a majority of the voting populace opted to leave the European Union. Although the result was skewed in the different constituent parts of the country as a whole, and the efforts to safeguard sovereignty were severely questioned, it was a decision taken within a democracy and was evidence of how democracies function. S. Saraswathi’s argument that ‘Brexit is an outcome of the inevitable conflict between the requirements of State sovereignty and the terms governing regional integration (and that) it is a democratic decision,’ indicates the real nature of democracy itself.

Divergent Democracies?

Seven hundred and eighty eight million results appear when searching for ‘democracy’ online. While the forms of democracy in the world may not be that diverse, the term and its usage has spread far and wide and saw a further expansion with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of independent states on the world stage. Cleisthenes wanted ‘demokratia’ to constitute three institutions: namely the ekklesia, which was the supreme governance unit responsible for the writing of laws and policy, while the boule comprised representatives from several Athenian tribes. Finally the dikasteria, was the judicial arm in which disputes were presented and attempts made to resolve them.

The executive, legislature and judiciary which form the crux of the democratic structure in Sri Lanka and most democracies, can thus be dated back to 507 BC. The Commonwealth has gone further in assisting the functioning of these three pillars of the state, with the introduction of the Latimer House Principles which provide for harmonious governance within the state. Through consensus arrived at by representatives of the three branches themselves, the Principles specify how each national institution should interrelate when exercising their institutional responsibility. It also provides for restraint in the exercise of power thereby safeguarding the functions of each of the three institutions and removes issues of encroachment.

Despite the divergent forms of democracy that exist to date, and notwithstanding the characteristics of each of these models it is apparent that attempts have been made to salvage the original ideology. It is thus not in the definition but in the composition and characteristics that democracy is safeguarded.

Panacea for the future?

Why does democracy create a problem that it should essentially be able to solve? The liberty it provides lays the foundation for dissent, and that dissent should further strengthen democracy in its totality. Such a system should enrich the discourse, ensure deeper vibrancy and larger engagement. States aim to strengthen their democratic institutions, introduce legislation for this purpose and expect the emergence of a system that would be the panacea to many societal ills. While it should happen, it is often the opposite that occurs. In democracies, the onset of corruption, rise of nepotism, the flouting of laws with impunity, and a sheer lack of accountability threatens democracy at its very core.

The absence of ethical understanding among people, and instead their greed for progress individually at the expense of the total populace, has led to the shaking of the foundation upon which democracy is built. If Cleisthenes placed the word ‘people’ before the term power, it is to the people that we have to return. The democratic structures have evolved and will continue to evolve. Yet it is the responsibility of the people to elect those who are capable and uncorrupt. Often it is argued that people are bereft of choice at an election and have to choose between the worst options, yet they exercise their franchise in the best way that they deem possible. People often regret their choices. Yet democracy affords fresh opportunities. They must therefore ensure that those in power are held accountable for their actions.

Democracy Days will emerge annually. Yet the preservation of democracy is a daily struggle in which people hold their leaders accountable, and leaders act conscientiously to uphold the values through which they arrived at positions of powers, to lead for all the people, and not a restricted few. Furthermore when given the opportunity people must have the ability to make the necessary changes by bringing to the fore those who would respect the real essence of democracy. Power is said to corrupt and absolute power, believed to corrupt absolutely. People must therefore be able to call a spade a spade and not blindly follow party lines or dictates, and instead choose with their brains and not merely with their stomachs.

Democracy is the most welcomed option of governance available in the 21st century. Until and unless people, individuals, voters take their responsibility of voting seriously, exercise their franchise, safeguard democratic values and forge ahead for better, improved systems of governance, it would continue to be pointless to condemn leaders wherever they may rule in the world. They are representative of the people. They were put there by people. They did not inherit such positions through birthrights. People are thus responsible.

The 21st century has much to offer in terms of advancement, technological revolutions, and even pandemics as is being experienced in the third decade of this century. Irrespective of such changes that are inherent characteristics of all periods of history, it is to the core that we must always return. Ninety years ago in 1931, Sri Lanka received universal franchise. While all leaders of that era did not welcome its introduction, the British felt they needed a guinea pig to test out the model and it so happened that Sri Lanka continued on this path for decades thereafter making the island nation the oldest democracy in Asia. Yet democracy must not be taken for granted or exercised in the breach. It needs to be alive, form the basis of governance and be implemented in letter and in spirit. It is then and only then that the original values articulated centuries ago would continue to be realized.

Many other countries lay claim to labels of being the biggest democracy or the most vibrant democracy but what matters is not the identification. Of importance is the nature and quality of democracy. A maturing of the polity is essential for true democracy to take root, and then too the risk arises of everyone not being on the same page, leading to further erosion of democracy. Society is not homogenous. The diversity would and could give rise to the deterioration once again. The cycle is a vicious one, and one that remains concerning.

Lest we forget, John F. Kennedy, in his short span of leadership, opined that ‘The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.’ Democracy has the potential of ringing its own death knell, and raises the question of the future and the modus operandi that would be adopted in the years ahead.