Democracy: Making the right call

The choice is between a democracy benchmarked on the highest standards prevailing or a banana republic. The onus is on all of us to ensure that the country makes the right call

Democracy and the establishment of a democratic system which firmly secures and safeguards the fundamental and unalienable rights of the people are still elusive dreams in too many countries across the world.

However, having a democracy is also not the end of the story. A democracy remains vibrant if the people and the political class remain its unwavering guardian and protector at all times. Not all political leaders steadfastly do so. Even in well established democracies, fundamental values and principles which underpin democracy and the national democratic ethos can come under threat by misguided initiatives by government and those in power. The people must therefore remain vigilant and ready to stand up and fight to preserve their fundamental rights and the core principles underpinning democracy in their countries whenever government policies or political stratagems threaten to encroach on them.

A survey of political events across the world from the impeachment of the President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil to the legal problems faced by South African President Jacob Zuma or the diverse manoeuvres being concocted by various leaders in Africa to remain in power depicts a sorry picture. Why is democracy and good governance so frequently being flouted by those voted and entrusted by the people to safeguard it? Do power and its plush trappings cause the incumbent to crave for more?

Problems in democracies are principally caused when Members of Parliament (MPs) elected by the people subordinate the interests of the people to those of their party leader or their party. The interests of the party or its leader cannot supplant those of the country or the people, the more so when policies or fundamental issues canvassed by the government are contrary to the interests of the MP’s constituents and the people. In such circumstances, the MP, as an elected representative of the people, is expected to above all uphold the interests of his constituency. Too often, this is not the case as once elected, the MP’s party allegiance becomes paramount. Such a deplorable situation plagues our own democracy. In short, in the case of Mauritius,70 Members of the National Assembly cannot substitute themselves for the voting multitude of some 925,400 voters on fundamental issues germane to our democracy on which their views have neither been sought nor obtained.

Testing times

Across the world, democracy is facing testing times. In Africa, the limitation of mandates to two terms of office enshrined, as is the case in the United States, in the Constitution of so many countries is systematically tampered with by all sorts of devious ploys by the incumbent President to circumvent these rules. Thus, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda or Congo-Brazaville, citizens have had to take to the streets to protest against their President’s gambits to bend the rules to cling to power beyond the constitutional limitation of two terms in office.

Despite calls by US President Barack Obama and others to Africa’s leaders to respect term limits, the top four longest ruling political leaders in the world are in Africa, namely in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Zimbabwe. 9 of the top 15 longest ruling national leaders are African. No wonder the people in Africa are strongly opposed to political leaders who want to indefinitely hold on to power by all means possible à la Mugabe, a mindset reminiscent of an omnipotent tribal chief (holding sway over all the wealth, cattle, resources and people of the tribe). This is evidenced by an Afrobarometer survey carried last year which showed that almost three-quarters of the citizens of 34 African countries support restricting leaders to two terms of office.

Power is vested in the elected government by the people. Governments must therefore ensure that their governance, policies and initiatives abide by the mandate given to them and meet the approval of the people and their elected representatives at all times. The elected MPs, trade unions, non-government organisations (NGOs) and the civil society should therefore also act as watchdogs to safeguard democracy. In France, stout opposition by the elected members across the political divide and by diverse voices in France against the controversial constitutional amendment legislation aimed at stripping convicted terrorists with dual nationality of their French passports and deporting them, on the ground that such a proposal was contrary to France’s fundamental values and its national ethos, forced the French government to scrap it recently.

Y en a marre

President Francois Hollande has also been facing months of widespread protests in France and resistance from trade unions, students groups and members of his own Socialist Party over a controversial government bill proposing labour law reforms. He has stated that he will not seek re-election if he fails to reduce unemployment. The protests have been marred by violence and arrests. The trade unions’ actions aim at preserving the employees’ acquired rights.

The object of the French government labour laws reform bill is to help businesses reduce the country’s double digit unemployment rate. It inter alia provides greater flexibilities to firms such as making the hiring and firing of workers easier or allowing greater freedom to reduce pay. More than one million people have signed an online petition against the bill. The divide on the issue is quite deep. The government even narrowly survived a no confidence vote called recently by the centre-right party, Les Republicains, who tallied 246 votes, just short of the 288 votes required to defeat the reforms and the government. The bill will now be debated in the French Senate. The strike action has extended and is now affecting the railways amidst concerns that the Euro 2016 football championship which France hosts as from next week could be disrupted.

Similarly, in Belgium thousands of public sector workers including police officers took part in a national strike this week to protest against budget cuts, changes to labour laws and a rise in the retirement age. Large parts of Belgium were brought to a standstill as a result of transport sector strikes.

These protests are symptomatic of a pervasive y en a marre mood among citizens in Europe fed up with having to endure years of austerity measures without any sign that Europe’s policies are having any success in conjuring the financial crisis afflicting Europe and the world since 2008. There is also a sense of revolt by the people at being made to bear the brunt of the excesses, unchecked licence and reckless risk taking of the financial services sector through huge taxpayer financed bail-outs dished out in the wake of the crisis to prop up key financial institutions and banks. It was not the taxpayers’ responsibility to do so. Have the incriminated banks and financial institutions been asked to pay back?

In a democracy, the finality and overriding thrust of policy framework and any projet de société must remain the continuous improvement in the welfare and well being of the people in absolute terms. Not to do so thwarts the fundamental object of civilised human society.

The army to the rescue

Champions of democracy can come from unsuspected quarters. In democratic countries, the political class and the people oversee the defense establishment to ensure that they do not violate human rights nor pursue belligerent policies. In Israel, the opposite is happening. The chiefs of the Israeli Defence Forces and the heads of intelligence agencies have recently chastised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government lack of respect of the country’s values and laws and its human rights violations. They have criticized the right wing blockade on a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine.

Israel’s political system based on party list proportional representation has spawned a large number of political parties and systematically bred fragile coalition governments. The present ruling government is thus the 34th government since the founding of Israel in 1948. The current coalition with ultra-orthodox parties has led to a hard-line government which has adversely impacted on the stalled peace process with Palestine. Unchecked settlements in occupied territories and a generally aggressive tit for tat policy of response towards Palestine and Palestinians have all but killed the peace talks. In a series of incidents the highly regarded security establishment upholding Israel’s values and human rights has found itself at loggerheads with the rabid stance of the hard-line coalition government.

In an open rift, the Defence Minister, Moshe Yallon, (a former army chief of staff) resigned from the government recently stating that the governing party and Israel have been taken over by ‘dangerous and extreme elements’ and that he no longer trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu. The latter replaced him as Defence Minister by the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, an ultranationalist politician with intolerant views and a former night club bouncer from Moldova with no military experience for such a highly sensitive post. This is a clear signal to the military and intelligence chiefs that opposition will not be tolerated. It also does not augur well for a swift resolution of the issue of a Palestinian State and a lasting peace solution between the two States.

In Israel, the army is the country’s most admired institution and its top officers are household names. Will their weight in Israel enable reason to prevail over highhandedness and intolerance?

Safeguarding democracy and its prime values is therefore an unending battle. The many shortcomings of our own democracy and the failings of the political class in terms of governance, political ethics, party democracy and transparency need to be urgently corrected. The choice is between a democracy benchmarked on the highest standards prevailing or a banana republic. The onus is on all of us to ensure that the country makes the right call.

* Published in print edition on 3 June 2016

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