If a democratic country were defined simply as one in which elections are held regularly, many countries notorious for the worst forms of dictatorship would qualify for the status. While popular consultations in the form of regular elections are a necessary condition for the existence of a parliamentary democracy, it is far from being a sufficient condition.
Democracy is first and foremost a system of government where the relationship between the government and the governed is defined by a set of rules, conventions, practices and values. When these are exercised over a period of time within the confines of a particular territory, they result in a specific mix of “soft values” (respect for freedom of expression, right to privacy, property rights, etc.,) and structures (law enforcing agencies, independent judiciary, presidential or parliamentary regimes of government and so on) which come to constitute the core INSTITUTIONS of a democratic country. These institutions are themselves the outcome of the historical evolution of a combination of such factors as the history, geographical constraints and cultural inclinations of the populations concerned.
In the Marxist analysis of the historical evolution of societies, the emergence of parliamentary democracies and the values accompanying them are associated with the advent of “bourgeois revolutions” in most of the European countries causing the downfall of the erstwhile feudal/aristocratic regimes and the “divine rights” of monarchs which are replaced by parliamentary regimes or constituent assemblies as prominent forms of political expressions.
The rise of freedom of enterprise and “laissez-faire” capitalism simultaneously became the dominant ideology which witnessed the birth of the industrial revolution and the development of the working class. The most well-known and celebrated events which constitute hallmarks of such bourgeois revolutions are the execution of Charles II in England, the French Revolution (1789) with the triumphant rise of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” as the ultimate objective of socio-economic progress.
Interestingly, writing about the execution of Charles II in his ‘Illustrated History of England’, well-known historian GM Trevelyan made the following remarks regarding the problems of undefined balance of power between King and Parliament: “This (im)balance of constitution, more than the wickedness or carelessness of Charles II, lay at the root of disasters of his reign. No country can remain half monarchical and half parliamentary without paying the penalty in want of power.” Three hundred years later this issue of “power sharing” between or among different seats of power continue to pose huge challenges in liberal democracies – to wit the dysfunctions noted recently in the US system of government and the seemingly impossible resolution of the question of power sharing in the context of an elusive Second Republic in Mauritius.
In the preceding paragraphs we have enumerated what are considered necessary conditions for a liberal democratic regime to prevail with its own specific characteristics in any given historical and territorial context. We have also indulged in a historical digression in order to illustrate the evolutionary/revolutionary processes through which such regimes emerge. The point being that a specific regime at any moment in time is the reflection of the evolution and convergence of many factors, from cultural to economic and social. Far from us the idea of suggesting that there is some hard and fast rule of static determinism which prevents any change of regimes even where there is a political will to do so.
The real issue is to determine what constitutes such political will and what is the general approach adopted when change is construed to be most critical. Tinkering with the existing situation through a top-down approach without involving the larger constituencies or main actors of the system is, to say the least, very risky. As an extreme case, the whole world still have in mind the blunders committed by the George W. Bush administration which went all out on a mission to “give democracy and freedom” to the people of Iraq.
The Bush administration thought of politics as the relationship between individuals and the State (the dominant paradigm in Anglo Saxon countries with racially homogeneous populations) failing to appreciate that in the Middle East people also see politics as the balance of power among communities and political dynamics are defined in terms of opportunities to redistribute power among the countries’ major communities. Now the chickens have come home to roost and the situation in Iraq is most likely to get much worse than anything that existed before the fall of Saddam Hussein.
While this is admittedly an extreme case, it does illustrate the kind of threats which lie ahead as a result of any ill-conceived tinkering with existing political systems, especially in countries with multicultural populations.
There is no denying the fact that the character of the people of Mauritius and the resilience of our political institutions are being put to a severe kind of stress test since many months now. A situation which is aggravated by the threat of severe deteriorations in the living conditions of a large section of the population, if appropriate immediate and long-term solutions are not urgently considered and a sense of leadership reaffirmed.
In conclusion, we take the liberty of quoting rather lengthily from an article which appeared in the respectable Financial Times in October 2011 under the signature of economic affairs contributor Ray Dalio referring to the mess created by the recent financial crisis:
“In deleveragings bad economic conditions typically lead to emotional reactions, social and political fragmentation, poor decision-making and increased conflict. When this occurs in democracies, the checks and balance system, which is intended to yield the best decisions for the whole, can stand in the way of thoughtful leadership and lead to ineffective “mob” rule. This dynamic can lead to a self-reinforcing downward spiral. Frustrations increase, the established ways of doing things come under attack and frustrations over the ineffectiveness of government creates the perceived need for someone to gain control of the mess. Plato spoke of this dynamic. It was the reason Hitler was elected in 1933.”
One would have been excused for dismissing Mr Dalio’s comments as being overly dramatic at the time he wrote them. However if the results of the recent elections for the European Parliament in France is anything to go by, then it is to be feared that he was closer to the mark than what he could even have imagined. His article should then constitute a wake-up call for all true democrats.
* Published in print edition on 20 June 2014