The Limits of Our Democratic System
By Sada Reddi
Throughout our history the state has been regarded as a resource to be captured by competing economic and social groups to realize the interests of their members. In a situation of limited resources, the conflicts, which rent our institutions, are the result of these warring tribes
When a foreigner quizzed me about the democratic system in Mauritius and then pointed out to me that a young man had been arrested (possibly on flimsy grounds) and allegedly asked to strip naked in a police cell, one had to concede that there is something wrong with our democracy.
Yet, to most outside observers, Mauritius fulfills the model of a democratic system. In many respects we are a democracy. If we go by the general criteria that are used to measure a democratic system, we will certainly pass the test. Yet we have often heard in the press and on private radios commentators arguing that we are not a ‘true democracy’ or a ‘real democracy’ because we lack certain attributes to make our political system a full-fledged democracy.
Such comments may be easily dismissed as being idealistic or trying to seek a prefect democracy that can only remain elusive. We should not, however, dismiss this nagging doubt that many entertain about our democratic system because as insiders in the system, we are all too well aware that there are serious weaknesses which undermine our political system and which need to be addressed.
Let us look at the main features that sustain our democratic system.
First, we have a reasonable level of economic development that provides for a high level of literacy. We have also a media industry. We also have enough wealth overall, which gives people time to think about the political affairs of the country. In a poor country, where the overwhelming majority of people have to use their time just to earn their daily bread, one cannot expect democracy to flourish in such conditions.
Second, we also have a plural social structure: different groups and interests with different levels of wealth are organized in different institutions and they have a power base in civil society to compete among themselves and with government. Such institutions provide checks and balances to contain state power.
Within the social structure we have to include all the institutions that have been set up to balance the different powers with the aim of checking authoritarian tendencies of the state and to guarantee the civil liberties of the citizens. Mistrust of state power has a long tradition in political thought from Locke and Rousseau. Locke emphasizes the rights of the individual against the state, while Rousseau wanted society to protect itself by a social contract. The third feature underpinning a democratic system is political culture and this is the area where there are serious concerns to be addressed in our society.
It is generally thought that political culture remains a fundamental element in the long-term viability of any democratic system. In many countries, the political system collapsed not because there was an absence of institutions or elections. It was rather the absence of political values which brought down the system and paved the way for totalitarianism. Mauritius has a long history of struggle for freedom and liberty and in the early decades of the 19th century, it was Remy Ollier who championed a long list of liberal values derived from the Age of Enlightenment.
From that period onwards, the press, politicians, political parties, trade unionists have continued the struggle to inculcate liberal and democratic values in our society. For example, in a memorandum of the Mauritius Labour Party to the constitutional conference, dated 14th August 1965, drafted by the then speaker of the legislative Assembly, Harilal Vaghjee, we can read on page 5 paragraph 16 the following:
“Safeguards against abuse of powers
The Labour Party strongly supports the inclusion of the following safeguards in the constitution:
(1) A chapter on Fundamental Rights, with adequate provisions for the enforcement by the Courts, and including the prerogative writs or equivalent remedies. These provisions should include comprehensive provisions of the preservation of religious freedoms, for the prohibition of racial or other discrimination in the law or its administration, for the preservation of free trade unions as an aspect of the freedom of association and for freedoms in the provision of education.”
Many of these provisions and many more, including the role of the judiciary, have been incorporated in our constitution at Independence and, after 1968, further progress along democratic lines has been registered and, on the chapter on human rights, we are at present in the third generation of human rights.
Even though fundamental human rights have been enshrined in our constitution, the question remains as to whether our population has developed the political culture necessary to ensure that these rights are implemented by our different institutions for our protection and for the safeguard of our democracy. Given the nagging doubt that persists among many in the general public and the wide prevalence of certain malpractices, which grossly violate human rights, one may easily conclude that a true political culture is deficient at various levels of our system.
Tip of the iceberg
The case of the young man allegedly stripped naked in a police cell (the police case was thrown out by the court as unfounded) is a glaring example of what should never happen in a democratic country respectful of its citizens and the fundamental human rights. It is also a symptom of other types of abuses which prevail in many other institutions: in hospitals, prisons, mental institutions, educational institutions and even the workplace. One has to listen to the radio to get an idea how people are being treated in Mauritius. Those who come on the air to denounce various malpractices and seek redress just form the tip of the iceberg, it appears.
All these malpractices are in some way related to the fact that the citizens in the country do not get from other citizens the respect and consideration that they deserve as human beings equal in rights to any other citizen. People continue to be assessed on the basis of their colour, ethnicity, religion, status and gender in both public and private spheres. Yet the basis of a democratic society is the equality of all human beings and the moral capacity of every citizen to participate in the affairs of his society.
You go to the doctor and among his first questions will figure one asking you where you work. At the airport, a group of professors went through the customs section; only the black person in the group had his luggage searched. In a hotel you speak to the hotel keeper in English and you get excellent service until the last day when he can hardly hide his disappointment when you bade him good bye in Creole. At the airport, a taxi driver wanted to charge Rs1000 rupees from a white man to drop him at Blue Bay. But the latter exploded into a big mocking laugh at the driver: ‘Eh pas faire ça, mo mauricien moi’.
We can multiply examples from all walks of life in our public and private institutions. Since our people have internalized all these prejudices of colour, race, gender, religion and ethnicity, it becomes difficult for people to develop a civic culture so important for sustaining a democratic system. All that the people do is to vote by ritual habit in elections with little understanding of the democratic norms. Many support politicians during elections in exchange for material rewards.
While many of our prejudices have historical roots which education has so far failed to exorcise, a large part of the responsibility must be attributed to the state, its colonial antecedent as well as its modern version. Throughout our history the state has been regarded as a resource to be captured by competing economic and social groups to realize the interests of their members. In a situation of limited resources, the conflicts, which rent our institutions, are the result of these warring tribes, institutional deals, exclusive access to public funds and creeping materialism.
The road of totalitarianism
The scrambling for state resources has produced a number of attitudes, which are inimical to a democracy and human rights. At present, the public expresses disdain for politicians, for institutions and for the establishment. Such negative attitudes are a threat to our democracy and can easily take us on the road of totalitarianism.
We can no longer take the survival of democratic values for granted. We need to restore trust in our institutions and promote more aggressively a fair and just society where human rights are respected by one and all. We have to reaffirm our faith in the dignity of the human person and the equality of all men and women.
This is a duty and a responsibility which every citizen should shoulder to preserve our democracy for ourselves and for future generations. We all have a duty to bequeath to future generations a better and a more democratic society than what we have inherited so far.
* Published in print edition on 6 September 2019
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