Has democracy become dysfunctional?

One could say yes and no, as no system is perfect, and one has to make do with the limitations and constraints that seem to be inherent in whatever system we choose. Probably that’s why probably Winston Churchill, a seasoned British politician, said that democracy is the least bad of political systems.

A case in point is America, where despite having been elected with party majorities in both chambers of Congress, President Obama (Democratic Party) is eventually facing a situation where the Republicans are in majority in the Senate. As a result he has not been able to pass some key legislations that the Democratic Party has been pushing, such as in health – Obamacare – and in the matter of gun control. Obamacare has only been partially implemented, and the Republicans have vowed to overturn it if they come to power!

As regards gun control, the strong gun lobby has blocked any possibility of legislation being passed by Congress, and President Obama may well have to do so by Executive Order.

In India, the parallel is the Ordinance route, and Prime Minister Modi is facing a similar conundrum as President Obama with respect to two key pieces of legislation, because despite his National Democratic Alliance having been elected with a clear majority, it is in minority in the upper house or Rajya Sabha, which has the final say.

Thus, the Goods and Sales Tax Bill (which would rationalize taxes at State and Federal level and facilitate business and trade) and the Land Bill (which would facilitate investment and developmental projects) have been stalling. In the main it is the Congress Party which is opposing, despite having supported such measures when it was in power as the UPA government.

No wonder, therefore, that democracy is beginning to be seen as having become dysfunctional, what with the power of lobbies and caucuses bringing to bear on the democratic process, in addition to the obstructionist tactics of opposition parties.

To come back to America, the rise and rise of rank outsider and business magnate Donald Trump, as a Republican candidate, is being seen as the result of an undemocratic system, if we are to go by the title of an article in The Conversation (March 9, 2016), as follows: ‘Donald trumping all in the Republican race is only possible thanks to an undemocratic system’.

The article begins with the observation that ‘Donald Trump is masterfully exploiting America’s system of choosing its presidential candidates’. In fact the seemingly unstoppable rise of Donald Trump has taken everybody by surprise, one reason being advanced being that he appeals to the baser instincts of the zealous conservatives by his extremist position on immigration for one.

The article notes, further, that ‘the problem is not so much Trump; it is the primary system he is masterfully exploiting. Disguised in the public eye as the ultimate democratic institution, the primaries actually use the excuse of democracy to impose minority decisions, nullify political parties and ultimately destroy democracy and accountability as we know them’.

Apparently, this is possible because ‘turnout in American elections is extremely low; the 2012 presidential election attracted 53.6% of the voting-age population to the polls. Turnout in primary elections is even lower – generally between 10% and 25% of the population of each state.

‘For example, about 5% of the total population of South Carolina voted for Trump in its primary and delivered him all 50 delegates from that state. Then, at the general election, people are stuck with the “democratic” choice of a very influential 5% minority.’

If this scenario is repeated in the remaining states till the primary process is completed in August, when the delegates of each party (Republican and Democratic) finally designate their definitive Presidential nominee, it means that the latter would have been selected by a minority, and hence the process does not reflect the majority of Americans and is therefore undemocratic – if we go according to the same logic.

So how democratic is democracy! Or is it only a semblance of democracy?

No doubt the pundits will continue to debate the issue, but another phenomenon that has surfaced for the first time in the run-up to these primaries is the level of debate that has attended them. This applies particularly to the Republican Party, where the virulence of the attacks among the candidates has been described as having reached the ‘lowest of the low’ levels, something unseen before. In fact, I always thought that the face-to-face debates among the parties and among the candidates of each party, were models of civilized exchanges, as they avoided (mostly) references to personal matters especially the more salacious ones, leaving these to investigative journalists to uncover where they existed. Instances of these have been alluded to by President Obama in his book ‘The Audacity of Hope’, written when he was a senator.

Notable in the current primaries has been the clear split in the Republican Party, with candidates not only throwing calumny against each other, but there is a clear divide of those for and those against Donald Trump. Nevetheless, it would appear that with his latest wins in the states of Nebraska, Michigan and Hawaii, Donald Trump is unstoppable, and is most likely to end up as the Presidential nominee for the elections due in November this year. His rival is likely to be Hillary Clinton, despite the setback she has faced in Michigan recently, where she lost to Bernie Sanders.

Although the system can be flawed, another view is that ‘the basis of all systems, social or political, rests upon the goodness of men. No nation is great or good because Parliament enacts this or that, but because its men are great and good.’

Currently, we are not seeing much goodness being spread around, and this is reason enough to be apprehensive about the future. Whereas we always seem to be landing up with the least bad, there is a genuine danger that the bad may be in fact elected, and that would make already dysfunctional democracy worse compounded.

Aren’t we also living that situation in our own country?

*  Published in print edition on 11 March 2016

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