Are we heading towards a modern democracy?


By Shakun S Harris

Rarely has democracy been so acclaimed yet so breached, so promoted yet so disrespected, so important yet so disappointing as under the new regime in Mauritius.

It is striking how eager governments have become to pass themselves off as ‘democracies’. Why else, for example, would so ruthless a leader as Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov choose to stage elections? Why bother? He heads a government that has imprisoned some 7000 people for political and religious reasons, routinely tortured detainees, and as recently as 2005 massacred hundreds of protesters in Andijan. No one dared mount a serious challenge to his rule in the December 2007 elections, and even a constitutional prohibition against a third seven-year presidential term did not stand in his way. Yet, this brutal president found utility in holding an electoral charade to legitimize his reign. So, in recent years, have Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, Than Shwe of Burma, and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

The task the regimes face is to appear to embrace democratic principles while avoiding any risk of succumbing to popular preferences. Electoral fraud, political intimidation, press censorship, repression of civil society, even police rule have all been used to curtail the prospect that the proclaimed process of democratization might actually lead to a popular say in government.

Media are essential for conveying popular concerns between elections – a necessary input because a single vote cast every few years is a crude and insufficient method to make popular concerns known. It is thus no surprise that governments trying to control the democratic process seek to silence the press. The nation’s voice is rising to a certain level, but is curtailed by all the machinations the ruling dispensation is resorting to.

We cringe to realise that there is no International Convention on Democracy, no widely ratified treaty affirming how a government must behave to earn the democracy label. The meaning of democracy lies too much in the eye of the beholder. It is not that pseudo-democratic leaders gain much legitimacy at home. The local population knows all too bitterly what a farce the elections really are. At best, these leaders gain the benefit of feigned compliance with local laws requiring elections.

In Mauritius, people have just had enough seeing the same heads bob up as soon as elections are announced. Each wave of a major election in the country has brought the favourite slogan of all ‘we want change’. Paul Berenger, who should now be considered the dean of all political parties’ members and leaders, has brandished the coinage of ‘change’ under the purple flag of his party. And yet, today change is again sought. One should then ask: what type of change was brought about by each party which came to power to form a government?

But if ‘the road to democracy’ permits locking up political opponents, dismissing independent lawyers, and silencing the independent press, it is easy to see why tyrants the world over would be tempted to believe that they, too, might be eligible. As such unworthy claimants as the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria wrap themselves in the democracy mantle with scant international objection, the concept of democracy gets cheapened, its key human rights components cast aside.

 Is a nation of 1.3 millions in population turning to this type of disguised democracy?

Dumbing down democracy in this form, to masquerade as democrats and deflect pressure for more meaningful actions is far on anyone’s agenda. The peaceful march of protest initiative of Bruneau Laurette and all allied groups want to avoid this shell game, to prevent the appeal of ‘democracy’ from being abused. Acting as a poor surrogate for more exacting rights standards, there is an urgent need for human rights groups to reclaim the full meaning of the democratic ideal in the Mauritian landscape. The country is more than ready for a new form of democracy legitimately including systems based on proportional representation and first-past-the-post models, those featuring a strong president and those centred on a powerful populist voice, and those that prefer a stronger legislature. Reforms in our constitution are needed to make voices heard, and a legal system that ensures that no one – and especially no government official – is above the law.

Thus may also arise the possibility of a painful paradox: that “democracies end when they are too democratic.” For instance, Bruneau Laurette could amass such a crowd of followers that the three opposition parties could join in elbow to elbow, albeit with the permission of the Commissioner of the Police force, itself resoundingly loud so that the country’s democracy appears palpable. Where then is our democracy failing?

We have to consider that for almost 2000 years, most western political theorists agreed with Aristotle and Edmund Burke, who considered democracy “the most shameless thing in the world”; nobody could imagine seriously advocating democracy as an ideal form of government. It was only at the end of the 18th century that democracy reappeared as a modern political ideal, during the French Revolution. Popular insurrections and revolts in the name of democracy have become a recurrent feature of global politics. For it happens over and over again, where needed – peaceful forward marches toward a more just society; they form the heart and soul of a modern democracy as a living reality. Such moments of collective freedom are “populist” in a way that is not to be misunderstood as a constitutive feature of a modern democratic model.

The modern promise of a ‘just society ruled by competent people’, as Laurette brandishes, as an assertion from the collective power of a people may hail it as a renaissance of the democratic spirit. That said, the power of the mob sometimes dwindles or rekindles. The nation is proving to have an elephant’s memory. The people’s trust in elected representatives has rarely been lower while democratic institutions seem more fragile than ever. They are not favouring the ingrained elitist’s model of future rulers. Their demand is more populist in nature. There is a strong need to find a modern democracy which will eliminate all past pathways, and give real democratic leadership to the country.

* Published in print edition on 11 September 2020

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