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The Essence of Democracy

Sharaf For years, democratic elections and constitutional liberalism have formed an intrinsic part of western political culture. But in many countries, although multi-party elections are becoming the norm, respect for the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental freedoms are on the retreat. The rise of illiberal democracy is therefore a cause for concern.
Today 118 of the world’s 193 countries are democracies. But in many countries, elections are neither free nor credible. In some countries the elected parliament itself imposes restrictions on the freedom of speech and assembly.
According to a survey, 50 per cent of the regimes which lie between confirmed dictatorships and consolidated democracy do better on political liberties than on civil liberties. It can therefore be argued that nearly half of the countries in the world today are illiberal democracies. Seven years ago this ratio was only 22 per cent.
Democracy without its essence is capable of producing inefficient, corrupt and bad governments. This is because the emphasis is placed on elections even though these may be multi-party, with greater participation by women. Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about procedures for selecting a government but rather the government’s goals. It refers to a tradition of protecting an individual’s right to life and property and freedom of religion and speech through the rule of law. The Magna Carta, the US constitution, the UN Instruments on Human Rights and the Final Helsinki Act are all expressions of constitutional liberalism.
The concept of constitutional liberalism evolved differently in many parts of the world but it was perfected in the late 1940s when most western countries became full democracies. More recently, central Europe has moved successfully from communism to liberal democracy in the same way as liberalism preceded democracy in other countries in Europe in the 1990′s.
In East Asia, countries have incorporated many aspects of constitutional liberalism in their political systems. However, in other parts of the world, elections have not resulted in promoting democratic liberalism.
Absolute democracy can easily undermine liberty. At the same time, excessive emphasis on constitutional liberalism can lead to liberal autocracy. This imbalance has often led to tensions between the centre and local governments. Developing countries have argued for strong central powers to implement difficult and sometimes unpopular economic reforms. In contrast, countries with little centralised power and a tradition of managing pluralism have been able to progress quickly towards liberal democracy.
It is commonly assumed that democracy brings ethnic harmony and peace. Neither is necessarily true. Ethnic harmony is a feature of mature liberal democracies. In fact, without liberalism, introduction of democracy can lead to ethnic conflict and civil war. Democracy introduces an element of competition; liberalism tempers it with accommodation and protection of minorities.
Democratic peace has little to do with democracy. Countries with little tradition of consolidated liberalism can be hyper-nationalistic and are prepared to wage war to protect democracy. Liberalism gives democracies peace through constitutional rights, ensuring that no single leader can drag his/her country into war. It also creates economic interdependence making it costly for democracies to wage wars. There is a need to rediscover the liberal western tradition for the development of good government throughout the world. If a democracy cannot preserve liberty and laws, it is small consolation that it exists in name.
Constitutional liberalism is a gradual and long-term process in which an election represents only one step. If a country holds elections, a great deal from that government is accepted without much regard to its adherence to the rule of law. Also, little effort is made to create imaginative constitutions in transitional countries in order to take them beyond electoral democracy. This must change.
Governments must be measured by yardsticks relating to constitutional liberalism as well as elections. If a government is promoting economic, civil and religious liberties with limited democracy, it should be supported to do more.
Today, democratic governance is not threatened by monarchies, the church or dictatorships. Its problems lie within illiberal democracy, namely erosion of liberty, abuse of power, ethnic divisions and conflict. The most useful role that the international community can play to consolidate democracy is to encourage constitutional liberalism where democracy has taken roots.
One of the major considerations in recommending policy is how to respond to situations where parties and leaders that are corrupt and self-serving use money and muscle power to form governments. Should support for such elected governments be withdrawn or should there be new criteria established where other key elements of democratic governance such as commitment to human rights, the rule of law and separation of powers take priority, with elections playing only a secondary role?
If there is support for such a wider agenda, there should be an international instrument which binds all countries to adhere to certain basic norms of democratic governance against which the international community could demand compliance and provide appropriate assistance.
It has been argued that extremist parties and disparate groups have hijacked the democracy agenda by exploiting poverty, deprivation and external factors such as foreign occupation and economic and social injustice and won elections only to justify their actions in the name of popular support.
The debate is open on whether the democracy agenda be fundamentally altered to isolate such so-called democratic governments, or should there be engagement with them to ensure that they are persuaded to preserve fundamental liberties and laws in return for economic and technical assistance. Globalisation has deepened economic interdependence and integration has created a strong pull factor for such regimes to abandon extremism and violence and embrace constitutional liberalism.
Holding regular and legitimate elections has now become an accepted norm even though some countries are democracies only in name. Efforts should be made to make elected governments accountable to the people.
The international community should assist countries in reviewing their constitutions and legal and electoral framework to bring them in line with liberal democratic principles and strengthen democratic institutions, including electoral commissions to make democracy irreversible.
The doctrine of national circumstances has prevented many countries from accepting the fundamental values of democracy on the pretext that some of these are not compatible with their own history and culture. A major policy consideration is whether to address this issue globally and make liberal democratic principles universally accepted, overriding national circumstances.
Another area where research needs to be undertaken is placing limits on the terms of office of heads of state and government. Are such limits desirable in order to encourage retirement of leaders who have abused the power of incumbency to remain indefinitely in power? There are many examples in the developing countries where such ‘elected’ leaders are still in power.
In many transitional countries the performance of political parties has let down democracy. Political parties are either not mature enough or lack the courage to oppose autocratic rulers.
Political parties have also not been able to develop fully because of their weak internal governance structures, as well as their inability to develop codes of good practice for elections and for dealing with other political parties.
There are five key areas against which the performance of political parties can be realistically measured:
1) Political environment in which parties function and conduct their business. In many developing counties, this environment is fundamentally hostile to political parties. This affects their unity and ability to organise themselves as a formidable opposition.
2) External regulations that shape parties and party systems. Political parties are directly affected by the consequence of an imperfect constitution or its interpretation by a government which is only democratic in name but not in practice. It is also important to examine whether national laws put any restrictions on political parties such as an excessively restrictive framework for the registration of new political parties, limits on the freedom to exercise the right to assembly and free speech and what can be termed as government interference in their internal functioning.
3) Intra-party functioning. This is often the most neglected area of political parties’ work. While parties are active in the political field, they sometimes neglect to conduct internal elections and fail to devise rules and legal frameworks for the selection and removal of party leadership, candidate selection, mechanisms for dispute resolution, funding and internal audit.
4) Institutional shortcomings. Often political parties are found to be organisationally weak and heavily dependent on single leaders. Strong family connections and reliance on few sources for party funding also prevent political parties from transcending their leadership. Institutional issues involve long-term stability of political parties to command support of people which is essential for the stability of democracy.
5) Challenge of emerging new parties based on regionalism, ethnicity and egalitarianism. Established political parties face this phenomenon due to many reasons which include nationalism, rise of specific interest groups, and a desire to practise democracy locally. The performance of political parties depends on the role they play in maintaining inter-party relations and promoting pluralism and fostering peace and democracy. This also helps to form coalitions.
It is possible to rebuild trust in political parties by examining a number of factors that impact on their reputation. Political parties can function independently and efficiently if the external political environment is conducive to nurturing a liberal democratic system.
Political parties can be fully functional only if there is respect for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and constitutional protection for freedom of assembly, religion and speech.
Without these democratic values, political parties can only struggle to survive and at best contest elections but not deliver much in terms of substance. Effort should therefore be directed first to correct the external environment for political parties to flourish.
It is also important that irrespective of the external environment, political parties raise their game by setting mechanisms for democratic functioning and observe codes of conduct for internal governance. They must play a positive role in parliament, in standing committees and during campaigns at the time of elections.
A major issue regarding the performance of political parties is lack of capacity. Many opposition parties are weak because of shortage of funds and insufficient training of workers. The international community needs to support political parties by offering technical assistance on such issues as internal democracy, inter-party relations, role and responsibility of parties in government and opposition, role of money politics and code of conduct for parties during elections.
Declining trust in political parties can also be measured from the low voter turnout at most elections. One way of rebuilding this trust is for parties to involve citizens in consultations at the grass-roots level. Parties should be prepared to review their policies and mechanisms by taking into account public attitudes and opinions. They also need to build their ability to communicate with voters their achievements and proposals in a positive and targeted manner.
PS: This article was published by the author in the daily Dawn on 13 April 2007