01: My 2 Cents on Democracy

12-06-2019 21:06

Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.     


The 12th of June marks Democracy day in Nigeria, and what better day to put down a few thoughts on democracy other than when the concept is celebrated in the biggest of Africa’s democracies?

The world over, it would appear that Democracy is birthing unprecedented levels of dissent and disorder, with protests blazing from Hong Kong to Haiti to Sudan and beyond. Even the so called epitomes of Democracy do not seem to be getting it quite right, the Americans and their first runner up president and the Britons and their indecisiveness on how to – and if – to leave the European Union are cases in point.

It would appear that the various critics of democracy got it right, a representative government is not the best of alternatives but is it so? Or do we risk throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Democracy in many ways is the best of the various systems so far tried. It has delivered the greatest well being, the greatest participation and self determination,  especially at the nation/state level of human cooperation, so what seems to be the problem?

It would appear as if democracy is proving to have been too successful, maybe even to the point of engineering its own demise. Hong Kong protests are over fear of extradition to China and the end of the one state two systems policy. It seems logical to want to repatriate criminals facing crimes punishable with over seven years to their country of origin, but the majority will not have that.

In Sudan it seems logical to request some time in which to sort out the affairs of state and to negotiate transition to Civilian authority, but the majority is not having that.

Is the problem here that democracy is leading to pressure by the citizens over any little thing? Is the critical mass for civil disobedience now becoming a hindrance to growth? I understand this as a question of political authority and democratic mandate.

David Milller contends that political authority is necessary because the systems offers trust and protection to the citizens as well as many other public goods, so that both the people who obey the law because they should can live together with those who do not do so because they can or wish to do so.

Furthermore, a world without political authority, reminiscent of Hobbes’ thoughts in the Levithian are chaotic nightmares. Indeed, our ability to cooperate on such anonymous levels under labels and structures like state nation, religion etc are the reason why humans have managed to succeed so much in the world, if Yuval Harari is to be believed.

If political authority is not in contest, then how should it be dispensed. What should the configuration be? The various systems tried over time have floundered. Feudalism and monarchy, communism, socialism have all but disappeared in the face of democracy and its attendant capitalism, so what is the problem?

Why is it that so many electorates are warring with their elected voices, they very people they gave the mandate. And if the majority is the one the official is beholden to, why does the majority not withdraw their mandate?

The first thing to keep in mind is that short of an election/referendum event, it is difficult to tell the will of the people. While 1 million people are rumored to have marched in Hong Kong, the number seems overwhelming before the almost 8 million population of Hong Kong is considered.

Secondly, often, the majority of an electorate is not the one that elects.  Most elections, from South Africa, Zimbabwe even to the United Kingdom are characterized by a minority of people deciding to vote in the first place. In the United States in 2016, it is estimated that of a voting age population of 250 million, only 139 million turned up to vote, which is only 55% of the possible voters. While electoral college votes gain prominence here, Trump’s 46% popular votes of 63 million would, simplified, mean that 25,2% of all possible voters voted for Trump, thus our definition of majority has to be more nuanced.

The issue of mandate is yet another sticky issue. The opening quote calls democracy choosing your dictator. This can be argued to be so if citizens only participate once every 5 years, and the rest of the time is given to the politicians to make decisions and decide on their behalf, even what would appear to be against the citizenry’s wishes.

The question is, so what is the remedy to the apparent ‘scourge’ of clashing between democratically elected leaders and their electing public?

The first is to fix the global issue of apathy. Why do so many believe that they have better things to do than participate in political process?

Because an event that comes once every five years, no matter how important, is hard to sell as a daily issue of prominence. That means while urging participation, there is also need to open up the space for more democratic involvement so that participation is not an event, but an ongoing process.

 In the digital age of devices and instantaneous connection, there is need for politicians and citizenry alike to realize the electorate can make may more decisions than they could before. The POTRAZ 2018 fourth quarter report states that  Zimbabwe had 12,908,992 mobile phone subscribers. This is versus a 2018 presidential election turnout of 4.8 mllion. Even adjusting for double counts shows that there is more ways of participation that can be used and the democratic state needs to change to show that.

The issue of withdrawing mandate, has ordinarily been left for the electorate on the five year cycles of an election. However in an ever changing world  five years is a long time. In 2014,  5G internet speeds were still a myth and America was still a signatory to NAFTA, COP21 and was working on the Trans Atlantic Trade Investment Partnership. China had yet to unveil their belt and silk road initiative and the damaging trade war between China and the USA had not broken out ($445 billion to be lost according to the IMF.) It is time to think of better and less extreme mechanisms than impeachment for the electorate to withdraw their mandate. There needs to be broader based public input on policy, law regulations. These issues need not be left only to representative officials, who also have their own interests to take care of otherwise situation like Hong Kong, Haiti, Sudan among others will continue to be rife.

In the end, the people are the custodians of the mandate and democracy in this 21st century needs to move away from politicians having near dictatorial control between elections, but must be flexible and adaptable so that the will of the people need not spill out in its millions in the streets for some sort of change.