Democracy

The demise of democracy: Part 5 (Conclusion)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

CONCLUSION

This is the conclusion to a series of posts titled The Demise of Democracy. Click to read The West (USA), The West (Europe), Part 3 (Asia) and Part 4 (Middle East).

The first thing I should probably note is that this is neither an academically rigorous series nor even a very complete one. There are numerous countries whom have not been included, all of whom could have been excellent case studies: the troubles in India, the situation in Russia not to mention Eastern Europe, Africa and South America. You are equally correct to note that the countries and events selected to illustrate the argument necessarily mean that many others are omitted, including ones that would run counter to the idea that democracy is on the down. And perhaps it would have been better to include more countries and a greater number of regions. I’ll leave that for another time.

Don’t get me wrong, these posts were not intended to be a verdict on democracy. I myself do not believe that democracy as an idea is necessarily in decline. I certainly would agree that democracy is under threat in many areas of the world. But that isn’t to say that democracy is a bad idea, although there are aspects of other political systems that I respect (particularly some level of authoritarianism), it seems clear that the most viable form of governance for the foreseeable future is some form of democracy.

So if this wasn’t meant to mark the actual end of democracy, what was the purpose of these posts? By connecting the dots together on various problems that democracy around the world is facing, these posts will hopefully have helped you to actually question whether democracy is a preferable system, rather than just accepting its inevitability. More importantly, provided that you actually agree that democracy is the more preferable system of governance, this will hopefully keep us on our toes and prevent us from become complacent about the development of democracy around the world.

Paul Lau

The demise of democracy: Part 4 (Middle East)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

Previously: The West (USA), The West (Europe), Asia

MIDDLE EAST

Hardly the home of democracy, the recent series of regime changes in the Middle East have led to the purported ‘Arab Spring’, the rejuvenation and flourishing of democratic ideals in the Middle East. While the protests were certainly against existing regimes, it is difficult to say conclusively that they were calls for greater democracy.

Egypt’s elections now means it finally has a truly elected leader of the country. But the government is interestingly enough, filled with many old faces from the old regime. A struggle for power between various factions in the Egyptian political system continues, all the while at the expense of the livelihood of many Egyptians.

Libya successfully deposed of Qadaffi, but now finds itself split, whether along geographical or tribal lines. Attempts to create a democratic system have been faced with countless difficulty. Whilst many people opposed the Qadaffi regime, there is yet little evidence that there is large scale support for a new democratic system. If anything, many groups and communities are now merely turning to other forms of rule.

Iraq, after years of fighting, remains mired in ethnic clashes that make the democratic system unworkable. Pakistan’s democratic system continues to face uncertainty, not least because of continued threat from extremist groups, but also from the discord between various military, civilian, rural and ethnic factions.

Iran, despite it’s obviously undemocratic regime, still manages to maintain its economic interests and continues to develop its nuclear program, despite the continued attempt by western countries to pressure the regime through economic means. For a government system lacking in democracy, Iran is not doing too badly.

Next time: Conclusion

The demise of democracy: Part 3 (Asia)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

Previously: The West (USA), The West (Europe)

ASIA

Although Myanmar has now held elections, freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and shown increasing openness, it remains a far cry from having true democracy. Japan seems to be going through new prime ministers like they’re merely disposable cups with six different prime ministers in just as many years. It hardly seems to be a good sign of a stable and mature democracy when the prime minister’s position seems to be nothing more than a revolving chair with a new occupant every year or so.

In Asia, Thailand has been thrown into political turmoil in the aftermath of Thaksin Shinawatra’s removal/departure. Much like the extremes of the US political system, the red-shirt vs. yellow-shirt divide has become a symbol of the paralysis of the Thai political system. With occupation followed by street battles and prime ministers brought down by legal tussles, Thailand has seen a period of increasing turmoil. In fact, the pitch street battles forced transport systems to shut-down and even required military involvement in an attempt to end them. Whether Yingluck Shinawatra will have better luck healing the divide and moving Thailand towards the democratic utopia as advertised remains to be seen. She faces a difficult dilemma because, as noted by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University#, “If she doesn’t try to bring Thaksin back, Thaksin won’t be happy. If she tries to bring him back, his opponents won’t be happy”.

Hong Kong might appear to be moving towards democracy, but I would really compare it to inching like a snail. I’ve argued that Hong Kong’s political process is getting more mature, that is not the same as saying Hong Kong is making significant moves towards democracy. The other city-state to consider is Singapore, which whilst far from a very open democracy, nevertheless commands considerable economic might and still manages to provide amply for its civilians.

Of course, all this happens in the massive shadows cast by China which has managed to be simultaneously prosperous and anything but a democracy. Although it has fallen from it’s glory days of 8% growth, China still manages a more than respectable 7% growth rate and has managed to beat most expectations with its economic growth. Although aspects of the system may appear to be supportive of independence and democracy (what with ‘independent’ candidates and all), it would be pretty hard to convince anyone that there are plans for anything other than continuing the one party rule. And as many people in China would concur, what’s so bad about that. Whilst China has a long way to go to improve, there is nothing yet to suggest conclusively that it would be entirely impossible without democracy.

Next time: The Middle East

The demise of democracy: Part 2 (Europe)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

Previously: The West (USA)

THE WEST (EUROPE)

In Europe, arguably the source of democracy (Athens), democracy isn’t faring much better. The UK has a coalition government, which is arguably a good thing, but it points to a failure of the original system dominated by Labour and the Conservatives.

In Greece, a referendum on the bailout plan was called off and an unelected, technocratic government formed to lead Greece towards calmer waters. Now, not one, but two de-facto referendum on the bailout and elections have been held, with the lack of national consensus on many of the core issues facing Greece scaring markets. Elections, the supposed bedrock of modern democracy, only seemed to further complicate political uncertainty and help send the financial markets tumbling.

Italy is now led by ‘Super Mario’ who heads an unelected, technocratic government that for all our love of democracy, lacks any sort of electoral mandate. It should probably be noted that Berlusconi was duly elected.

Even the European Union has been chastised for the failure of its consensus and democratic decision making. Pundits have long called for much stronger action and for ways to bypass democratic deadlock. Germany’s dominance of the debate surrounding the Eurozone’s debt crisis points in much the same direction.

More than anything in recent times, the debt crisis in Europe seems to be pushing Europe away from democracy and consensus decision making as was championed in the past. Rather, Europe increasingly seems to be embracing the idea that a few people and institutions hold a disproportionate share of the power for decision making.

Next time: Asia

The demise of democracy: Part 1 (USA)

For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.

THE WEST (USA)

One of the biggest proponents of democracy, the US itself has found its political system mired in partisan deadlock in recent times. Ever since Newt Gingrich’s political blockade against Bill Clinton, both Republicans and Democrats have used their time as the opposition to do just that – opposing virtually everything that comes their way. The filibuster has been used endlessly in the Senate, and often for entirely trivial matters. Most recently, the House of Representatives has become the new place of gridlock with dozens of bills stuck in committees and a sizable collection of party-line votes.

The long list of unapproved nominations to various government positions is another case in point. Both Bush and Obama have had difficulty getting nominees approved. Many commentators have rued the over politicization of judicial appointments. It’s not that nominees are outright rejected (ignoring the question of competence or capacity), a vast number of them are simply never voted on. It is telling that mistrust in the US political system is at new heights. Disapproval of Congress, supposedly the US home of democratic representation, is at an all time high with nearly 80%# disapproving of Congress’s work.

Ideologically, more and more voters class themselves as independents; but ironically, the number of independent senators and representatives is dwindling, both in terms of ideology and party affiliation. Indeed, the emergency of the Tea Party has pushed the Republican party further to the right, unseating many moderates in the process.

While one could legitimately argue that this is all just a part of the democratic process, one can’t but help question whether democracy remains the undisputed king of all political systems.

Next time: The West (Europe)

The failure of elected representatives

Most of the world now heralds the brilliance and importance of representation by our elected representatives. But it has occurred to me that we really shouldn’t be so upset that even those we elect don’t truly represent our views on all or even most issues. There are two ways to look at this, firstly by looking at the voting process, and secondly from the representatives point of view.

THE VOTER

Votes, no matter what the ideal situation might be, are either not based on the issues, or based on just a few issues out of many. In the first instance, although seen as undesirable, reality is that many voters cast their ballots based on the appearance or their impressions of the candidates rather than actual policy. Obama is a good example of someone who won on high public approval but often based purely upon personal charisma and a favorable personality. That’s not to say people don’t agree with his policies, but rather than a large part of his electoral base (or those of his opponents) are based upon his personality and how they feel about him. Let’s not pretend that uninformed voters don’t exist.
(more…)