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Evaluating Democracy

April 2003
Evaluating Democracy


The philosophy, beliefs and expectations of a democratic form of government are exemplified by the famous words of Abraham Lincoln: ?Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.? To many, the word democracy has come to symbolize freedom of speech, freedom of press, universal suffrage and rule of law. It is where one can be what they wish to be without being judged by constricted ideals. But most importantly, a government where the voice of the people is given significance and their sentiments are respected. This is a very idealist and almost simplified view of democracy. A view that is good to read on paper but very difficult to practice in theory. For, even though democracy is the government of the people, by the people, it may not necessarily be for the people.

The Australian government?s stance on Iraq has highlighted both the constructive as well as the cynical aspect of democracy. On the one hand, democracy is about freedom, the will of the people, liberty and equality. But on the other hand, democracy contradicts its very principle when governments fail to address the concerns of their people.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard deployed troops in the Persian Gulf amidst angry public protests. The Morning Herald wrote that troops were being sent ?without the support of the vast majority of the Australian public.? This one line alone says much about the challenge faced by democracy. People voice their opinion but often remain ignored by their governments. Mr. Bob Brown, leader of Australia?s Greens Party, aptly described the government?s policy on Iraq as ?a monumental snubbing of the democratic processes.? But then, as Aristotle wrote centuries ago: ?If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.? It then raises the question if all govern, who shall be governed?

Democracy loses its value when the government follows a selfish and motivated agenda and implements its own policy against the wishes of its citizens. It would be impractical to take into consideration every single view in a democracy for then it would be a state of anarchy. However, the government needs to listen to all views before making a rational decision on any policy. A democratic government must take into account the voice of the people in its decision making process. For the line that divides democracy from other forms of government is the significance given to the will of the people.���

Prime Minister Howard?s decision to send troops despite public disapproval may disillusion some, but it is also countered by the historic no-confidence motion by the Australian Senate as a show of disapproval against him and his Conservative-Liberal coalition position on Iraq. The no-confidence motion passed unanimously by both the opposition as well as minor parties has no legislative significance but is a ?symbolic gesture? that the government is accountable to the nation for its action and cannot ignore the voice of its people. This was first time in Australia?s 102-year history that the Senate had passed a vote of no confidence against a Prime Minister.

Unfazed by Public Opinion

The Australian government is not alone in its snubbing of the popular sentiment. In UK, the government policy on Iraq is in stark contrast to the opinion of its citizens. A recent anti-war rally in London saw more than 750,000 (!) people voicing their opposition to war. It is believed to have been the largest protest ever in the UK and yet it seemed to have almost no influence on government policy. Polls (before the war began) consistently demonstrated close to 90% of the British as against the war without UN sanction.

Prime Minister Tony Blair remained unfazed by the strong public opinion, stating he had not sought ?unpopularity as a badge of honor? yet ?sometimes it is the price of leadership and the cost of conviction?. But can one leader?s conviction be deemed higher than that of the people?

For the first time we had seen mass global protests even before a war had begun. As millions turn out on the streets, the government needs to pay heed to the voice of the people. For failure to do so would be mocking at democracy as a hypocritical political ideal that shows no relevance or respect to the will of people as opposed to any other form of government, notably oppressive dictatorial ones.

Is majority always right?

A country is considered democratic not in name but principles. As the new fear of terrorism grips the world, some democratic nations have adopted undemocratic policies. But a truly democratic nation does not abandon its beliefs in the face of difficulty, on the contrary it strengthens its resolve to protect the rights of its people and heed its will.

Then one is left to wonder what if the will of the people is an unacceptable one, encompassed in hate and irrationality. In Gujarat, the very social and moral fiber of the society was shaken after tragic events at Godhra led to state wide riots. Frenzied mobs went on a rampage of destruction, leaving behind charred bodies, battered souls and broken spirits. In Rwanda we witnessed inhumanity unfold as the majority committed incomprehensible atrocities towards the minority. Should a government then adhere to the will of such a vicious and destructive majority?

Democracy seems to be an uncomplicated political ideology on the surface, but on closer scrutiny one is confronted with contradictions, myths and complexities. For it seems to be a delicate balance between governance, rationality and the desires of the people. It is for the leadership to find that right balance to do what is right and just, not only for its nation, but for humanity. However, the responsibility for a successful democracy lies not only with good governance but concerned citizens.

There is no doubt that democracy remains the most balanced and desirable form of government. However, democracy is a political ideology one can encourage nations to adopt, but not force upon them, for that alone defeats the quest for true democracy.

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