What is democracy?

Source : Google photo

Synopsis : We know what democracy is but we do not see a perfect example of it in most countries including the United States so democracy may mean different things to different people. The most we can say is that it is in progress and may take a long time to achieve universal education and until all the voters are given equal rights and voice.

When I think of democracy, I think of an ideal where everyone has a voice irrespective of race, religion, gender, political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation and education. That is the ideal democracy where every vote counts and the winner is the one who gets the most votes. The popular will gets him or her the mandate to rule.

This was the premise on which the democracy was born in ancient Greece where people enjoyed the power of vote to vote in or out a person whom they liked or disliked. The mandate thus gained through the vote was sacrosanct and could not be challenged by anyone during the validity of the mandate.

We have seen the spread of democracy in one form or other throughout the world where people have voted for their candidates and often removed a tyrant or a despot who ruled over a people illegally. Often a violent revolution was a precursor to the advent of democracy where oppressed people took to the streets to protest at first through peaceful means and later through armed struggle when that did not work. The revolutions are never peaceful and lead to suffering and death that may or may not result in the democracy.

We have seen this again and again in countries where a ruthless dictator rules to maintain his personal or family advantage where he has abused his power by using it on its people without justice and where he continues to plunder the national wealth for his personal gains.

All people have the basic desire to be free and live in a just society where the rule of law prevails, where people can walk the street without fear and where people can speak, read or write freely including the right to criticize the unjust government that does not serve the people it may or may not have been elected to serve.

In Syria people at first wanted to protest peacefully against a dictator and bring about a change in the government but failed to do so. They were beaten, jailed and tortured for speaking out against a government that is oppressive and treats its people badly. Such dictators use the police and military as the means to suppress protests because people are powerless to protect themselves.

This changes when they are killed or tortured so they start to protect themselves by taking up arms. This often turns into a lopsided battle against the oppressor because the government has more money and guns to subjugate people. Often the geopolitics kicks in and many countries get involved in such struggles on one side or the other and a proxy war starts just like in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq so the people who want democracy suffer.

Millions become homeless in their own country and live in vast refugee camps in total misery while others flee the fighting to reach safe haven somewhere and often die doing so. Cities and villages are destroyed, infrastructure collapses and total lawlessness prevails where no one is safe anymore.

We see this in so many countries were people are suffering due to war caused by the refusal of the ruler to grant them democracy. I have lived through terrible and brutal revolution in Haiti where the people were able to overthrow a dictator and started the process of building a viable democracy but it is a process that is still in the making. We have seen the power of people that overthrew a dictator in the Philippines but there too the process is in the making of a true and viable democracy.

We have seen how the people of Zimbabwe have struggled but have failed to dislodge a tyrant who has brought a once prosperous country to its knees and has no wish to relinquish power. We have seen the violent uprising in formerly East Pakistan where the oppressed people took to armed struggle to gain their freedom but at a terrible loss of life. So freedom and democracy exacts a heavy price but people struggle on because they hope someday they will achieve what they are struggling for.

The King of Jordan said that democracy means different thing to different people. In some countries it means one person one vote where they elect a secular government like in India and in other countries called Islamic republics like in Pakistan or Iran , people have to reconcile the Islamic laws with the secular laws and often find it very difficult.

Remember that the original concept of democracy was based on the rule of just laws where religion did not interfere with the governance but now we see in many countries that is happening. When one religion gains supremacy over others then the oppression of the religious minorities starts under the guise of rule of religious laws like in some Islamic countries where people suffer. There is always a hard core segment of the population that gains the upper hand and oppresses the vast majority of the population. This is playing out right now in Mosul , in Tikrit and Raquaa where democracy remains elusive and people continue to suffer.

In the United States where the experiment with democracy is still in progress after so many years has failed to give the people a voice in electing a government of their choice by insisting on the electoral College method. Thus a handful of people of the Electoral College can overturn the popular votes cast by millions and give the victory to someone who did not deserve. When people do not have a voice through their vote then there is no democracy so we see that there is no perfect democracy anywhere because democracy is so fragile.

One very popular president elected twice who made tremendous gains in healthcare coverage, in giving people a voice to gain their basic rights and many such good deeds is now systematically being undone by a very vengeful president who is determined to roll back all the progress made in the past and increase the tax burden on the very poor while giving tax breaks to the super rich. If this is happening in the United States where they have been working on democracy for over two hundred years and still can’t come to terms with it then one can only imagine how difficult it must be to practice democracy in countries where they do not have much experience in it.

Building of democracy:

I often think of democracy as an edifice that has to be built up one brick at a time with a solid foundation so that it does not collapse in the future. This means building up a solid foundation first that requires education. If the voters are not educated in the ways of democracy, they will misuse the power of their vote and regret it .It means understanding what it means to be an elected person who then rules over them always upholding the constitution.

An elected official is a public servant and he is elected to serve the people who have elected him or her and who expect him or her to represent them and serve their interest. It means creating jobs for them, building affordable houses for them and provide them with affordable healthcare when they are sick. It means creating a fear free environment where people can make progress using their education. It means being free to criticize the government when it does not serve the people but only the vested interests. It means a free press that serves as a watchdog over the government and reports without fear or prejudice on wrongdoings and exposes them to scrutiny.

So democracy is a work in progress where some people want to crush it for their personal gains like in Haiti or Zimbabwe or Syria so we see again and again a setback to democracy in many parts of the world where people are still struggling.

We live in an imperfect world where bad people try to gain power so that they can become super rich plundering the national wealth. Such people gain power through voter fraud, through intimidation and through bribery. Sometime they just kill their opponents so that they can get to win unopposed.

In a very poor country like Rumania, there was a dictator who built a 1000 room palace with gold bathtubs and crystal chandeliers and Persian carpets but people could not take it anymore and executed him. In other countries like Uganda, people were powerless to get rid of Idi Amin who later fled to Saudi Arabia with all his wealth. I was appalled by the display of Shah’s wealth at the airport of Tehran where the pirate boxes were overflowing with pearls and jewels while people starved. He too left the country with most of the loot so people were powerless to bring him to justice.

In a real democracy the wrongdoers are punished and are always held accountable by the justice system. The three pillars of democracy are the independent judiciary, legislature and the executive branch but the free press and system of checks and balances are just as important.

So I come back to the foundation of democracy that is supposed to be built by the educated voters. This is the bane of democracy. What if the voters are not educated or not enough to understand that real democracy can only come when voters have the power to hold the elected government accountable? It is not enough to know that they have the power to vote out a government they do not like but it is their duty to elect a person who will serve them and protect them.

In many countries where democracy is still struggling to gain a foothold, the voters remain uneducated and vote for a populist person who makes outlandish promises only to forget them when it suits his purpose. The politicians are often called the scum that floats to the top so they are not the kind of people who should be voted for so how can an uneducated person know what a politician is really like?

So building a stable and viable democracy is a long and tedious process with uncertain results. Any scheming, thieving and conniving politician can set back the progress made by a good government by decades while he enriches himself.

In ancient Athens and Alexandria people used to gather every day in a public square to listen to politicians and philosophers who would explain to people what they believed in and how they could serve the people. There were lively discourses where anyone could ask questions and participate in the debate or governance, on taxation, on public health or any other topic. This was the nascent democracy where people learned from very learned people the pros and cons of any subject under discussion. But it has gone out of style. Now we get the news and views or analysis all filtered through government controlled media in most countries so there is really no discussion.

Now an elected government can declare a war on another country on fraudulent basis and start sending its citizens to die there or kill. Those who return come home often with disabilities and PTSD problems. In a real democracy people have to power to say no.

So I think the phrases like “you only get the government you deserve” downplays the importance of building a solid foundation on which a democracy is built and flourishes. This means education at the grass roots level. It means protecting the voter’s right to vote and be vigilant to catch the bad people who want to deny the voter his right to vote. It means building a secular basis of governance untainted by religious zealots who always have their own agenda. It means building awareness among the people that the democracy means equal rights for everybody in everything they do. It means building a just society where the rule of law prevails and everyone has a fair shake.

I would like to live in such a democracy but I am only a dreamer.