During the peak of the Arab Spring in 2011, many pundits especially those in the West attributed the uprising of the citizens in Middle East and North Africa against the government to absence of democracy. For instance, Egypt at the time was under a dictator – Hosni Mubarak who held the country together for about three decades. In Libya, citizens were under the grip of Moumar Ghadafi for four decades. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries in that region erupted as citizens challenged the despotic leadership that held sway for decades. Even, President George W. Bush while defending his administration’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq rationalized the attack as part of efforts to export democracy to a country whose erstwhile strongman, Saddam Hussein kept intact for many years. The entire region rejected liberal democracy. The incessant instability in that part of the world is partly an evidence of the total rejection of liberal democracy especially those imposed by United States. Iraq is split into three – Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites because of a variant of democracy that hardly suits the environment. Each part wants to be autonomous and yet some forces oppose such aspirations of citizens.
Whereas most countries labeled undemocratic resented western liberal democracies, the so called paragons of democracy – notably United States and Britain are currently undergoing its equivalence of Arab Spring. The uprising against the political elite is so visible and so is a total collapse of confidence in public officials and public institutions. It is an era of democratic disruption showcasing all democratic defects and deficits in contemporary world of globalization.
To fully understand the growing gulf between people and politics that brings about crises of democracy and especially democratic representation, consider the recent Brexit referendum and ongoing presidential election campaigns in the United States. Both case studies provide sufficient insight into the dilemma of leaders and the led. European and American politics are emblematic of the complex challenges to the legitimacy of democracy as an enduring model of government. A robust democracy envisages active citizen participation just as democratic leadership envisages listening to voters’ voices by elected officials. It is a transactional relationship: voters choose representatives to speak and act on their behalf. Representatives yield to the wishes of voters who they represent. This is the ideal world but in the real world, democracy has not always functioned as intended leading such questions: Does representative democracy entrench the interests of political elite? How can increased citizen participation contribute to deepening of democracy?
The Brexit referendum is supposed to gauge British public opinion in relation to leaving or remaining in the European Union. That’s democracy. But, the binary nature of referenda imposes restrictions to voters. In a referendum, voters are given two specific propositions of either yes or no without considering the choice of voters who may not want to answer yes or no but have other preferences. In other words, referenda by nature ignore the democratic value of protecting minority rights.
Another democratic defect or deficit inherent in referendum is that it makes compromise impossible and yet we know that compromise is an important aspect of democratic governance. Referendum is often irreversible because the verdict is final. Imagine the feeling of over 4 million British citizens who want the government to reconsider holding another referendum on the country’s exit from European Union. They can’t get another chance and yet this is democracy? A more troubling fact is that the lifespan of referenda is indefinite. Unlike defined terms of office of political leaders, referenda do not have terms limits. Britain elected to join the EU 40 years ago and arbitrarily voted to exit the union nearly half a century later. If anything, arbitrariness is anathema to democracy. As much as referendum is a manifestation of democracy, it also diminishes democracy in many ways.
America’s prospect of electing the most unpopular candidates in recent history is another testament to the legitimacy of the democratic process that ensured the nomination of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The idea of voter incomprehension partly explains how Donald Trump who is so ignorant about policy issues unexpectedly emerged to be the Republican presidential candidate, shattering conventional wisdom about political civility. His emergence not only represented a voice for angry white racial majority who suddenly feel disempowered and unprivileged in a coloring America, but also exposed the gulf between the political elite and Republican Party primary voters. On the other hand, Democratic Party’s Hillary Clinton with unparalleled negatives became the nominee of the party – the first for a woman. Her historic victory came in the face of an insurgent candidate – Bernie Sanders who was so loved and admired by so many voters but crises of democracy swept him off consideration. It was another case of disconnect between people and politics.
Consequently, American voters are presented with a choice of casting their ballots for one of two evils. Will the eventual winner of the presidential election be empowered to deepen democracy? It is very unlikely because of the fault lines that led to the emergence of such a leadership, further questioning the legitimacy of democracy.
Faced with a similar dilemma last year Nigeria was presented with a Hobson’s choice – Mohammadu Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan. At the time, several pundits suggested that neither outcome will be good for Nigeria. One year on, the health of the country today suggests that democracy has not led to the fulfillment of the aspirations of the more than 180 million people- the largest concentration of black people in the world. The promise of democracy remains over shadowed by the perils of democracy. The hopes and aspirations of young Nigerians are dashed; over 70% of working population is unemployed or underemployed; there is a health and food crisis in a country that should not have anything to do with poverty; and massive insecurity persists in the land. How concerned are the people’s representatives? They may be concerned at heart but little or no action is visible towards changing the status quo. Neither is there a concerted effort to develop better forms of representation that will be truly Nigerian and suited to solve country’s unique challenges. Clearly, the notion of democratic deficit applies to Nigeria today because many Nigerians have resigned to fate in the belief that they cannot use their participatory opportunities to achieve responsiveness from a government that is unable to generate needed legitimacy from existing democratic sources.
It is obvious that there is no clear resolution to the many defects of democracy and this piece did not attempt to outline any suggestions. It is meant to provoke thoughts in the hope that citizens, given the opportunity, could develop appropriate governing approaches that will minimize the perils of representative democracy or direct democracy as practiced presently. The era of democratic disruption hopefully will pave the way to a model of governance consistent with changes in a globalized world.