Sunday 23rd July, 2017
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Rethinking Democratic Representation (ll)

Rethinking Democratic Representation (ll)

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.

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