Thursday 23rd February, 2017
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Rethinking democratic representation (1)

Rethinking democratic representation (1)

The surprising outcome of the British referendum to leave the European Un­ion and the unexpected rise of Donald Trump as the presump­tive nominee of the Republican Party in November’s presiden­tial election in the United States are further evidence of the disconnect between the politi­cal class and ordinary citizens. Many Americans and in par­ticular the conservative politi­cal class were taken unawares as Donald Trump surged to clinch the Republican ticket to seek entrance to the White House. The political class underrated the support and resentment of voters for too long amid too many failed promises. Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister, David Cameron mis­calculated the pulse of Brit­ish electorate and pushed the country to a Brexit referendum that ultimately swept him out of power. In Nigeria, President Buhari and ruling All Progres­sives Congress (APC) rose to power with a promise to change the country for the better but from all indications, Nigerian voters are confronted with buy­ers’ remorse and lamenting their votes. The wave of anti-es­tablishment fever and growing chasm between elected officials and the electorate point to the need to evaluate the potentials, possibilities, and practices of democracy in a fast changing world.
Confronted with the restive anti-European Union wing of his Conservative Party, Prime Minister David Cameron sought to pacify the Tories be­fore the 2015 general election and promised that if re-elected, he would hold an in-or-out referendum on continued Brit­ish membership of the Euro­pean Union. At the time, the relatively low-risk strategy to satisfy his rancorous political base ballooned into an issue with potential global consequences for democratic governance and world economy. After the June 23 referendum, Britain voted to exit the European Union.
Today, the real buyers’ re­morse sets in and a vast number of voters want a do-over. So many British news reports indicated that many voters were regretful of their decision. Some said they merely thought they were lodg­ing a protest vote — they didn’t think Brexit would actually happen. Others actually called election workers wondering if they could change their vote. In a similar but different context, many Republicans in the US are regretting the rise of Trump – the harvest of prolonged Republican hatred against the first President of the United States with African blood and staunch opposition to common sense legislations for the past eight years. The opposi­tion party over sold its influence and riled the base of the party and offered little, further creat­ing canyon between the political elites and voters.
Against the background of the gap between politicians and vot­ers in terms of what voters want or do not want, what is the rel­evance of democracy as we know it and practice it? Does represen­tation in democracies needs re­furbishing?
Representation in democra­cies from the lens of democratic minimalism is basically an act of electoral authorization geared towards selecting a government. In other words, democratic rep­resentation is driven by the ac­tions of political leaders. Critics of minimal democracy, on the other hand, accept the central role of participation in a de­mocracy, even as the meaning of participation remains controver­sial. All too often, scholars and political pundits advocate active citizen participation in a democ­racy without clarity on what par­ticipatory formats are desirable. What type of participation can narrow the interests and actions of elected officials versus voters?
In the United States, the House of Representatives and different State legislatures employ differ­ent ways of electing congres­sional delegations and state leg­islatures. The process involves dividing the state into legislative districts that must be redrawn every decade after a new census. Because states create districts, they must decide how district lines will be drawn.
In many states, the state legis­lature draws the districts often with partisan knife to slice the districts in a manner to influence the likely partisan makeup of the legislature, discourage electoral competition and rig the demo­cratic process like fair represen­tation of voters and the ability of voters to influence election results.
Consequently, redistricting encourages manipulation of elections by allowing incumbent politicians to help partisan al­lies, hurt political enemies and choose their voters before the voters choose them. The current process is used as a means to fur­ther political goals by drawing boundaries to protect incum­bents and reduce competition, rather than to ensure equal vot­ing power and fair representa­tion. This is how some members of Congress of both Republican and Democratic Parties perpetu­ate themselves in office. They choose their voters instead of the other way round. In fact, the continued intransigence of con­gressional Republicans in US and unprecedented gridlock in the country’s polity are attributa­ble to redistricting that occurred in 2010 after the takeover of Congress following Democratic Party’s loss in that year’s mid-term Congressional elections. In that year, Republicans redrew the electoral map to their favor and are therefore secured from voters that might influence or punish their actions. No matter what they do in Congress, they are sure voters in their district will return them to Congress in every two-year election cycle.
In Nigeria and other emerging democracies, politicians may not have the skill to choose their voters by redistricting of con­stituencies, but they learn other methods such as stuffing bal­lot boxes or manipulating elec­tion outcomes to the extent that elections are not truly the verdict of voters. This is the contemporary challenge of de­mocracy.
Is it time to explore better forms of representation? Many forms of representation or gov­ernment – fascism, monarchy, and communism- have been tried, and more forms will be tried in the future. Liberal de­mocracy as practiced widely around the world has its many defects. But, war time Prime Minister of United Kingdom, Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government ex­cept for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Also in his provocative book, “The End of History and The Last Man”, political science professor, Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy constituted the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolu­tion and final form of human government”. The summation is that democracy has no substi­tute. It is the best form of gov­ernment available to man today.
The problem with this argu­ment is that propositions of that nature diminish the potentials of human creativity. Before the evolution of liberal democracy, the world lived with monarchy, fascism, and communism. It is still possible that given the con­tinued exposure of democracy’s defects, the world can still discover other methods that could address the genuine as­pirations of voters and politi­cal leaders. The resentment of voters towards the attitude of leaders who continue to ig­nore them must be addressed by all concerned. A continued experiment in direct democ­racy needs thorough assess­ment.

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