Just as you can’t have too much health, you can’t have too much democracy.
THIRD World dictator types and others who think people’s legitimate freedom should be limited are often fond of saying that there is too much democracy in the world. They do not know what they talking about but are merely justifying their own actions.
There cannot be too much democracy, just as there can’t be too much health. Democracy is an ideal that everyone but a dictator aims for. Even communist countries known for their undisguised oppression call themselves democratic.
It is an ideal which seeks to ensure that the people in a country are given their rights, treated equitably, given respect and are allowed to freely and fairly choose their leaders in situations where others have to make decisions for them, such as in running a country.
What some leaders, including former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, are confusing democracy with is the overthrow of a fairly elected government through demonstrations. That is actually undemocratic and is not a situation of too much democracy but too little.
Here’s what Dr Mahathir was reported to have said: “One of these countries has been unable to progress because of too much democracy. No sooner is a government elected (then) the losers would hold demonstrations and general strikes accusing the government of malpractice.”
The key question here is whether the government engaged in malpractice. If it did not, then the demonstrations and strikes will actually be undemocratic because they go against free and fair elections.
Such obfuscation occurs all the time. While most thinking people will agree that democracy permits peaceful assembly (our laws do now), others will go to any length to show that demonstrations cannot be peaceful by behaving accordingly or by abusing the right to peaceful assembly, sometimes in ludicrous ways, butt exercises being but one example.
How democratic a country is can be gauged by answering some questions about its processes. If the 10 questions below are answered largely in the affirmative, then the country can be said to be largely democratic and truly has the interests of the people at heart. If not …
> Is there a sound system to elect leaders fairly?
At the heart of a democracy is a system (even if it is conceptually flawed) that ensures there are free and fair elections to elect our leaders. It is crucial that such a system is beyond reproach and that the possibility of tampering with it is next to nothing.
> Does political representation reflect the popular vote?
The system of parliamentary democracy we inherited from the British is not really a fair one. That’s because it is a first-past-the-post system. In practice, it is possible that slightly over 50% of the popular vote can garner 70% or more of the seats – and it has in the past. Enlightened countries in Europe have introduced some form of proportional representation to handle this.
> Is everyone given an equal right to be heard?
Democracy means that everyone has equal right to be heard by the people. The more this happens and the easier it is for election candidates to communicate with their voters, the more democratic the process.
> Is there freedom of the press and other media?
Freedom of the media and the unfettered right to establish media organisations is a key part of being a democracy because that ensures that different views are expressed, heard and seen by the masses so that they can make more informed decisions.
> Are individual rights protected?
One of the underlying tenets of democracy is the equal protection of all individual rights, no individual’s rights being more important than someone else’s. Central to this ideal is that an individual can do what he reasonably wants so long as he does not infringe on the rights of others.
> Is there protection of minority interests?
Every democracy actively protects the rights of its minorities, including the right to practise their own beliefs and to practise their own way of life. Also, democracies ensure that there is no discrimination of minorities and protect this under the law and enforce it diligently.
> Are differences in opinion tolerated and healthy debate encouraged?
A healthy democracy invites comments and debate on all manner of important issues and takes these into account before adopting a policy and implementing it. The fewer the sacred issues that are beyond discussion, the more democratic a country tends to be. The less the threat against those who offer different opinions, the more democracy there is.
> Is everyone really equal before the law in practice?
Laws are one thing, their enforcement another. The more a country moves towards enforcing the laws uniformly towards all with no regard for race, religion, nationality or position, the more democratic a country is.
> Is corruption practically non-existent and kept on a tight leash?
Corruption gives privilege to those engaging in it and therefore directly thwarts democracy. It is essential for a democracy that it is relatively free of corruption.
> Are there enough independent institutions to ensure broad democracy?
Human nature is frail when it comes to moral uprightness. Power does corrupt and absolute power does corrupt absolutely. That is why, even if the executive is fairly and freely elected, that it is necessary to ensure that institutions, of which the main one is the judiciary, remain independent of the government. That should extend to the civil service, the police and the army.
We must realise that democracy is more – very much more – than a one-man-one-vote system even if that system is clean to ensure that there are no abuses.
It is premised on the rights of an individual to be recognised as the paramount one and to be treated equally under the law.
Democracy is an ideal and a philosophy which means “rule of the masses” in the original Greek. Its tenets are reflected in the entire political and social system of a country through appropriate practices by the government and people in almost every area of its operations.
Most countries in the world, despite what they assert, are not democratic, especially in the Third World.
> Independent writer and consultant P. Gunasegaram likes this quote from Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill who said in a 1947 speech: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Note, however, that Churchill, despite his wartime performance, lost in the 1945 general election.