Monday, February 14, 2011

"Wholesale Democracy"

Nigeria - here is an excerpt from an article I came across in one of Nigeria's news channels owned by "Timbuktu" Media:
"Our attempt to import the American model of democracy wholesale has removed this link (cultural adaptations), and people do not know whom to turn to so in their confusion, they attempt to solve problems for themselves. This is why there is so much anarchy in Nigeria today because almost every individual in Nigeria, within the limits of his abilities and resources, has become a government, and as a result, a law unto himself."
The author, Cheta Nwanze further suggests some alternatives that might work better etc.
While more on Nigeria later, the important point here is why are "people" like Cheta Nwanze, or myself questioning democracy? Sure, when tyrants and dictators advocate against it, there is a vested interest. But why would people who have no political ambitions question a system like democracy? Surely, the idea of living under tyrants or dictators is scary to us all!

Because we have lived it. If we had never experienced democracy, we would be among protestors demanding it - thinking it brings with it some amazing prosperity, freedom etc. as promised in theory. But having gone through it in reality, we know it does not. While it meets higher order "aspirations" like freedom of speech, thought and assembly, it fails to meet basic "needs" like food, water and shelter for a vast majority of people in the developing world. Most of the Western intellectual world promotes democracy as a panacea for all problems. It would have been great if it had been, but sadly it is not. Here is a suggestion or hypothesis for why not-

The idea of a representative democratic republic was invented to bring in a checked form of government that respected the rule of law, freedom, and civil rights, and worked for the greater good of the society. This did not happen in the developing world as universal suffrage democracy was implemented in nation after nation. One of the key reasons is that poverty is hard to break out of. It takes nations decades, if not longer, of concerted effort to pull people out of abject poverty in a perceptible manner. Yet elections have to be won every 4–5 years. Not having a credible story to relate to the electorate, increasingly democracy politics revolves around distribution of freebies or bribes as well as hijacking votes through emotional, divisive issues. A general rise in crime as well as public support for radical and often violent ideologies are all too common phenomena as a result of premature political opening up. Thus, in most nations democracy itself does not bring stability. Even in the few where it has stabilized the society, it has not met the development objectives. It may be time to challenge our perfect theory—democracy may not be the answer to the developing world’s problems.

But if it is not democracy, that does not mean it necessarily is a reversal to inherited rule or lifelong dictatorships! I think the options extend beyond these two extremes. The West itself, while today an ardent patron of democracy now, democracy somehow, or this version of wholesale democracy, did not have democracy till the early 20th century. It developed under an oligarchical version of democracy where voting rights remained limited to a small minority and were extended gradually, over two centuries, in tandem with growing economic prosperity. Alternately, China has developed under a unitary state model but with a lot of party mechanisms which are often not highlighted but ought to be recognised.

May be we need to open up this debate and find the transient models that would work "in reality"to help the developing struggling nations cope with their problems!