Thursday, July 2, 2009

Problems with Democracy

One of the debates in Britain during my working holiday seems to be a continuation of my earlier post about politicians distracting people with witch hunts. Specifically, Gordon Brown has followed the well trod path of trying to refocus voters onto a non-issue. This one is called 'democratising' the House of Lords.

The theory that democracy is good, all the time, regardless of the costs: is frankly scary. Even more scary is that the media and voters have fallen for this line enough to assume that it is a natural law, with no need for explanation or justification. The truth of course is vastly different.

One of the lead articles in British newspapers today discusses how the opposition in Iran is campaigning to have their recent election overthrown as a fake. I do not know whether this is true or not, though lots of informed people seem to be suggesting that it is (let us ignore motives for a minute). In that case, their argument is fair enough. And fair enough that the internatioinal media is supporting them, and the international community is putting on pressure. (Again I will put aside the many reasons that this might be seen as a convenient cause for the international community, and pretend that we might still be interested just on the basis of seeking justice.)

The problem with this is that 'we' feel the right to express outrage that the popular will is being ignored, despite the 'official' election results saying something different. In other words, we will reserve the right to assess election results to suit our own purposes... or so it seems if you move on a couple of pages in the papers...

THe Times Editorial is called 'No Banana Republic', and is pleased to support the international outcry against the Honduras military chasing President Zelaya out of the country. It gloats that Central and South America, previously annual competitors in the 'find yourself a new dictator' stakes, have had a fall off in the military imposed dictator business. (They claim that the last was in Guatamala in 1993, and that Honduras has been all of 20 years without one.) They are delighted that Spain and France have withdrawn their ambassadors, and that the EU has announced that it will have no contact with the 'post-coup' leaders. Once again, it all sounds fair enough... until you look at the details.

Apparently the reason the military felt 'forced' to chase Zelaya out had a bit more to do with him acting unconstitutionally than with a rush of blood to the military rulership lobe. Zelaya's plan to stand - illegally - for a second term, has been ruled unconstitutional by the countries highest court. When he tried to get around that with a 'referendum', the army refused to 'assist; at which point he tried to dismiss the chief of the army. When congress voted unanimously to remove Mr Zelaya for "apparent misconduct" and violation of the constitution, he ignored them. Only then did the army chase him out.

So let me get this straight. Popular opinion - that sacrosanct animal in Iran - is being ignored here? Or is it? The 'referendum' that Zelaya wanted would have been 'official enough'? Or wouldn't it? The fact that the army acted (only after having been attacked for failing to act un-constitutioinally), in support of the Congress (who had responded to a ruling from the courts that Zelaya was being un-constitutional), means that it is the army who is in the wrong? Or is it?

Are our media as stupid as our politicians?

Why does the excuse that someone once got enough votes to be elected, mean that they should be supported regardless of what they then do with or to their country? Hitler was elected. Mussolini was elected. Should we have been supporting Mussolini's regime against the evil move of the Italian Army - backed by the Italian King, Parliament, and even Fascist Council - to get rid of him?

A similar problem has occurred recently in the Pacific. I visited Fiji soon after the latest round of 'restore democracy' campaigns by the Australian and New Zealand governments. They too were outraged at (yet another) military takeover in Fiji, and appalled that the constitution was being 'rethought', and elections 'delayed'. And once again, that sounds fair enough... until you look a bit deeper.

First, the outraged democrats in the large and relatively stable Dominions - with their century long history of independance, backed by another half century or more of carefully trained apprentice democracy under British colonial supervision - don't seem to understand that some of the hastily 'freed' new nations of the post war period have trouble coping with a system where an un-practised, and largely illiterate electorate, have to make something as difficult as a Westminster democracy actually work. (They seem to have missed the fact that since independance it is ONLY the regular coups in Fiji that seem to lead to the next attempt at genuine democratic elections, rather than just straight out civil war.)

Second, the constitution that the military believe needs 'rethinking', can hardly be called 'democratic'. It is race based, both in intention, and result. (It was fascinating to watch the kind and charming Fijian's who ran our little island resort completely fail to notice the wife of one of the Australians staying there with us. Off course, she was that most evil of creatures, an Indian.)

Stop me if I am wrong, but don't I remember Apartheid being a 'bad' thing only a few years ago. Since when does 'one vote, one value' become irrelevant to so called 'democracy'. (Or am I just falling into the Yes Minister trap... "Yes but he's against persecution by black governments as well as white ones"... "You mean he's a racist?".)

Personally I believe that 're-instating' the 'old' Fijian constitution (which has now had more rethinks than the French Republic), is unlikely to be a victory for 'democracy'. I would not be willing to claim that I know the answer, but I am pretty sure I can spot the irrationality of my governments approach to 'realpolitik' in the Pacific.

To return to the Honduras, I think The Times should be a bit more cautious about their enthusiasm for the outrage of the 'Organisation of American States'. They do acknowledge that some of the South American leaders who have vowed to support Zelaya are hardly squeeky clean. (President Chavez of Ecuador seized power unconstitutionally, and when removed by an abortive coup, attempted to fiddle the constitution.. sound familiar?) However I think they overestimate the 'democracy' credentials of the entire organisation they are acclaiming in this case. (Surely if Ecuador and Argentina and Nicaragua and others are apparently threatening to re-impose Zelaya on his Congress and Courts by force, the entire concept becomes a bit farcical?)

A more recent comment on teh effects of the Yanks imposing a dictator back on teh country that exiled him is here.

Which brings us back nicely to the unrealistic fascination with 'democracy', that allows someone who has fought his way up through something as institutional, bureaucratic, and frankly tribal, as the UK Labour Party, to claim that he thinks the government system needs making more 'people friendly'.

I accept that ALL party lackeys want more control, and less restraint on their activities, when in government. I accept that they are confident that if they can get an elected upper house, they can make it just another extension of their self indulgent party structure. What I can't accept is that any voter, or even any journalist, could believe that this is a good thing.

A very good letter to the editor in the same issue of The Times sums this up fairly well. It points out that the present House of Lords is made up of a selection of the very best examples of "men and women of outstanding achievement and knowledge, who between them represent practically every area of human endeavour; be that medicine, scientific research, trade union affairs, and industry, to quote but a few". If you add in the charity-runners and entrepreneurs, the ex-judges and generals to this list; it is hard not to agree with his follow up statement that it is hard to imagine that we would be better served by replacing them with another group of professional politicians chosen by party committees.

(As an amusing aside, I have previously commented on the way the Blair government started offering 'Peerages for loans to the British Labour Party', and on how disastrous I thought that would be for the average Briton. I was amused to see on the news the other night that the body which approves new Lords is blocking Brown's latest lapdog appointment on the basis that he faces a law case which might demonstrate his 'unsuitability' for such a position of respect. Apparently he is accused of being sexist and offensive to female executives. Sounds a good excuse to me. I hope they get away with it. Can we apply it to certain Australian Prime Ministers who abuse Air Force hostesses?)

'Democratising' the house of Lords? Could we be forgiven for suspecting that this increase in 'democracy' might have the effect of giving us even less control of our politicians? Would we be paranoid to imagine that the politicians proposing it know exactly how much more control it will give them.... and remove from us? Hurray for democracy.

My own belief is that there is nothing worse than falling for the appalling concept that unfettered democracy is a good thing. (See my post: Australian Republicanism, in pursuit of a failed model?) A belief only reinforced by reading sanctimonious dribble about the internal affairs of countries that our politicians and media neither understand, nor really care about. The world is too complex a place for 'democracy at all costs' to be the default answer. Particularly when the people proclaiming such 'solutions' apparently don't really understand, or believe in, democracy.

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