The quality of our democracy

We have just over a month to go until our fifth election since President Desmond Hoyte ushered in the current phase of our democratic process in 1992, by not only holding the nation’s first free and fair elections since 1964 but also recognising the result.

By 1992, with the end of the Cold War, the apparent triumph of the western model of liberal democracy and capitalism, and the prevailing economic doctrine of the Washington Consensus, the new international order was trumpeting the adoption of representative democracy as the only legitimate system of government in conjunction with free market economies. This was also the period when Latin American countries in particular were rejecting dictatorship and authoritarian rule and promoting, through the Organization of American States, the virtues of democratic governance. Even post-Burnham Guyana was not immune to the new thinking and it was only logical that Mr Hoyte would wish to cement his government’s Economic Recovery Programme and Guyana’s return to the western fold by adhering to the new creed.

Following the election of President Cheddi Jagan in October 1992 and the proclaimed “restoration of democracy”, there have been, to put it mildly, many ups and downs in the ongoing evolution of our democracy, which we should still regard as a work in progress.

Notwithstanding the relative economic growth that the country has enjoyed, along with the evidence of some infrastructural development, increased exports of agricultural products and a strong sense that the country may be finally about to realise its rich natural resources potential, serious questions remain as to whether we should not be much better developed and far more prosperous than we are now and indeed, whether the fruits of our democracy are being equally and equitably enjoyed.

Dr Jagan had famously promised “democratic, accountable, clean and lean government and efficient governance”, but we must ask whether his vision has been fully honoured. We are all aware of the various controversies arising from allegations of corruption, nepotism and cronyism. Most of us would agree that crime and violence stalk the land and too many people still live in fear and insecurity. The rule of law does not appear to be paramount. Our public services are inadequate. There are well documented threats to freedom of expression and fundamental rights. The brain drain continues. Perhaps worst of all, a significant proportion of our population feels marginalised and discriminated against. If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that the quality of our democracy is seriously compromised.

Now, while there is currently no international consensus on how to measure democracy, there is general agreement that there is a need to go beyond the definition of electoral democracy promoted by Freedom House (not the institution on Robb Street, but the Washington-based international NGO that champions democracy, political freedom and human rights), which includes criteria such as a competitive, multiparty political system; universal adult suffrage; regularly contested elections conducted on the basis of secret ballots; and significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media.

Indeed, there is a strong view that democracy should be more broadly defined to transcend the minimalist definition of the concept, linked solely to the holding of free and fair elections. In this respect, democracy should be framed by a set of integral values and rights that encompass the way in which power is responsibly exercised and allow for a greater participatory role by citizens, especially when it comes to holding their elected representatives accountable for their policies and actions during, rather than at the end of, their term of office.

Sir Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons in 1947, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” If we paraphrase the great man, democracy may not be a perfect system but it is the best compared to other forms of government. It therefore behoves whichever government is elected on November 28 to work towards improving the quality of our democracy for the benefit of all the people of this nation. This would arguably be the best way of honouring the legacy of Desmond Hoyte and Cheddi Jagan.

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