“The finance minister in a Third World country should have the ability to present his annual budget as a package that cannot be amended, only approved or denied as a whole …. so that when a political crisis triggers the fall of the government it does not automatically result in the collapse of the economic reform” (Fareed Zakaria 2007 – “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad” WW Norton).
The above should sound familiar, for it is similar to the judicial contention at the heart of the current budget quarrel that is taking place between the executive, parliament and the judiciary. The inappropriateness of the above recommendation for Guyana is obvious but aspects of the discourse in which it is contained are sufficiently interesting to momentarily hold our attention.
If I understand Zakaria correctly, he holds that there has been a pernicious development in which democracy has been trumping liberty even in developed Western liberal societies, and the purpose of the quotation above is to help to mitigate the effect of this process in underdeveloped illiberal societies.
Zakaria claims that liberalism emphasizes individual liberty and places the rule of law at the centre of politics. Liberalism is deeply rooted in Western history and there were liberal autocracies long before modern democracies came into being. He tells us that “… illiberal democracy runs along a spectrum from the modest offenders such as Argentina to near-tyrannies such as Kazakhstan, with countries such as Ukraine and Venezuela in between.”
Zakaria utilizes an interesting minimalist definition of democracy given by the eminent political theorist Samuel P Huntington, according to which “Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic.”
Huntington claimed that a minimalist definition of democracy is necessary if fuzziness is to be removed from the analytical process. He added that “Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one, and the relation of democracy to other public virtues and vices can only be understood if democracy is clearly distinguished from the other characteristics of political systems.” He identified “effective citizen control over policies, responsible government, honesty and openness in politics, informed and rational deliberation, equal participation and power” as some of the other social virtues to which citizens may aspire.
Therefore, a so-called ‘return to democracy’ in Guyana was not necessarily (some would say definitely was not) a return to the other important political virtues about which we now quarrel on a daily basis.
According to Zakaria, the distinctiveness of the American political system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic; placing many constraints on the electoral majority. To him, the US Senate must be the most unrepresentative political body in the world, containing as it does two representatives from each state regardless of population size. In developed countries, political parties, professional bodies, clubs and the other intermediating associations of civil society are now being threatened by the democratic ideology. The US Congress used to function hierarchically and in a closed manner but has now become “a more responsive, more democratic and more dysfunctional body!”
In the Third World, the situation is direr. For example, ethnic conflict and the use of it by politicians have been age-old problems but newly democratizing societies are extremely prone to it. “The reason is simple: as societies open up and politicians scramble for power, they appeal to the public for votes using what ends up being the most direct, effective language, that of group solidarity in opposition to some other group. Often this stokes the fires of ethnic or religious conflict.”
Zakaria’s answer in both cases is to increase political delegation and reduce the tendency towards direct democracy. He points to the European Union, which is usually criticised as being undemocratic, as a good example of delegated authority suited to developed countries. Concerned about public opinion, the major European political parties have failed to advocate for the structural reforms they know to be necessary. “The European Union is the chief, indeed the only, agent of free-market reforms on the continent.”
If developing countries are to quickly improve, they need to retain the faith of the international market, plan long-term and be more focused and disciplined. Thus the need for delegation and administrative creativity are even greater. Suggestions as that contained in the opening quotation are not intended to scuttle democracy, and may not always work any better for some ministers and bureaucrats will abuse their greater authority. Further, “It is important to emphasize that these changes are utterly compatible with democracy. They delegate authority to institutions, but ultimately power rests with the people through their elected representatives” (Ibid).
Zakaria’s thesis has been criticised, for example on the ground that its central idea that constitutional liberalism is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy is flawed. “All his disclaimers to the contrary notwithstanding, it becomes painfully clear reading his book that Zakaria simply has a preference for aristocratic government over democratic government at home, and for autocratic government over democratic government abroad” (“The Ungreat Washed:” Robert Kagan, New Republic Magazine, July 2003).
The opening quotation suggests its own unsuitability for Guyana: our concern is not with the frequent termination of regimes but their longevity. As such, we should not be institutionalizing processes that can possibly make already inadequate political control even more so.
Secondly, the example of the US political system clearly indicates that efforts to place limits on democracy, defined as majority, is not new or illegitimate. Indeed, I have argued many a times in this column that given the bi-communal nature of our society, we will not progress until our democratic arrangements are fundamentally reformed to limit the power of the majority.
Finally, while higher moral concerns tell us that we should be creating institutions that will help to grow the political virtues our system lack; we do not have a single “political public.” Ethnic political aggregation has long been entrenched and this means that only partial and thus suboptimal, political pressure can be placed upon a regime.