Look­ing for the Goldilocks Zone

In sev­eral cases, democ­racy has been vir­tu­ally hi­jacked by strong­men who have used the sys­tem to gain a stran­gle­hold on power.

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Ir­fan Hu­sain

IN the chil­dren's fa­ble, Goldilocks finds the first bowl of por­ridge "too hot", the sec­ond "too cold", and the third "just right". Sim­i­larly, the first bed is "too hard", the sec­ond "too soft", and the third "just right". Thus, in the search for hab­it­able plan­ets out of our so­lar sys­tem, as­tronomers are on the con­stant look­out for worlds in the 'Goldilocks Zone': nei­ther too close to a star where the sur­face would be too hot for life, nei­ther too far where tem­per­a­tures would be too cold, but in the in­be­tween space where things would be "just right".

Closer to Earth, is there a 'Goldilocks Zone' for democ­racy where there is a ju­di­cious bal­ance be­tween an ef­fec­tive ex­ec­u­tive and civic rights? In short, a sys­tem which is ' just right'? Cur­rently, we have a wide range of demo­cratic mod­els, many of which scarcely qual­ify for the term. Rang­ing from the bru­tal regime run by Robert Mu­gabe in Zim­babwe to the weak, barely func­tion­ing coali­tion govern­ment in Pak­istan, there are many gov­ern­ments that are, broadly speak­ing, in the cat­e­gory of democ­ra­cies.

In sev­eral cases, democ­racy has been vir­tu­ally hi­jacked by strong­men who have used the sys­tem to gain a stran­gle­hold on power. Once sworn in, they have manipulated the in­stru­ments of author­ity to hang on more or less per­ma­nently. In our part of the world, po­lit­i­cal dy­nas­ties have taken root.

In Sri Lanka, where Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa is un­de­ni­ably pop­u­lar, he has placed his broth­ers and relatives in ev­ery depart­ment of the govern­ment. In the re­cent par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, his young son won a seat, and is clearly be­ing groomed for high of­fice. Hav­ing used his par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity to amend the con­sti­tu­tion to lift the two-term pro­vi­sion, Ra­japaksa is set to be in power for a long time. His fam­ily has just too much to lose to let go.

De­spite the aver­sion of so­phis­ti­cated Sri Lankans from Colombo to their pres­i­dent's rus­tic ways and un­abashed nepo­tism, the truth is that mil­lions of Sin­hala sup­port­ers from the hin­ter­land wor­ship him, and take lit­tle no­tice of the rapidly ac­cu­mu­lat­ing wealth of the Ra­japaksa clan. They are not overly concerned by the tram­pling of Tamil rights, or the muz­zling of the op­po­si­tion and the me­dia. They see mas­sive road-works and other in­fra­struc­ture devel­op­ment tak­ing place across the is­land, and are quite pre­pared to vote for him again. Above all, they are grate­ful to him for hav­ing ended the long, bru­tal civil war.

So, are well-in­ten­tioned out­siders and ide­al­is­tic Sri Lankans jus­ti­fied in their crit­i­cism over hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, and the steady drift to­wards au­thor­i­tar­ian rule? Or does this govern­ment's track record jus­tify its ab­ro­ga­tion of so many civil rights?

Then we have In­dia, the world's most pop­u­lous democ­racy which, while gen­er­at­ing im­pres­sive eco­nomic growth, also ex­hibits a ten­dency to­wards barely con­trolled chaos. In­creas­ingly, the coun­try is mov­ing to­wards a sit­u­a­tion where re­gional par­ties play a larger role in weak coali­tions at the cen­tre. Fill­ing the vac­uum are pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions that are writ­ing the eco­nomic agenda, buy­ing up politi­cians and me­dia out­lets in the process. In this model, an un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive cor­po­rate sec­tor, no­tion­ally an­swer­able only to its share­hold­ers, enor­mous power.

In Is­rael, the na­ture of the pro­por­tion­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tion sys­tem is vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed to pro­duce coali­tions where small, right-wing par­ties have the power to make or pull down the govern­ment. Thus, re­li­gious par­ties rep­re­sent­ing a small sec­tion of the Is­raeli elec­torate can dic­tate pol­icy on set­tle­ments and the peace process. As we saw in the 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in the USA, a few hun­dred highly ques­tion­able votes in Florida de­cided the fate of Gore's pres­i­den­tial bid, and gave us Ge­orge W Bush, de­spite the Demo­cratic con­tender polling half a mil­lion more votes than Bush.

In Bri­tain, the first-past-the­p­ost sys­tem means that the win­ning party can have less votes but more seats. De­spite much talk of re­form, the fact is that both the ma­jor par­ties are com­fort­able with a sys­tem that does not al­ways re­flect the pop­u­lar will.Then, of course, there are quasi-democ­ra­cies where dic­ta­tors like Hosni Mubarak win elec­tion af­ter elec­tion though bla­tant fraud, and main­tain an un­shak­able grip on power. In the pres­i­dency for some three decades, age and poor health have not pre­vented him from rig­ging yet an­other elec­tion. As part of a fa­mil­iar pat­tern, his son is be­ing groomed for the suc­ces­sion.

So where does the Goldilocks Zone lie? Should the ex­ec­u­tive have more pow­ers, or less. Too much could mean an un­car­ing ex­ec­u­tive that bull­dozes its way over hu­man rights, while too lit­tle could end up with a grid­locked govern­ment.

The prob­lem lies not with con­sti­tu­tions or laws, but with the lack of tol­er­ance and re­spect for the op­po­si­tion, and a will­ing­ness to con­cede power. In most Third World coun­tries, the con­cept of ac­cept­ing de­feat grace­fully is alien. Thus, while they have the trap­pings of democ­racy in the form of par­lia­ments and elec­tions, they have yet to in­ter­nalise its core val­ues.

is wield­ing

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