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.
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.