DE­BATE OR DE­BA­CLE, DEMOC­RACY DAZZLES

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - EDITORIAL - By Ameen Iz­zadeen www.dai­lymir­ror.lk/ car­toon

True democ­racy is pro­gres­sively dy­namic. It is healthy if it keeps im­prov­ing; sick if it de­te­ri­o­rates. A healthy democ­racy en­tails a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem where cit­i­zens have the right to choose or re­place gov­ern­ments, while elected lead­ers re­spect and en­cour­age the peo­ple’s ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in po­lit­i­cal and civil life by up­hold­ing the rule of law, hu­man rights, free speech, good gov­er­nance prin­ci­ples such as trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity. This is ba­sic democ­racy.

But much more can and should be done to make democ­racy stronger and health­ier in a demo­cratic na­tion’s march to­wards high lev­els of po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. For the level of de­vel­op­ment of any na­tion can­not be mea­sured by eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors alone. Rather, it needs to be as­sessed also by a na­tion’s so­cial, cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and moral progress. Po­lit­i­cal de­bates in­deed are an in­di­ca­tor of a high level of po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment in a state. They cer­tainly con­trib­ute to­wards the health of a democ­racy. Ad­vanced democ­ra­cies such as the United States, Canada, Bri­tain, Aus­tralia and Ger­many have made it a key fea­ture of their po­lit­i­cal process, while some de­vel­op­ing na­tions such as Chile, Ar­gentina and Mex­ico also con­duct lead­ers’ de­bates dur­ing elec­tions. In Asia, the only two coun­tries that have adopted this democ­racy-pro­mot­ing fea­ture are Iran and the Philip­pines.

In the United States, a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is pre­ceded by a se­ries of live tele­vised de­bates between the can­di­dates rep­re­sent­ing the two main par­ties – the Demo­cratic Party and the Repub­li­can Party. The de­bates are spon­sored by the Com­mis­sion on Pres­i­den­tial De­bates (CPD), a non­profit cor­po­ra­tion es­tab­lished by the two par­ties in 1987. Prior to that, de­bates were not a reg­u­lar fea­ture in US pol­i­tics. It was dur­ing the 1960 cam­paign that the first tele­vised de­bate was held between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. That no tele­vi­sion chan­nel is al­lowed to squeeze in com­mer­cials dur­ing the de­bate is a clear mes­sage that democ­racy is not for sale.

On Tues­day, a fresh wind of democ­racy blew across the US, when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump took on Demo­cratic Party can­di­date Joe Bi­den in the first of the three pres­i­den­tial de­bates, a mech­a­nism that com­pels or re­quires the can­di­dates to come clean and pro­vide can­did answers to pub­lic queries.

Adding more strength to the de­bat­edriven demo­cratic dis­course is the free me­dia cul­ture of the US. De­spite the neg­a­tive in­flu­ence of the agenda-driven Cor­po­rate Me­dia, most US jour­nal­ists and po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts are known to

be ex­press­ing their views with­out fear or favour.

It was in­deed jour­nal­ism at its best when nei­ther can­di­date was spared on Tues­day dur­ing the post-de­bate me­dia dis­cus­sion which in­cluded fact checks and pub­lic re­ac­tion. No sooner the de­bate ended than CNN’S vet­eran an­chor Wolf Bl­itzer slammed it as a dis­grace and the “most chaotic” de­bate he’d ever seen. In its fact-check seg­ment, a CNN re­search jour­nal­ist ac­cused Trump of un­leash­ing an avalanche of re­peat lies on top­ics such as vot­ing by mail, medi­care and the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

If mod­er­ated in a pro­fes­sional man­ner de­void of bias and prej­u­dice, po­lit­i­cal de­bates are a peo­ple’s court where the bur­den of proof is on the can­di­date as­pir­ing to be vested with the peo­ple’s power to gov­ern the na­tion for a lim­ited term in ac­cor­dance with rules and fun­da­men­tal demo­cratic val­ues.

Tues­day’s US pres­i­den­tial de­bate had the two can­di­dates an­swer the main crises the US is now fac­ing – the pan­demic, af­ford­able health­care, the econ­omy, race re­la­tions and the ap­point­ment of a Supreme Court judge, although mod­er­a­tor Chris Wal­lace, a Fox News vet­eran, came in for sharp crit­i­cism for his poor ref­er­ee­ing when Trump kept on in­ter­rupt­ing Bi­den in vi­o­la­tion of the de­bate rules.

CNN’S Bl­itzer said that although he could not say who won the chaotic de­bate, he could say the Amer­i­can peo­ple had lost. His lament un­der­lines con­cerns not only over the gut­ter level to which Trump has taken the de­bates, but also over democ­racy’s de­cline un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. In the world democ­racy in­dex, the US, placed 25th, is la­belled as a flawed democ­racy and lumped to­gether with de­vel­op­ing na­tions such as Sri Lanka, placed 69th.

In Sri Lanka, how­ever, most politi­cians fight shy of de­bates dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns. Per­haps, our politi­cians avoid de­bates as they have no an­swer to the peo­ple’s ques­tions. Or they may not be able to give an in­tel­li­gent an­swer, if they are asked to ex­plain the eco­nom­ics of their cam­paign prom­ises such as mil­lion houses, mil­lion jobs, free fer­tiliser, and free this and free that.

If we had a pres­i­den­tial or prime

min­is­te­rial de­bate in the run-up to the re­cent elec­tions, there could have been more clar­ity on con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments and the peo­ple could have taken an in­formed de­ci­sion when vot­ing. It is sheer de­cep­tion if claims are made that all those who voted the present gov­ern­ment into of­fice did so to en­able the Pres­i­dent to usurp more pow­ers, take the coun­try to­wards au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and sub­vert checks-and­bal­ances mech­a­nisms through par­lia­ment and the ju­di­ciary. Far from it, the peo­ple did not give a man­date to de­mol­ish democ­racy.

Like the peo­ple of the United States, Sri Lankans want to hold their lead­ers ac­count­able for their omis­sions and com­mis­sions. They need answers with re­gard to na­tional se­cu­rity, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, eth­nic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and power de­vo­lu­tion, among other mat­ters. The gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to most of these is­sues lacks clar­ity. Af­ter Tues­day’s US pres­i­den­tial de­bate, the peo­ple got to know that Trump sym­pa­thises with alt-right groups as his “Proud Boys, stand back and standby” re­mark sug­gests and that he is not go­ing to ac­cept the Novem­ber 3 elec­tion re­sults with­out a fight if he loses.

As mod­er­a­tor Wal­lace be­lieves that de­spite the ac­ri­mony, the de­bate still of­fered view­ers plenty of in­sights about the two can­di­dates. “I think de­bates are about re­veal­ing what [the can­di­dates] think. You cer­tainly gained an in­sight into Don­ald Trump and what he’s think­ing and where he wants to take the coun­try and how he wants to take the coun­try there. To that de­gree I thought it was a suc­cess. It may not have been pretty, but it was re­veal­ing.”

He was spot on. This is why a democ­racy worth its salt must have the lead­ers’ de­bate as a per­ma­nent fea­ture of any key elec­tion.

In Sri Lanka, we could have been spared the wor­ries and anx­i­eties of the fate of democ­racy, had the can­di­dates taken part in a de­bate. It could have given us an in­sight into their agen­das. Be­sides, it cer­tainly would have es­tab­lished a cul­ture of ac­count­abil­ity re­gard­ing cam­paign prom­ises. Shall we hope against hope that at the 2025 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the can­di­dates will have the courage to face at least a one-off po­lit­i­cal de­bate mod­er­ated by a jour­nal­ist or a panel of jour­nal­ists who are not syco­phants?

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Demo­cratic Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and former US Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den ex­change ar­gu­ments as mod­er­a­tor and Fox News an­chor Chris Wal­lace (C) raises his hands to stop them dur­ing the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate at Case West­ern Re­serve Univer­sity and Cleve­land Clinic in Cleve­land, Ohio, on Septem­ber 29. AFP

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