The Economist in its March 1 to 7 issue, presented a special six-page essay entitled “What’s gone wrong with Democracy and how to revive it,” which surveys the erratic record of democracy in the 21st century after its spectacular advances during the final decades of the 20th century.
The essay’s key points can be summarized in a series of statements:
1. Democracy was the most successful political idea of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century, democracies had taken root in the most difficult circumstances possible – in Germany which had been traumatized by Nazism, in India, which had the world’s largest population of poor people, in Central Europe, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the end of the 20th century, Freedom House, a US think tank, classified 120 countries or 63 percent of the world total, as democracies.
2. The dramatic progress of democracy has stalled in the 21st century. Even though around 40 percent of the world’s population, more people than ever before, live in countries that will hold free and fair elections, democracy’s global advance has come to a halt, and may even have gone into reverse.
Why democracy lost momentum
3. Democracy’s loss of momentum may be attributed to the following reasons:
First, the financial crisis of 2007-08. The crisis revealed fundamental weaknesses in the West’s political systems, undermining the self-confidence that had been one of its greatest assets. The crisis turned the Washington consensus into a term of reproach across the emerging world. Democracy is in difficulty in the older democracies no less than the new democracies.
Second, the rise of China.The Chinese communist party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress. The Chinese elite argue that their model – tight control by the Communist party coupled with a relentless effort to recruit talented people into its upper ranks—is more efficient than democracy and less susceptible to gridlock. The political leadership changes every decade or so, and there is a constant supply of fresh talent as party cadres are promoted based on their ability to hit targets.
Third, the failure of democracy in Russia. Vladimir Putin has destroyed the substance of democracy in Russia, and preserved only the show – everyone can vote so long as Putin wins.
Fourth, the failure of democracy in Egypt. The collapse of Hosni Mubarak and the Arab Spring raised hopes that democracy would spread in the Middle East. But the euphoria has now turned into despair. Muhammad Morsi turned out to be no democrat; he wound up being overthrown by the Egyptian military.
Majoritarianism: a lesson for Aquino
In a key section, the Economist suggests that there is a mordant lesson for President Aquino in the failed presidencies and governments of Muhammad Morsi in Egypt and Viktor Yakunuvych in Ukraine, who have both been toppled from power.
The magazine notes: “One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy – a robust constitution and strong democratic institutions.
“The most successful new democracies have worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid 1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
“The first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukuvych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament while expanding his own powers. Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people.”
After 68 years of trying to foster the democratic system in our country, surely our republic should be classified a notch above nascent and fledgling democracies. Since 1946, we have had numerous peaceful changes of government through elections. Except for a 14-year period of martial law, our history clearly points to a persistent effort on the part of our people and our leaders to live under a working constitution and effective constitutional government.
But it is worrisome that President Aquino has flirted with majoritarianism after his decisive victory in the 2010 presidential election. It was not a party victory, or a victory of his coalition – he only cobbled together his majority in both houses of Congress after the election via turncoatism (legislators who won without supporting him enlisted in droves to form his congressional majorities in exchange for pork).
Whether it is from lack of political experience, or the explicit counsel of his closest advisers, President Aquino has mistakenly tried to apply majoritarian ideas in his way of governance. Among the key examples of these majoritarian tendencies are:
Engineering the ouster of a sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, former Chief Justice Renato Corona, by railroading his impeachment in the House of Representatives, and bribing the Senate to convict him.
Prior to the impeachment of the chief justice, the House on Aquino’s bidding moved to impeach the ombudsman Merciditas Guttierrez, who was forced to resign despite being appointed to a fixed six-year-term.
Aquino forced the ouster from office of all local government officials in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), by using a pliant congress to pass a law calling for new elections of all local government officials in the region.
Signing the Comprehensive Agreement for the Bangsamoro entity between the government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), without consulting first with Congress and with stakeholders in the proposed entity.
Cancellation of duly approved public works projects, including those being undertaken in partnership with foreign governments, like the Laguna lake dredging project.
Adoption of the policy of underspending, under which the administration forcibly cancelled the budgets for projects and programs that had been duly passed under the General Appropriations Act. The underspending resulted in the contraction of the economy and the gross domestic product (GDP).
Creation of the Disbursement Acceleration Progam (DAP), which is partly designed to correct the harmful effects of underspending, and has been unfortunately used for the bribery of senators in the Corona impeachment trial.
Not surprisingly, Aquino’s unconstitutional moves have been vigorously challenged before the Supreme Court.
His attempts to skirt the Constitution have resulted in constant referencing of the charter in our public life. Aquino’s very first proposal, the creation of a truth commission, was struck down on its face as unconstitutional.
Ironically, his efforts to bully the Supreme Court with the removal of Corona and veiled threats of impeachment against other justices may have only succeeded in creating a more independent Supreme Court, that is jealous of its powers and eager to give the nation its due.
Sooner or later, this president must learn that governing is not just a matter of counting the heads of politicians or preparing so-called opinion surveys.
Lippmann on Majority Rule
No political thinker has written more incisively and persuasively on the dangers and delusions of majority rule than Walter Lippmann. I will therefore turn to him for some concluding thoughts. Lippmann wrote;
“Dictators who were elected, and then pretend to rule by popular consent, though they have destroyed the institutions through which the popular will can express itself freely, are practicing an ugly fraud. And those who acquiesce in the tyranny because it was achieved by majority rule are pretending to be convinced when in fact they are cowed.”
“Free institutions are not the property of any majority. They do not confer upon majorities unlimited powers. The rights of the majority are limited rights. They are limited not only by the constitutional guarantees but by the moral principle implied in those guarantees. That principle is that men may not use the facilities of liberty to impair them. No man may invoke a right in order to destroy it.”
“The constitution deliberately denies that the opinion of a temporary majority is to be regarded as the will of the people. The ultimate authority of course is in the people. But the will of the people is not confused with the opinions of 51 percent of the voters at any particular election. Therefore the American system is advised to see to it that in fundamental matters affecting the liberties and the property of individuals, and the rights of local communities, the will of the people shall be thoroughly known before grave changes are finally adopted.”