Making democracy work

By Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
March 7, 2000

DEMOCRACY took root in Guyana with the free and fair general elections of October, 1992. Most folk would like this political system to flourish. But, given happenings since then, this is a most challenging objective.

The ancient Greek thinker Plato thought that democracy was an unviable political system. He ranked it last and scolded: "When we Athenians are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; when the question is one of shipbuilding, then the shipwrights. But when the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say - carpenter, tinker, cobbler, merchant, sea captain, rich and poor, high and low - anyone who likes gets up, and no one reproaches him, as in the former case, with not having learned, and yet giving advice."

Plato preferred aristocratic rulership.

The human has a more robust and highly elevated consciousness today. It arms him/her with individual rights that curb the state's ability to ride roughshod over him/her through vague justifications of `God's will' or `the national security interest.'

It is this tension between the individual and the state that is at the heart of making democracy work well. It can be healthy or ill and, whichever it is, significantly helps determine the excellence or shortcomings of the body politic. We are at this point of tension in Guyana as concepts such as `power-sharing' under various models, e.g., Lijphart's consociational democracy, are being discussed.

I argue for making democracy work in the context of example, precedent and extant real life conditions, and by using ideals only to set standards at which to aim rather than to copy.

The Carter Center at Emory University, with particular reference to Sub-Saharan Africa, did exactly that in August, 1992 with African democracies by developing the Quality of Democracy Index (QDI).

Said scholars there: "The democratic process is being trivialised in several countries. Borrowing a tactic from the colonialists, some single party or military regimes are stimulating the emergence of numerous small parties to divide and weaken the opposition. In others, the electoral machinery is being manipulated. The democratic movement in Africa risks giving birth to democracies that are facades behind which monopolistic and repressive practices continue to flourish."

The QDI has ten indicators of routinised happenstance and ongoing behaviours each of which is concrete, easily observable and can be further examined. These are:

I. Access of Social Groups;

II. Autonomy of Civic Associations;

III. Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law;

IV. Electoral Process;

V. Freedom of Assembly and Association;

VI. Freedom of Conscience and Expression;

VII. Human Rights;

VIII. Judiciary;

IX. Media: and

X. Military.

Each of these indicators has three gradations that measure the presence and absence of democracy in a fairly substantial manner. Given pagination limits, we can elaborate on just one of them - Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law - and try to make connections with the Guyana body politic. In making connections, we must consider the constraint of different cultural and ethnic contexts between Guyana and African states.

Under Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law, the first gradation is: `Constitutional provisions are respected by political authorities and governmental actions adhere in form and content to the legal code'.

The second says, `Constitutional provisions provide the framework for the conduct of government affairs but are occasionally overridden in practice.

Extra-legal actions by political authorities and security personnel are known to take place.' And the third gradation holds that, `Constitutional provisions are disregarded in the conduct of government, and extra-legal actions of political authorities, especially security personnel, are prevalent.'

The Carter Center has also mapped cognitively `Eight Phases of Transition to Democracy.' The importance of this schema lies in the provision of concrete confidence-building steps, each of which anchors smaller and then increasingly bigger democratic gains while paving the way for deeper reforms and, finally, the sustenance of the democratic political system. These phases are: Decay; Mobilisation; Decision; Formulation; Electoral Contestation; Handover; Legitimisation; and, finally, Consolidation.

Decay, the first stage of transition, is when the government `loses its ability to manage basic aspects of its agenda, such as personal security and economic welfare.' Formulation is the fourth phase. It is when, `Details of the transition to democracy are worked out. Procedures are established, and a schedule for the transition is set. Promulgation of a new electoral code accompanies constitutional revision or the drafting of a new constitution.'

Consolidation is the last phase. It is achieved `when there is widespread respect for fundamental constitutional provisions, especially the rules governing succession in office.'

Where are we in Guyana along the spectrums of QDI and Phases of Transition to Democracy? Stuck, it would seem, between four and eight on the latter, and constantly challenged on all ten indicators on the former. Once we can begin inculcating new requisite attitudes in service of the objective of making democracy work, the more likely will be the possibility of success.