Underlying assumptions Editorial
Stabroek News
January 31, 2002

Functioning democracies are based on certain underlying assumptions which are often not clearly spelt out or understood. Perhaps the most basic of these is the rule of law, namely that governments are elected under and derive their powers from a constitution and other laws which can be interpreted by an independent judiciary and will be respected and upheld by government, other institutions and citizens generally. The society is, so to speak, based on rules which are widely accepted.

The second basic and related assumption is that though the government is the single most powerful entity and has at its command the apparatus of the state including the security forces, there are other countervailing institutions in the society which wield some power and influence such as other political parties, business and trade union bodies, the media, the churches and so on. All of these, however, also play by the rules. Opposition parties criticise the government policies and actions and put forward alternatives but they do not deliberately break the law or try to subvert or overthrow the government. Businesses and trade unions press their legitimate interests but they do not engage in political conspiracies, though they may openly support a party of their choice. The media report the news fearlessly but they do not corrupt the news process by pursuing a political agenda and they recognise professional standards of fairness and objectivity. Churches tend to their flocks but they recognise the distinction between church and state, spiritual and temporal power.

The developed democratic state that we are familiar with in some Western and other countries is a product of a long evolution and is an extraordinary achievement. It implies checks and balances of various kinds on the powers of governments and other interests while maintaining an open society in which people are free to travel, express their views, associate with each other, and are not subject to any arbitrary restraint. Any action against an institution or a citizen must be carried out in accordance with a clearly prescribed law.

There are of course in practice variations from these ideal norms but if the variations are too substantial or too persistent the democracy becomes unstable. In other words, it becomes obvious at some stage that the rules and the spirit of the rules, are not being observed and the underlying democratic consensus is breaking down. If, for example, the media or substantial parts of it are consistently aggressive in tone or flagrantly unprofessional it creates an atmosphere of turbulence which is not conducive to stability. If opposition politicians routinely break or encourage the breaking of laws or recognise no limits in the policies of opposition they pursue, the body politic begins to suffer from an almost visible malaise and there is a sense of apprehension and of the fragility of the society.

The modern, democratic state involves a number of compromises. Opposition politicians who are frustrated by what they perceive to be bad governance (and this occurs in even the most developed democracies) have to recognise that the only acceptable remedy (apart from criticising and putting forward alternatives) is to convince the electorate that they can do the job better and try to win the next election. If for ethnic or other reasons they conclude that that will be very difficult the remedy is to work for a change in the system. Taking the struggle out of parliament and to the street, so to speak, on a regular basis is not a legitimate option in a democratic society where free and fair elections are held at prescribed intervals.

There are limits to what is acceptable. Each democracy works these out for itself in practice, in the pressures of public life, through bona fide public debate, through the court system and so on. The aim is to arrive at rules and conventions that are broadly accepted by everyone, though the details may require continued refinement and interpretation, and that create a basis for stability and development, a basis on which citizens can live without constant fear and apprehension. In Trinidad, for example, President Robinson almost certainly had the power to appoint a Prime Minister in the event of a tie, though without the benefit of established domestic historical precedents he quite clearly erred in the principles he relied on to make his decision.

In our own young democracy we have to feel our way cautiously. Only time, perhaps, will show us clearly all the pitfalls, the dangers of unprincipled journalism, the need for measured opposition and the requirement of a spirit of toleration and compromise. One must hope that we can learn these things sooner rather than later. Then maybe one day we will no longer have that haunting feeling that this fragile house of democracy that we are trying to build is in continuing danger of collapse.