Democracy in Context

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At Ranmoor polling station in Sheffield on the 6th May 2010, around two hundred other people who, like me, had been waiting hours in the rain for the chance to vote witnessed an event which made the contents of this article wholly relevant. From 5pm to 10pm there was a structured segregation of those waiting to vote, as students were systematically separated from local residents, who then in turn were allowed to vote first. This prioritisation of one voter above another and a series of similar events throughout the country provoked the thought that where many things are subject to opinion, democracy shouldn’t be one of them. For many people this situation provoked a loss of faith in our democratic institutions, but in some ways the repercussions may illuminate the strengths of it, especially in comparison to other states.

The representative element of democracy in this country is somewhat undermined by its electoral system; the use of first past the post leaves any governing party with an inequitable mandate in proportion to the numbers within the electorate. Party activity in parliament is restricted by the use of party whips, which take away the ability of MPs to represent their constituencies due to the requirement to align with party policy. And evidence of an electoral majority, regardless of its actual size, has at times allowed a government to do as it pleases with little recognition of public view, leading to claims of an “elective dictatorship”. As a country that prides itself on its democratic character, it yet witnessed hundreds of people being unable to vote, and a pattern of governmental decisions which lack public support. Is it the case that we have lost our concept of democracy due to the nature of our politics?

A week ago, travelling in a taxi with a few friends discussing the election and its results, someone claimed that the election had been pointless, that there was little choice to be made by the public concerning politics and government, and that voting was irrelevant in many cases due to constituency lines. The taxi driver commented that he listened to many conversations like ours, and found himself surprised and somewhat disheartened at our views. Originally from Iran, a country which struggled with its sense of democracy, he admired and envied our rights to vote so freely. His own experiences led him to comment that the very thing we were complaining of was in many ways the thing that he, and many other people in his country, and around the world were fighting, and in many cases dying, for. In a moment of realisation, it became apparent that perhaps our complacency towards the electoral process, and the democratic principles we simply expect to be there, had led us to forget the quality of circumstance we actually live in. When reviewing other elections of the last year, it is disturbing to see the high probabilities of death and civil disturbance in many developing countries that are struggling to shape their democracies.

The beauty of democracy becomes especially apparent in times when it is seen to be lacking. Throughout the world democracy as a concept has been brutalised. Regimes in Zimbabwe, Iraq, China, Russia, many parts of Asia, and a substantial number in South America, have witnessed a proliferation of democracy being used to varnish essentially undemocratic and in some cases, inhumane governments. In most of these places, a resounding notion of democratic principle meaning more than just free and fair elections has been noticeable. In 2006 The Democratic Republic of Congo witnessed its first freely elected President since the 1970s. President Kabila received 58% of the vote and successfully became the first democratically elected President in four decades. This event would imply a substantial element of democracy within the country; but were I to include that over 45,000 people continue to die every month due to starvation, disease and as collateral of a raging civil war, would your opinion change? In 1949 the formation of the People’s Republic of China carried a connotation of democracy in the name alone; however a famous comment by Mao that the people had created a “democratic dictatorship” would lead some to claim that such a term was a contradiction in itself, and continued a misconception of what it is to be democratic. Electoral processes are a foundation of democracy; but it is in the actions of the administration after its election which constitutes whether a country can be claimed to be democratic or not.

In a time where the “fight for democracy” is relevant in numerous countries, prominent to millions of people, and even the justification for wars and invasions, is it possible that we’ve struggled to maintain any universal understanding of democracy? Perceptions of our own situations have led to a variety of obscured concepts and definitions. Standing in the crowd at Ranmoor, and watching the news later in the evening, the common sentiment by many who were unable to vote was that “this is not democracy”. But to many people throughout the world, the right to stand in line to vote, the ability to publically announce your anger with the government, and the public acceptance of responsibility by those in power, is in-fact the very embodiment of it.

This is not to say that we have little justification to complain about the events of May 6th, or of any time where we feel that the democratic principles have been undermined by the actions of our government. Just because these actions don’t lead to military action or incur civil depravities, by no means makes them less important. But we must remember that it is in the very ability to complain, to demand reform, ramification, or retribution, that those principles are upheld. The positive components are in our right to shape democracy as we see fit, to require amendments where we are disappointed and to remind the government that they are in power not by proxy, but by our privilege.

Granted, there is no perfect form of democracy. There will always be discrepancies even in the most democratically developed of countries, but perhaps that is a flaw of human nature rather than the system itself. In the moments that we are unsure of what we are fighting for, at home and abroad, when the concept seems blurred amidst disappointments and compromises by our government and by others. We should remind ourselves that though a structured definition of democracy may have been lost, the relevance of its principles have not. The strength and foreign envy of our democracy lies not only in our capacity to be free, but more essentially in our capacity to stand and remind our government that free, is exactly what we are.

Article by Fracie Taylor. Edited by Matthew Byatt.