The Soul of Democracy [Archives:1998/11/Viewpoint]

March 16 1998

These days, the political leadership of many Third World and formerly communist countries are working hard to fall in line with the new world trends. Press freedom, elections, political pluralism, establishing Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), etc, have become the fashion. Yemen is no exception. And for doing that, these regimes have been getting plus marks (and assistance) from the West.
Unfortunately, the majority of the people in most of the so-called democratizing countries, have seen little change. In the transformation business, the new-comers have been limited to only manifestations and symbolisms. The soul of democracy is left behind. Democracy means an expansion of the participation base in decision-making. It means a system based on transparency and accountability; application of law and order across the board, a smooth and peaceful transfer of power; and an overall sense of fair play. Without such values, it is hard to believe that you can have a democracy.
Let us look at the symbolisms that are abused:
1) So You Have Elections:
Many countries hold elections. Even when these are not rigged, they tend to cement the old patron-clientele relations in a new garb. The reason is that the people in power use their connections (and state funds, media, the bureaucracy, etc.) to achieve the election results they want. The product is that they create docile parliaments. Elections thus end up enabling those in power to hold on to it.
2) Press Freedom:
In many countries, some media organizations are given the right to yell or write the way they want. But, when public opinion is not important, how much of a difference can a critical media make. Moreover, the state often owns stronger and more influential media which can transmit a different message to the public thus confusing the picture. In many countries, the state still has monopoly over television and radio stations, and owns lots of journals.
3) Political Pluralism:
The fragmentation of the political structure into dozens of parties is called political pluralism. In many ‘democratizing’ countries, several dozen political parties came into existence. Often those in power encourage the further fragmentation of potential opposition parties. The end result is business as usual for the rulers who retain all power.
4) Establishing NGOs:
As the West moves away from officialdom towards grass-roots level voluntary organizations in channelling assistance, Third World politicians have developed a new trick. They establish their own NGOs, or what international organizations people now call GONGOs (Government Organized Non-Governmental Organizations).
Unless there is a true commitment to the democratization process based on acceptance of the people as the final arbiter of power in a meaningful relationship between the general public and politicians, the whole transformation process will become a sad joke. In many Western circles, this reality is already beginning to dawn on opinion and policy/decision makers. But, by the time they take damage-control measures, a couple of decades would usually have lapsed.
Time is precious in our lives. Safety and harmony in our planet hinges on standing up to dictators, now.
Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz AL-SAQQAF
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher