25 May, 2022


Accountable Government

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

Charitha Ratwatte

The liberal democratic model

The events concerning Sri Lanka at the UNHRC at Geneva have focused our minds on the issue of the accountability of a government. A liberal democracy is, by any objective standard, the only system of governance which has within it the checks and balances, mechanisms, processes and procedures that can, up to some extent even, provide for a responsive system of government, where the rulers have even a modicum of accountability to the people they govern. But it is not perfect.

A liberal democratic system of government wherein the government is accountable to the governed has been described by analysts and commentators, as the only form of government suitable for grownups! All other forms of government, it is claimed, treat people as under-aged children. In the past, where within a nation state most of the people were illiterate, such paternalism, may be, could be justified, as nanny governance! In the current day and age, there is no space for such thinking.

Ordinary citizens are educated, knowledgeable and in this internet and mobile phone age, more ‘world aware’ and in touch with developing situations globally. It is truly the information age. As a result, as populations become more educated and informed, governments which try to behave like the proverbial ‘nanny,’ limiting citizens’ rights, curtailing media freedom and freedom of association, limiting social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and giving the defence and security establishments a prominent role to crush dissent will be less acceptable to its own people and the global community. Even nationalism and national sovereignty, described, with ample reason, as the ‘last resort of the scoundrel,’ is no defence from the prying eyes of the global community, even if the citizens’ rights to dissent and freedom of expression are curtailed.

Extra-national laws, international treaties, UN treaties, rules of groups of nations such as the European community, institutions such as the International Court of Justice at the Hague, the International Criminal Court, and the European Court of Human Rights are all limitations on national sovereignty which nation states have voluntarily imposed on themselves. Sometimes, as happened to Sri Lanka, just at this time, justifiably or unjustifiably, depending on your point of view, the global community may impose an inquiry into a domestic situation within a nation state, where it is felt that the state itself is unable to resolve a situation in accordance with internationally-acceptable norms of behaviour. Therefore there is no such thing as absolute national sovereignty, it is qualified, limited and tempered by global standards of behaviour.

Democracy a delicate plant

Democracy with universal suffrage is a very delicate plant, particularly, but, not only in its early years. Even where seemingly regular free and fair elections take place (electo-cracies), a true liberal democratic environment may not prosper. Less so, where the people have a lesser opportunity to freely express their views at elections and through the media.

Polity IV is an independent organisation which maintains a democratic data base for 167 nation states. The 2012 data reveals nation states going through periods of factionalism and various other events which change the democratic fabric fundamentally, such as autocratic backsliding, executive coups, violent revolutions, and collapse of central authority, resulting in failed states and military coups.

According to Polity IV, almost 100 countries are imperfect democracies. This is double the number in 1990. In 1800 there were none. The number of full autocracies is also down; in 1990, Polity IV estimates there were around 90 in 1990, now down to around 20. But sadly, in nations which Polity IV describes as ‘anocracies’ – those whose governance is highly unstable, ineffective and/or corrupt – the number has increased from around 20 in 1990, to around 50 in 2012. These are either crumbling autocracies or failing democracies.

They are also very vulnerable to outbreaks of armed conflict and forcible seizures of power.

Sadly there are only 10 nation states which Polity IV describes as full democracies in 2012. There are six to nine states which can be described as ‘qualified’ democracies or democracies with limitations. Anocracies number between one to five, while there around five closed autocracies and between six and 10 unqualified autocracies.

Fundamental requirements

Let’s examine the fundamental requirements for an accountable liberal democratic system of government. Strange as it may seem, the most fundamental factor which is required to ensure a democratic system is two sets of restraints. One restraint, among the people, and another, between the people and the state. These restraints rest on four basic features, all essential.

First of all, a democracy needs citizens who have the capacity to tolerate dissent. Dissent, that is, which operates within the law. There must be space for what has been described as a ‘loyal opposition’. Loyalty of the citizen to the democratic political process must override their loyalty to their own particular political point of view. Citizens must accept the legitimacy of a government run by and even for their opponents. They must have the confidence that they, who oppose the present administration, will in time have their own turn in government. While the legitimacy of dissent is accepted, the use of force must be ruled out.

Secondly, democracies need ‘guardians’. Those who hold positions of political, bureaucratic, judicial or military and police power must act within the law, recognising the need to comply with constitutional limitations placed on their behaviour and that the citizens have the right to challenge excesses or abuse of power, through recourse to an independent Judiciary. The role of an independent media to draw attention and communicate such abusive behaviour is also essential.

The guardians are different, from those who are referred to as ‘bandits,’ in that the guardians use their powers not for their own material or political advantage, but act according to law, observing the legal limitations on their authority, and act in favour of a nation of the benefit of the nation as a whole and not in a partisan manner. One may, perhaps, contra distinguish a ‘statesman’ from a mere ‘politician’ in this context.

Unfortunately, throughout the history of mankind, power and wealth have been conjoined! The idea that the two should be separate is a relatively new and revolutionary concept, not yet totally and universally accepted. Concepts of constitutional law such as the Rule of Law and the Separation of Powers, and the Independence of the Judiciary and Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, have all evolved in the context of empowering and institutionalising, this separation of power from pecuniary wealth. Fundamentally, the ‘loot, shoot and scoot’ tendency in undemocratic regimes is the very antithesis of this concept of guardianship.

Thirdly, democracies need properly functioning markets, supported by a well-functioning state. By a functioning market, analysts definitely do not mean the abuse of power by the state to turn ordinary citizens’ assets into a ruling classes’ private wealth. So-called entrepreneurs who build their fortunes on such blatant theft are no more legitimate than the politicians who connive with them.
Properly functioning markets support prosperity. A social system which is able to ensure a decent and reasonably secure standard of living is also most likely to ensure a stable society. This enables citizens to place trust in the rational economic behaviour of their fellow citizens and in a stable and predictable economic future. Most importantly, effectively functioning markets loosen the connection between financial prosperity and political power. Effectively functioning markets make it possible for people to regard the outcomes of elections as important, but most importantly, not as a matter of life and death either for themselves or for their families. This lowers the temperature of politics to a bearable level, rather than to one of basic survival.

Fourthly, democracies need a commonly-accepted legal regime. Most importantly, constitutional laws and conventions. Such laws enacted and implemented in accordance with accepted procedures shapes the rules of political, social and economic activities within the state. A country that lacks the Rule of Law is permanently on the verge of chaos or tyranny. As succinctly stated by Lord Bingham, former Lord Chief Justice of England, described as the greatest English judge since World War II, the Rule of Law implies that ‘All persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts’.

Elected dictatorship

The four principles enunciated above, should make it abundantly clear, that being a democracy is more than just being an electo-cracy, each adult, one vote, periodically! Or even: one person impersonates an adult, by a rigged vote, on a regular basis! The survival of a democratic system requires and entails a complex web of rights, obligations, powers and most importantly constraints.

Basically a democracy is the political expression of free individuals acting in concert, otherwise it simply cannot exist. Fundamentally, those who have won an election do not have the right to do as they please. That is not democracy, but merely an electo-cracy, an elected dictatorship! Without the four fundamental requirements of- true citizens, honest guardians, functioning markets and just laws, there cannot exist a liberal democratic system of governance.

Such a rules-based liberal democratic system is a bulwark against corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments. Liberal democracies are on average richer than non democracies. They are less likely to go to war and have a better record for fighting corruption. More fundamentally a liberal democratic environment gives citizens the space to speak their minds freely and shape their own and their children’s futures.

In the second half of the 20th century principles of liberal democracy has taken root in some very challenging political and social environments. Post-Nazi Germany, post-colonial India, which had the world’s largest population of poor people, and post-apartheid South Africa. The process of de-colonisation created a host of new democracies in Asia and Africa. In countries such as Greece, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Chile, autocratic regimes were replaced.

By the year 2000, Freedom House, a think tank, classified 120 countries as democracies. But in the 21st century although more people than ever before, estimated to be 40% of the world’s population, live in countries which will hold free and fair elections, democracy’s global advance has come to a halt and may even have gone into reverse. Freedom House estimates that 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which global freedom declined. Many nominal democracies have slipped towards autocracy, maintaining the outward appearance of democracy through elections, the veneer of an electo-cracy, but devoid of the rights, institutions and laws that have shown to be an equally important aspect of a functioning liberal democratic system.

Declining democracy

Analysts cite two main reasons for this decline: one is the financial crisis of 2007-’08 and the other the rise of the People’s Republic of China.

The financial crisis was brought about by populist governments playing up to the voters’ greed and steadily enhancing entitlements and handouts over decades, allowing very dangerous levels of national debt to develop. The politicians, playing up to the voters wish for the easy ‘welfare state’ based unaffordable lifestyle, believed that they had tamed the boom and bust cycles and were able to control economic risks. Finally, when the credit crunch hit home, the taxpayer had to take the hit as governments had to bail out the financial service providers to refinance their high risk lending.

On the other hand, the Government of China has destroyed the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress. China has been doubling living standards roughly every 30 years, pulling phenomenally large numbers of people out of poverty. The Chinese authorities claim that their Beijing Model – tight control of the state by the Communist party, coupled with a relentless effort to recruit talented people into the Communist Party’s upper ranks – delivers economic progress in a superior manner than what the traditional liberal democracy does; in that it does not allow dissenting opinion to dissipate the drive to development and also does not provide space for gridlock between the Government and its opponents, as seen in the United States between the Democratic President and Republican-controlled Congress.

China says its political leadership changes, within the Communist party, every decade or so, and the supply of fresh talent at the peak of the pyramid of power is achieved by party cadres being promoted on their ability to deliver in lower level posts in the hierarchy. Critics condemn China for crushing dissent and public opinion. Yet the Communist regime’s obsession with control paradoxically means it has to pay close attention to public opinion.

Some Chinese commentators argue that democracy is destroying the West, particularly America, by institutionalising gridlock, trivialising decision making and throwing up incompetent leaders with no track record. They say that democracy makes things ‘overtly complicated and frivolous’ and allows ‘certain sweet-talking politicians to mislead the people’. They point out that ‘many developing countries that have introduced democratic values of governance are experiencing disorder and chaos’. They say that China offers an alternative model and counties such as Rwanda, Dubai and Vietnam seems to be taking this seriously by curtailing democracy and dissent and racing headlong on a steamroller of economic development.

Freedom in political choice is fundamental

Other analysts feel that this challenge to liberal democratic principles from the Beijing Model is not sustainable. As citizenry gains more economic capacity and wealth, he yearns for freedom. Freedom in political choice is fundamental. As long as a nation is struggling to feed its poor, the citizenry will tolerate a government imposing a policy and repressing dissent thereto. But once a level of prosperity has been reached, citizens yearn after political freedom. Whether the Beijing Model can face up to that challenge remains to be seen.

For liberal democracies too, the challenge comes from within, from the voter stakeholders themselves. What Plato, stated as his greatest worry about democracy, that ‘citizens would live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment’ has turned out to be true. Populist government have got into the bad habit of running up huge debts as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters, what they want in the short term, to ensure the re-electability of the politicians in power. Balancing budgets is history.

This flagrant spending extravaganza is taking place in the context of an ageing population. There are less and less people of working to generate the finances to support retired workers. The result is that many populist democracies now face the challenge of choosing between inherited entitlement bills and investments in the future. Cynicism of voters towards the political class also raises challenges to democracy. Surveys have shown that ‘people have no trust in government’ and think that ‘politicians tell lies all the time’!

Often democratic political systems have been subverted by interest groups, even by dynasties. Patrick French, a British historian has noted that every member of India’s lower house under the age of 30 is member of a politically dynastic family. An analysis on this basis of Lanka’s recent Provincial Council elections in the west and south will raise eyebrows.

Elections to the fore

One reason that liberal democracy seems to be in jeopardy is due to elections being seen as the main requirement and not the other fundamental requirements. As has been mentioned, the Rule of Law is vital. The power of the state has to be checked by an independent Judiciary. The power of the individual also must be limited so as not to violate another’s rights. Without the freedom of speech and the freedom to associate and communicate, citizens cannot articulate their grievances or push for preferred policies.

Majoritarianism is a great threat. Too often winning an election is taken to mean that the majority has the unconstrained power to do what it likes. These are dangerous trends. The only way to control this is to limit the power of national institutions. The United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Union, all place constraints on a nation’s discretion. Such checks and balances on the power of the state’s domestic policies are required in the interest of promoting good governance.

The growing size and power of the state is one factor which jeopardises the survival of a liberal democracy. The relentless expansion of government, into business and enterprise, into the provision of goods and services hitherto provided by private enterprise, reduces liberty and hands even more power to vested special interest groups. The governments have the habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, given the economic realities of the national budget.

In the 1980s giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the time. The same principle of limiting government should be extended to a broader sector in order to ensure the survival of liberal democratic systems. This can be done in many ways.

Tight fiscal rules can be imposed, making fiscal responsibility an obligation of the budget process. Balancing budgets can be made compulsory. Sunset clauses can be introduced into legislation providing freebies and handouts to voters, so that politicians are forced to renew laws, within a timeframe and reconsider the affordability and practical nature of the law.

Non-partisan independent commissions to handle long-term policy formulation, to manage the Administrative Service, the Police Service, the Judiciary and the Military, and other national instructions is another option. Such constraints can strengthen democracy by preventing people voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy. They can protect minorities from persecution and ensure an independent Public Service, Police Service and Judiciary. Delegation also can be made to the voting public, by institutionalising referendums on important issues. Even allowing referendums to initiate policy reform, like in California, USA.

While globalism constraints the power of the state, localism, by empowering voters and micro level power, can only strengthen democracy. The devolution of power using the principle of subsidiarity – that power must be exercised at the point closest to its impact is important. These will go a long away in ensuring accountable liberal democratic governance.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Wow what a wonderful write up cheers

  • 1

    wonderful philosophical analysis.But unfortunately our people are far behind of those thinking proces. They still live with survival of the fittest mood unfortunately. Anyway people should understand one day.

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