Friday, October 20, 2006

What's a democracy?

What exactly do we mean by democracy?

The question arises because I’m hearing on the news that one of the most oppressive regimes in the world has just tested a nuclear weapon. That would be the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea. The former East Germany, one of the most repressive regimes in communist Europe, was of course titled the German Democratic Republic (DDR).

Then we have the USA & UK, the champions of western democracy and determined to export this wonder drug to the rest of the world. George W Bush won a very narrow victory over Al Gore, and a little more over John Kerry, but he has proven to be a very divisive leader in his own country, never mind the wider international community. Margaret Thatcher was equally divisive in her long reign as UK Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Even today, 16 years later, she is revered and reviled in equal measure, but no-one is neutral about her.

The problem with a “winner takes all” approach in these countries is that it can prove highly divisive. One could reasonably argue that Northern Ireland was a democracy from partition to the dissolution of Stormont as the Unionists would always have enjoyed an overall majority, even without gerrymandering. Surely within “democracy” there rests an inherent understanding that the winner must seek to represent the best interests of all the people to the best of his ability, not just the interests of those who voted for him?

Bush and Thatcher had something in common - they’re examples of leaders driven by right-wing ideologies which deviated significantly from the accepted political norms of their predecessors. Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) and Evo Morales (Bolivia) in South America risk being equally divisive, driven by left-wing ideologies.

For decades post-WWII, “coalition” was dirty word politically. People would point at Italy as a classic case of a political basket-case, with weak coalition Governments frequently lasting less that a year. In a parliament of musical chairs, Romano Prodi is the 37th Prime Minister in 60 years. (Amintore Fanfani is the record holder, having held the office on five different occasions between 1954 & 1987.)

The composition of any Israeli Government appears, on paper, to defy political gravity and parties regularly leave and enter office without governments falling. UK politicians react with horror to the prospect of a hung parliament and the thought of having to form a coalition government.

However, our own experience of coalition governments has been generally very stable and relatively positive. The alignments of right and left together in government has blunted political ideologies and all parties have relative consensus on a broad range of policy areas. It may be relatively dull, the only real excitement coming from financial scandals, but is has been productive.

Based on our own experience and contrasting it with the US & UK experiences, it may be less exciting but it looks like evolution is a more desirable political approach than revolution.

Hugo and Evo please note!

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