Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Downsides of Democracy

By Uncle Cheng

As we know, Hong Kong's fascination with democracy was launched by our last colonial governor Fat Pang. Before his 'reign' the word 'politics' had almost been a taboo word in polite Hong Kong society. Fat Pang politicised Hong Kong and we are still not sure where it will all end.

But perhaps this is as good a moment as any to consider democracy's record around the world. I must warn you that the picture is not a pleasant one. Far from it. In fact, I would say that democracy as a system of government is going through a very bad patch and is in retreat in many countries.

You might imagine that one benefit of a democratic system would be more openness and less corruption. But that does not seem to the case at all. Just take a look at endemic corruption in democratic South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines ... I could go on but I think you get the picture.

Then you might think a democratic government would be more stable because it supposedly reflects the popular will. How then do you explain the military coup in Thailand where the introduction of a democratic system was supposed to have stopped such an event. The same happened in Pakistan some years back when a lengthy period of popular democratic government was suddenly swept aside by army generals.

The experience of the former Soviet Union is also revealing. There was great excitement in the west, especially in the U.S., when Boris Yeltsin won a landslide election to rule a democratic Russia . But what of that democracy today? Russia has kept its name but the government has become increasingly autocratic under President Putin and democracy is having a very rough time.

And what of Iraq whose people were trampled on by that vile dictator Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis, so the Americans thought, would be delighted to embrace democracy? Today, not only are democratic ideals in ruins in Iraq, but the Iraqi example has sent democratic dreams into retreat in neighbouring countries.

But by far the most compelling and worrying example of democracy in action is to be found in Britain. But isn't Britain meant to be the ultimate example of a functioning democracy that works without blemishes? Not now it isn't! The British Prime Minister has been interviewed twice by police investigating allegations of corruption and attempts to pervert the course of justice. A member of his staff was arrested early one morning at her home. A close colleague and member of the House of Lords was also arrested.

And it gets worse. Tony Blair went to an elite public school, became a barrister, and is a devout Christian. You expect him to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But his opponents are compiling a long list of things he has said in his career that have proved to be untrue. In the early days it was minor untruths such as when he first entered politics he said he had written articles for the Guardian newspaper but no such articles have ever been found. More recently in 2002, he famously claimed that "the intelligence community had established beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein was making chemical and biological weapons and was on his way to making nuclear weapons. It was all untrue.

Do they really believe that democracy will cure all known ills? Would you prefer to be ruled over by a benevolent dictatorship instead? The only problem is that benevolent dictators are in very short supply.


Vittal said...

To be honest, I was little surprised and disappointed by this post. Democracy is far from perfect – I agree. It has got its own challenges. It comes in various flavors and takes different forms in different countries. After having lived in two big fully democratic countries with various levels of corruption and efficiencies, I totally understand your frustration. But, even in my wildest dreams, I would never wish to live in a non-democratic society!!

What makes you think that non-democratic countries are less corrupt? Yes, you will never hear about the corruption because you know what happens when you open your mouth in such a society! I have come to the conclusion that corruption will always be part of our society. And, a democratic system helps us to keep an eye on it and go after even the most powerful person like a Prime Minister!

Democracy will never be able to cure all known ills. However, it will make an attempt to address and cure it. In some cases it will succeed and some cases it won’t. On the other hand, you know what happens in a non-democratic model – the problems will be silently swept under the rug.

Most troubling lines from your post were – “Would you prefer to be ruled over by a benevolent dictatorship instead? The only problem is that benevolent dictators are in very short supply.” It’s like asking – “Would you prefer to be a well-fed slave to a rich slave master instead of being free and poor?” !!!

slinki malinki said...

vittal, i think democracy is just one of some values we hope for. that's why there are liberal democrats, social democrats, green democrats and even just liberals, socialists and greens. democracy, as a government selection process, by itself does not ensure liberty and justice. and these values perhaps rank higher than the ballot box for some.

Vittal said...


I am trying to understand your position here! Democracy starts with a ballot box - otherwise it would be not be a democratic society. Also, I am wondering how can you say that you 'value' liberty and justice above 'voting' (ballot box) which is the building block of any democratic system!! Also, can you please give me names of a few places where there is no voting but plenty of justice and liberty to everyone?
Obviously, I must be missing something !!

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