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In Defense of Representative Democracy

I have read few letters on this site dealing with some issues related to Democracy. Due to several misconceptions raised specifically by Dr. Ramadhan el-Braiki and others, I decided to write about this complex but important subject. My major aim is to defend Representative Democracy. I strongly believe that in order for the Libyan society to advance, it is crucial that we all attempt to rebuild our country politically, economically and socially. The ruling elites must extend to their citizens the rights and freedoms they deserve and yearn for.

It is important to note at the outset that despite its current popularity, democracy is a concept that is often misunderstood and misused. Totalitarian and military regimes, for example, may call themselves democratic republics or states of the peoples, but the reality is far from such grand claims. We do need to explore in depth how the ideas of democracy have been translated into institutions and practices around the world and through the ages. Experiences of the growth and development of democratic societies of the past and present should be carefully studied. Democracy should be traced from its early days in the classical period, through Islamic history, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Reformation, the English Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the American and the French Revolutions to name only a few. We also need to familiarize ourselves with the history of 20th century struggle for democracy against Fascism, Communism, and other forms of dictatorship. Important historical documents such as the Magna Carta, the American Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the UN Charter and other Human Right Declarations, and our own past and present constitutions must be scrutinized and well digested before we could reflect critically and meaningfully about what democracy is and how our democracy should look like.

For example, we need to learn about what, political, social, and cultural conditions have helped shape democratic societies? What conditions have hindered democratic development? Who has defended democracy and who has fought against it? How have democratic governments been organized to permit majority rule; to protect individual freedoms and minority rights; and to provide law and order without suppressing fundamental freedoms and rights? We need to recognize that democracy has taken different forms in different countries, and we should understand how and why this occurs. We also need to explore in depth our own history of democracy. What forms of governments have existed in our own country in the past? Have we ever tried democracy before and are we a democratic society now? What led to the establishment of our present system of government? How are the circumstances we now face similar to those faced by other societies in the past? How are they different? What lessons can we learn from failed attempts at democracy in our own society and others? And the list of questions is endless! However, in trying to answer these questions and many others we will learn the many practical elements of a functioning democracy. We will be definitely exposed to how democracy works in reality and how reality does and does not keep up with theory.

Representation, Democracy and Self-government:
Democracy is simply a system of self-government where the citizens are equal and political decisions are made by majority rule, while protecting the rights of the minority. Even if this minority is only one single individual who chose to dissent or disagree. In its purest form, democracy affords citizens the opportunity to participate directly in the decision-making process which affects their daily lives and their very existence. This is called direct democracy. However, given the size and complexity of today’s societies, it is generally more practical for citizens to elect representatives who will govern and make decisions on their behalf. Representative democracy relies on regular, free, fair and competitive elections to hold the government accountable to the people. In a real democracy the government exists to serve the people, not the other way around. Because government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, the people in a democratic society have the capacity to change the government peacefully and without any fear of repression when they lose confidence in it.

Majority rule is the basic principle upon which democracy rests. However to avoid the temptation of the tyranny of the majority, a constitutional framework that limits the power of those who rule and safeguards individual and minority rights proved to be essential to any good functioning democracy. There is no democracy without a constitution. In such a constitution, all citizens must possess certain equal fundamental rights, and the exercise of those rights does not depend upon the goodwill of the majority. Such rights must be guaranteed through mechanisms that are extremely difficult to alter and local or regional governing bodies are constitutionally forbidden from changing or passing any laws that deny or weaken these basic rights. For example, many democratic constitutions list freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and the right to a fair trial as inalienable rights of all citizens.

Also important to democratic government are the checks and balances that block any institution, group, or individual from amassing too much power. It is crucial for example to separate the powers of those who rule society. An independent judiciary is needed to prevent the executive and legislative branches from reaching beyond their limits. It is even desirable to divide between the executive and the legislative wings of government to provide further checks on each other. This is the case in the American Presidential system versus the Parliamentary system common in other parts of the world. However, although parliamentary and presidential democratic systems differ in how they divide the powers of government; they all provide some constitutional mechanism to limit the power of any single branch.

We must note that democracy can fail if the government has too much power and it can also fail if government does not have enough power. The democratic process is a formula for fairness, not passivity or anarchy. Furthermore, wise and prudent leadership is necessary to the success of democratic government, and citizens must abide by the decisions of their elected leaders and obey the laws of society provided that these decisions and laws do not violate any of their fundamental rights. A real and healthy democracy delivers freedom and opportunities to its people, and its citizens, in turn, need to carry the responsibilities and the habits of the mind that must accompany life in a democratic society. The people must develop the attitudes and values that make democracy possible, and the commitment and enthusiasm necessary to nurture and sustain it. Only if each generation comes to understand and appreciate democracy will this form of governance prove to be stable and successful.

To be continued.

Abdelrahim Saleh

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