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In Defense of Representative Democracy  (5)

I must admit that I am still a student of traditional, old-fashioned democracy even with its limitations and shortcomings. Democracy is not just a mere slogan or a theory or a symbol. It is a way of life based on a clearly defined constitution accepted by the majority of the people. It is also based upon democratic elections that are competitive, periodic, inclusive, and definitive. Democratic elections in which the chief decision-makers in a nation are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present different policy issues and alternatives to the people.

The current Libyan system of government does not recognize opposing views, labels any form of assembly as treason punishable by death and forbids the formation of political parties. Without a constitution, parties and candidates who must enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and movement necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and issues to the voters, there is no civic life. Alas! There is only a dead society. Of course just simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. Systems in which the opposition is barred from free expression, has its rallies harassed or its voices censored, are not democratic. The party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency, but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be open, fair and competitive. The so-called Peoples Congress simply acts as a rubber stamp for government policy. It lends a fake legitimacy to the ruling elite and thereby contributes to the continuation of an unjust and authoritarian political system. It does not serve as a means of popular participation, direct or indirect, although it does provide an entree into the upper echelons of government for a select loyal few.

Real democracies thrive on openness, transparency and accountability, with one very important exception: the act of voting itself. To cast a free ballot and minimize the opportunity for intimidation, voters in a democracy must be permitted to cast their ballots in secret. At the same time, the protection of the ballot box and tallying of vote totals must be conducted as openly as possible, so that citizens are confident that the results are accurate and that the government does, indeed, rest upon their true and valid consent.

Opposition is vital:
One of the most difficult concepts for some to accept, especially in today's Libya where the transition of power has taken place at the point of the gun, is that of the "loyal opposition". This idea is a vital one, however. It means, in essence, that all sides in a democracy share a common commitment to its basic values and to the overall national interest. Political competitors don't necessarily have to like each other, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge that each has a legitimate and important constitutional role to play. Moreover, the constitutional ground rules of the society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate and guarantee basic human rights. For example, although the majority party dominates the parliamentary system in Britain, the role of the opposition party should not be overlooked. Whereas some consider the opposition merely "the government of tomorrow," others have recognized the important role it plays. Gerhard Kunz, a former member of the German Bundestag, has said that the opposition actually serves an important function for the Parliament and for the nation as a whole. This is true, he says, because the government simply presents and passes bills. It is therefore up to the opposition to think critically, forcing the government to justify its positions and even at times to amend its legislation.

Constitutional democratic elections are periodic. Real democracies do not elect or appoint dictators or leaders-for-life. Elected officials are accountable to the people, and they must return to the voters at prescribed intervals to seek their mandate to continue in office. This means that officials in a democracy must accept the risk of being voted out of office. The one exception is judges who, to insulate them against popular pressure and help ensure their impartiality, may be appointed for life and removed only for serious improprieties (more on this subject in the near future).

Democratic elections are inclusive. The definition of citizen and voter must be wide enough to include a large proportion of the adult population. A government chosen by a small, exclusive group is not a democracy--no matter how democratic its internal workings may appear. One of the great dramas of democracy throughout history has been the struggle of excluded groups--whether racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, or women--to win full citizenship, and with it the right to vote and hold office. In the United States, for example, only white male property holders enjoyed the right to elect and be elected when the American constitution was signed in 1787. The property qualification disappeared by the early 19th century, and women won the right to vote in 1920. Black Americans, however, did not enjoy full voting rights in the southern United States until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And finally, in 1971, younger citizens were given the right to vote when the United States lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

Peaceful transition of power:
Democratic elections are definitive. They determine the leadership of the government. Subject to the laws and constitution of the country, popularly elected representatives hold the reins of power. They are not simply figureheads or symbolic leaders. Finally, it is important to note that democratic elections are not limited to selecting candidates. Voters can also be asked to decide policy issues directly through referendums and initiatives that are placed on the ballot. For example, legislatures can decide to "refer," or place, an issue directly before the voters. In the case of an initiative, citizens themselves can gather a prescribed number of signatures (usually a percentage of the number of registered voters) and require that an issue be placed for voting on the next ballot.

When the election is over, the losers accept the judgment of the voters. If the incumbent party loses, it turns over power peacefully. No matter who wins, both sides agree to cooperate in solving the national common problems of the society. The losers, now in the political opposition, know that they will not lose their lives or go to jail. On the contrary, the opposition, whether it consists of one party or many, can continue to participate in public life with the knowledge that its role is essential in any democracy worthy of the name. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.

As the next election comes around, opposition parties will again have the opportunity to compete for power. In addition, a pluralistic society, one in which the reach of government is constitutionally limited, tends to offer election losers opportunities for public service outside government. Those defeated at the polls may choose to continue as a formal opposition party, but they may also decide to participate in the wider political process and debate through writing, teaching, or joining one of many private organizations concerned with public policy issues. Democratic elections, after all, are not a fight for survival but a competition to serve the public good.

Some crucial lessons:
That said, it is still possible to draw lessons from the experience of legislatures in democracies, mature and developing, around the world. One is fundamental and particularly clear: a society thrives best if it has an active, democratically elected, vibrant, meaningful, and legitimate legislature. The other lessons flow from this one:

1.    No legislature can be effective unless it has adequate resources to conduct research on policy issues, develop models, analyze data, and write laws. Staffs, libraries, and expertise are all necessary, as are tools like computers, telephones, and fax machines. However, following the U.S. model of a large staff for each individual lawmaker is not always essential. Central research staffs can work very well--for example; many legislatures benefit from the services of centralized research units or national libraries as well as public and private think tanks and policy institutes. In addition, some resources, including secretarial assistance and research help, are usually available to individual members.

2.    Some division of labor is necessary in any democratically elected legislature. A committee system created to fit the policy areas that the legislature will deal with is essential. Committees may be given the responsibility to draft bills, hold hearings, or air grievances. They can include chairs from the governing party or parties or from opposition parties. They can be independently strong or weak. But committee systems are increasingly being recognized in parliaments as a way to facilitate the policy-making process, even though it is difficult to define clear jurisdictional lines for subjects like energy or the environment, and committees often squabble among themselves for turf!

3.    A major function of a legislature is to provide an outlet for, and representation of, the legitimate "loyal opposition". Striking a balance between an appropriate role for the minority and the legitimate right of the majority to act is another one of those inherent dilemmas in a democratic legislature. Finding a meaningful role for the opposition, whether it is organized in one party or several, or cuts across party lines into regional and ethnic constituencies, is a key to the stability and legitimacy of the political system.

4.    Outside interests, from trade associations to ethnic or racial groupings, need access to the legislature. The legislature in a democracy should be the most open and accessible organization in the entire political process, for its role is to listen to and represent all the forces, big and small, in the society. Committees, staffs, party organizations, and individual lawmakers all can be points of access to the political system. Care and sensitivity should be taken to make sure that many such points exist.

5.    A balance also must be struck among the different kinds of groups in a society that have legitimate voices. One way to do this is through bicameralism (or two chamber systems). Most democracies have two houses in their legislatures--one whose representation is based on population size and another whose representation is based on some other criterion. For example, In the United States, the House of Representatives represents by population--each congressional district has roughly the same number of people and a single representative. The U.S. Senate represents by state--each of the 50 states has two senators, each elected at a different time and statewide. This ensures that the interests of states--some of which are very small and sparsely populated--will be amply represented.

6.    A legislature needs to act as a counterweight to the executive, whether in a parliamentary or a presidential system. No institution in government should be able to act without accountability, without some constitutional oversight to keep it accountable to the public. In the British Parliament, the question period--usually one-hour each day when opposition party members can question members of the government, especially the Prime Minister--is designed specifically for this purpose, as well as to provide a real role for the opposition. The committees in the British House of Commons also attempt to oversee the actions of the executive departments and their civil servants. They are responsible for ensuring that there is no fraud, scandal, or abuse of power, and that insulated government bureaucrats do not wield their power carelessly, arrogantly, or unethically. Congressional committees in the United States do the same thing, although much more aggressively. But whether by committees or some other mechanism, the legislature should be set up to act in an oversight capacity.

7.    The legislature is often the best and most legitimate forum for debating differences. Every society has differences over policy directions, items to be on the national agenda, and groups that deserve special treatment. Providing opportunities and the best environment for real debate is an important function of the legislature.

8.    An important but delicate task of the legislature is to offer balanced representation. Every legislature has to balance the need to represent with the need to govern. The ability to act, in other words, must be balanced against the need to hear all voices, even if that means delaying action to afford every opportunity of expression for a minority that feels intensely about an issue or action.

To be continued

Abdelrahim Saleh


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