Business Matters

Democracy for all

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TAKING OFF from the Unesco advocacy on Education for All (EFA), the World Movement for Democracy chose Democracy for All: Ensuring Political, Social and Economic Inclusion as the theme for its seventh biennial assembly, convened last month in Lima, Peru.  For both education and democracy, inclusion is the urgent agenda, and EFA must serve as the foundation for worldwide democracy.

The achievement of universal education would allay Aristotle’s own doubts about democracy. His preferred form of government was monarchy or aristocracy, assuming that the society’s most enlightened members would wield political power.  But he acknowledged that the assumption did not always hold and that the rule of many, which he described as constitutional government, could also work.

For Aristotle, democracy posed the danger of rule by the uneducated mob and was the perversion of constitutional governance, as tyranny and oligarchy were the perverted forms of monarchy and aristocracy.   But the democracy brand has triumphed over his typologies.  Even at the height of the Cold War, when the contest between competing ideologies remained undecided, tyrannies and oligarchies projected themselves as democratic.

Following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) established the World Movement for Democracy (WMD) at a “global assembly” in New Delhi, India, in 1999. The avowed goal was “to strengthen democracy where it is weak, to reform and invigorate democracy even where it is longstanding, and to bolster prodemocracy groups in countries that have not yet entered into a process of democratic transition.”

With the wave of people-power initiatives after New Delhi, WMD tended to focus on the underdeveloped countries in the first and third groups.  But the Lima Assembly, which counted a guest list of over 550 democracy advocates from more than 100 countries, faced a different environment from that which prevailed at the last meeting in Jakarta.

The 2008 Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit had reported that the global trend in democratization, sustained over more than two decades, had stalled to a halt. Admittedly, democratizing developments since then have taken place in the Philippines and, more recently, in Burma (Myanmar).  The Middle East had also appeared ready for fresh democracy initiatives.

But the aftermath of the Arab Spring—unpredictable regimes in Libya and Egypt, unrest in Jordan, repression in Bahrain, the civil war in Syria and the nuclear threat in Iran—has disappointed and dismayed democracy activists.  Several panels in Lima also offered examples of “backsliding” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Deemed worthy of a separate panel were the equally alarming threats to democracy in developed countries in the West.  Arising from homeland security concerns and the global financial crisis, these challenges have combined to constrict the democratic space for ethnic minorities and to enlarge the gaps between rich and poor even in the European Union and the United States.

As an aspiration, democracy has decisively defeated its rivals.  But the implementation of the ideal on the ground varies widely. The variation in its practice raises the question of what constitutes democracy’s nonnegotiable, core elements, without which claims of democratic governance must be dismissed as deceptive.

Rating how democracies function becomes contentious because the metrics are changing; as communities become more politically mature, the concept of democracy expands to embrace additional elements. Ancient Athens practiced democracy, but also slavery, and slaves had no democratic rights.  American women won the right to vote 100 years after the United States became a democratic republic.

Democracy advances toward greater inclusivity. It also becomes more expansive in the areas it covers. Democracy is no longer simply about the conduct of regular elections. Unless free and fair, these elections mean nothing.  It is no longer simply about giving more citizens the right to vote. They must also have access to the education and the information required to make judicious electoral choices.

The cost of running for office and the enormous rewards that come with winning it provide reasons for concern. They raise the risk of corrupt collusion between campaign funders and politicians and the temptation to keep the office as a family monopoly.  More fundamentally, they limit who can run for office, subverting the concept of democracy, which assumes that citizens have the right and the opportunity both to elect their leaders and to stand for election.

Democracy is also no longer simply concerned with political procedures and political rights.  Democracies are also accountable for economic outcomes and must pursue the economic as much as the political empowerment of its citizens.

For both levels of empowerment, education is crucial. When quality education becomes the preserve of the 10 percent, the resulting competency gap for making informed political and economic decisions makes the prospect of democracy for all an unattainable dream.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. E-mail: edejesu@yahoo.com.

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