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Monday, March 19, 2012

Anwar Ibrahim : ''Argument for Democracy: The Triumph of the People''

Speech by Anwar Ibrahim at the India Today Conclave 2012, New Delhi, 16th March, 2012

In the words of the great Asian hero Jose Rizal: “Humanity will not be redeemed while reason is not free.”

And to this, we might add that reason will not be free as long as freedom itself remains incarcerated. The irony is that even as they rob us of our liberties and undermine our constitutional foundations, the powers that be audaciously trumpet their legitimacy as the duly elected representatives of the people.
That is why I would like to preface the discourse today on the “despotism of the majority”. These are not tin pot dictatorships but seemingly legitimate governments who have come to power through the ballot box – we shall take their legitimacy at face value for the moment. Having attained power, and enjoying it for protracted periods of time, they develop dictatorial tendencies on account of numerical strength in the legislatures.

This despotism is thus manifested in the abuse of the legislative process. Laws are then bulldozed through Parliament regardless whether they have been vehemently opposed. The voice of the people is drowned by the frenzied proclamation of power. Oppression reigns.
With this concentration of power, checks and balance essential for a democracy become neutered. The voices of dissent are quickly and ruthlessly stifled as the state apparatus is employed to silence political opposition.

The institutions of power such as the judiciary, the police, the public prosecutor and the anti-corruption agency are then treated as the personal and private army for the powers that be to perpetuate their rule.

Let us go deeper into the essential aspects of a democracy. The electorate should be allowed to make a free choice, free from any threat, inducement or promise or outright bribery for this would impact on the electoral outcome.

A “level playing field” would include equal access to a free media, open debates and a conduct of elections that can stand up to international scrutiny.

There must be an independent judiciary that will function as an effective check and balance whether it be against the despotism of the majority or against the arbitrariness of Executive action.

So much for the platitudes as the detractors would be quick to point out that these ideals if realised fully would lead to an “excess of democracy”. According to this view, allowing for greater participation in the democratic process could endanger the system itself. The demands of civil society in particular could well lead to a systemic failure. Constraints must be introduced to prevent social problems from going out of hand or else political authority itself will be delegitimized.

We don’t know whether to laugh or cry when this kind of ideology, masquerading as scientific research findings, is foisted on us. The fact is that we don’t need political scientists with post-doctoral degrees to tell us what autocrats and leaders of sham democracies have been telling us all along.
Their refrain is familiar enough: too much democracy is bad, society needs stability, chaos will ensue, and hence there must be a trade off. Give up some of those liberties or at least take a moratorium on exercising them for the sake of the collective good.

A quick refresher of our Asian history will bear out my contention. Hardly three decades had gone by after attaining independence before the euphoria of new found freedom evaporated under new despots. Their disdain for freedom and human rights outmatched their colonial predecessors.

Fast forward to the turn of the century and into the new millennium and we can see how closely conjoined this ‘excess of democracy’ thesis is to the Asian Values thesis. Their pretext was that Asians preferred societal stability as opposed to the messiness of democracy and individual rights. They argue that democracy is particularly unsuited for the attainment of certain economic objectives such as the eradication of poverty and bringing up the nation up to speed to compete globally.

Conveniently, therefore, dispersed power sharing was replaced by big government and the dismantling of institutional checks and balance. In other words, the separation of powers which had been written into their constitutions became blurred in the name of societal progress and economic advancement.

Indeed the advocates of a strong paternalistic government being the better alternative to liberal democracy have now jumped on the Occupy Wall Street wagon. They say all the pious platitudes preached about Western democracy have been now exposed for their hollowness. They say these old world democracies all suffer from similar social problems the root of which can be traced to this ‘excess in democracy.’
Our position is clear. Accepting this is akin to permitting autocracy via the back door. The detractors have missed the point entirely. Occupy Wall Street is indeed an indictment, even a categorical statement. But it is not against democracy at all. It is clearly an indictment against the evils of market fundamentalism, and while it is true that most democracies also espouse market capitalism, it is false logic to equate one with the other.

In fact, there is an inherent contradiction in the call for liberty, equality and fraternity, if by liberty we mean free markets alone. This is because a free market is based on competition, and competition, being a zero-sum game has no truck with equality.
Again, as OWS clearly demonstrates, market fundamentalism engenders inequality so much so that even the bastions of capitalism such as America and Britain no longer ask whether states ought to intervene in order to reduce these inequities.

The invisible hand has remained invisible so often that governments in these established democracies have not only intervened but have in many cases “gone overboard” in bailing out sinking corporations and “too big to fail” entities. The beneficiaries of such intervention are therefore the fat cats of Wall Street themselves. Main Street continues to be the sacrificial lamb. This can hardly be called social justice.
Are we suggesting that socialist regimes should replace liberal democracies? The answer is obvious: Inequalities of wealth, power and status are not exclusive to free markets. While socialist states do have more egalitarian policies, the trade off is unacceptable. Equality need not be attained on the altar of freedom and democracy.

A more equitable distribution of wealth need not be done at the expense of fundamental liberties. These liberties are of paramount importance but as Amartya Sen has argued, other considerations including that of economic needs are just as vital. The compelling question is this: Intense economic needs can be matters of life and death, so why should they be lower than that of personal liberties?

In this regard, a comprehensive support system for the poor and economically marginalized is absolutely necessary. Governments must be committed to the principle that a more equitable distribution of income is a fundamental precept for the realization of social justice. Freedom and democracy will continue to be pious platitudes where there is no commitment to undertake integrated plans for poverty reduction in the long run.

We don’t have to wait for Occupy Wall Street to tell us that economic power must be checked by the principles of governance and accountability. We know too well that abuse of power and corrupt practices are not committed only by the public sector.

So the answer to OWS is social justice, not less democracy. The social problems are real but they are not there because of an excess of democracy. They are the consequences of an excess of greed.
The public anger, frustration and disillusionment is real. OWS demands a more egalitarian deal. It is a demand for social justice. Seen in this light, OWS needs to be weighed in under the broader rubric of the Arab Spring, which we would now use as a metaphor for the aspirations of people who want freedom and democracy.

The fires for freedom and democracy ignited by this spring are still raging. We are still basking in the euphoria of this upheaval even as the newly minted democracies are trying to find their bearings.
If the Arab Spring is to have any lasting impact, the stakeholders must ensure that in place of their fallen dictatorships and autocracies, constitutional democracy will be the hall mark of the fruits of the revolution. Entrenched in these democracies must be the protection of minorities with their rights and liberties safeguarded. There will naturally be overlapping claims to entitlement of rights or competing goals but the test of true democracy lies not in curbing them but in finding a consensus that would represent inclusivity and accommodation.

We cannot overstate this reminder: This new wave of democratization must herald a democracy of a truly constitutional kind coming as a package with entrenched safeguards and power to be exercised with full accountability and transparency.

This caveat is crucial. This is because democracy may be exploited as a façade for the aggrandizement of power and wealth unless and until constitutional safeguards are put in place. And this must come hand in hand with good governance, transparency and accountability.

The rule of law and the protection of fundamental liberties are key features of a free and democratic society. To protect these basic rights, an independent judiciary is essential without which there can be no effective check and balance. If judges are to be independent of political authority, then their positions must be protected by the constitution. Appointments to high judicial office must also be transparent and done in the most scrupulous manner.

No leader in his right mind should ignore the call for reform, freedom and democracy. But there are still governments who think they can merely pay lip service to these imperatives by orchestrating elaborate PR exercises. Let us remind them that their machinations fool no one.

The road to democracy has never been smooth. The Arab Spring has come after a long winter of discontent. A heavy price had to be paid. It continues to be paid with the blood of innocent lives. But this is a spring that defies the four seasons. There are still many who may have too much at stake to let us reach our destination.

But for those who cherish freedom and democracy, this spring will keep the fire burning. Courage, honour and dignity will see us through. It is a matter of time. Our day of triumph will come.

Thank you.

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