“Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.“
– Atifete Jahjaga
Democracy. It is not a place. It is not a person. It is especially not a small exclusive group of people.
Democracy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically-held, free elections.”
Voting and Elections
Elections or periodic events when voting is conducted, are the cornerstone of a democracy. The point is this. Society is diverse and people are different. If someone wants his voice heard or his rights to be upheld, he needs to vote. He votes for the representative who reflects his desires and wishes.
Ideally, the voice of the majority is heard. However, the viewpoint of the minority should be and will still be represented. This happens if there is a representative candidate standing for election. This candidate will be able to speak to that viewpoint, if people come out and vote for that candidate. In this sense, there is a sharing of power.
The Council of Europe says it best. It says: “The basic interests of minorities as well as majorities need to be safeguarded in any democratic system by adherence to human rights principles, reinforced by an effective legal mechanism, whatever the will of the majority may be.” https://www.coe.int/en/web/compass/democracy
I am reminded of a time more than a couple of decades ago, when I worked as a civil servant in a Western-style democracy. I was designated as a lower-level official for the purposes of a general election. Essentially, I was tasked to assist voters as they voted for their candidates on Election day. At some point in that day, a bus full of senior citizens was brought in from a retirement community. While most of them were mobile and could easily vote, there were a few in wheelchairs. I was tasked to wheel these voters to their voting booths. Unfortunately, at that time, the booths were not low enough for some of them to sit and vote. I had to partially lift these voters so they could cast their ballots, as I looked away.
I came away that day realizing something new for my 20-something self. I realized that these seniors used every fiber of their being to exert themselves physically, and for some the exertion came with great pain, just so they could exercise their right to vote. I realized it was a precious privilege that this group of society understood.
Rule of Law
No one should be above the law if a democracy is to work properly. The legal system needs to be designed to give everyone an equal opportunity to defend himself. Individuals need to to be put through a legal process in a contentious situation. A democracy exists when the arbitrary exercise of power is checked by established and well-defined laws and processes. A healthy legal system provides for transparency and does not allow for the judiciary to show bias or favoritism of some over others.
I began my career working in the judiciary. Being part of a court system, I witnessed the tragic side of the justice process. I grew up quickly in that job but I also learned something. The lesson I learned was that the sometimes complicated and messy pieces of the judicial system, acted as a check on the over-reach by any other arm of the government. I saw that one needed an independent judiciary to check lawlessness and corruption and extreme bias.
A democratic system of government that is accountable, doesn’t allow for corruption or nepotism. It is hard for any one person to get too powerful. This is because a person must reveal and justify his process and reasons for making the decisions he does.
Over a decade ago I moved on to a new role in my career. I had the privilege of working in the chambers of a legislature. I was able to see for myself how the representatives of the people put forward their case. Legislators as representatives of constituents raised questions, that were put to the Executive. This made the government accountable to the people through the legislators. It is an irreplaceable process and the more transparent the process is to the people, the more effective the democracy.
Ultimately, citizens understand that no one person or exclusive group gets to be the democracy. Our will, as the people, is exercised through the precious institutions of democracy. Transparency, the sharing of information and accountability ensure that there is a system of checks and balances.
A real democracy is often messy. However, the very system of governance in that democracy prevents oppression. It ensures a system that seeks to represent all of us. In the end, the individual arms that work together make up a true democracy. Any attempt to downplay the proper workings of the democratic process endangers the will of the people. That is why we need to protect the institutions of the democratic process over the will of power-hungry forces. There is really no way to uphold a democracy without robust and full-throated participation by us all.