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Democracy is at stake

Democracy is at stake

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about democracy’s receding trend. At the time, I was writing against the backdrop of what appeared to be politically tinged convictions of journalists in the Philippines; arrests of opposition figures in Belarus; and the firing of the former head of the Manhattan Attorney’s Office in the United States (US) – Geoffrey Berman who was leading investigations into some of President Trump’s allies.

According to the Pew Research Center, democracy has grown across the world over the past four decades. However, Drew Desilver of Pew notes that concern has been growing for the past several years about the future of democracy, owing to considerable dissatisfaction in many countries with how democracy is working in practice. While nearly half of the 167 countries included in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index are considered to be some type of democracy, a mere 12 percent are rated as “full democracies”. Meanwhile, close to one-third are ranked as “flawed democracies”.

Speaking at the 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC), former US President Barack Obama said the following:

“Democracy was never meant to be transactional – you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So, I am also asking you to believe in your own ability – to embrace your own responsibility as citizens – to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy.”

Although he was speaking in the context of the US, President Obama’s words can easily be applied to nearly every country around the world. Democracy is at stake in Belarus where thousands are on the streets protesting the outcome of an election that several observers contend was not won fair and square by the incumbent. Democracy is at stake in Mali where the military has overthrown the government. Democracy is at stake in Lebanon where the flames of popular outrage are burning as thousands of citizens demand an overhaul of the political system.

It is not uncommon for many persons to think of democracy largely in the context of exercising the right to vote. For some, this is the holy grail of any democratic system. However, voting is only part of the democratic process. Other important aspects of democracy are clean elections, impartial governance, participatory engagement, civil liberties, access to justice, judicial independence, respect for fundamental rights, absence of corruption, civil society participation and effective checks on government. Unfortunately, in too many countries around the world, these aspects of a properly functioning democratic system are often forgotten.

In his DNC speech, President Obama made another telling point in noting that he would “understand why a young person might look at politics right now, the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and crazy conspiracy theories and think, what’s the point?” Again, while Obama’s speech was meant for an American audience, his words are applicable almost everywhere. The political circus, the meanness and the lies are not confined to the US.

This seems to be an elections season of sorts for the Caribbean. Guyana held elections in March, Suriname in May and Trinidad and Tobago in August. Jamaica will hold elections in September and Vincentians are widely expected to go to the polls before the end of 2020. Some other countries also have elections constitutionally due during 2021. Voting is a fundamental right and one that we enjoy today because of the blood and sweat of many of our foreparents. Therefore, voting is a right that citizens should not take lightly.

Finally, even as we acknowledge the importance of voting during an election cycle, we must also guard against democratic backsliding long after an election is over. Democratic backsliding happens when citizens are uninformed, when mechanisms for participatory engagement are lacking or absent and when the other fundamental aspects of democracy disintegrate. Democracy is at stake and we have a stake in democracy!

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