Although supposedly democratic systems, the closest they ever approach a truly democratic process is during elections, which are only held on average once every 4 or 5 years. In these elections, however, the electorate votes for candidates:-
– with the wrong qualifications
– who were selected for the wrong reasons
– by persons that don’t come from the area,
– who themselves may not be from the area,
– or may not have the specific knowledge of the area needed,
all on the basis of a party manifesto that the electorate had no hand in preparing, and in all probability will only partially agree with.
As the cost of elections increases, which is naturally the case, for there are many more candidates than positions, financial support becomes a necessity for most. Political parties supply this support from their campaign funds, but in so doing “buy” the candidates loyalty for the next government term.
After the election, the governing party proceeds to define it’s program of action, which may or may not be coincident with the manifesto on which it campaigned. For the party, the manifesto is akin to a sales pitch, which can be varied as required. For the electorate, however, it was all they had to work with. The numbers of broken election promises testify to this practice. The government, however, knowing that it has free hand until the next election is due, with no interim redress on the part of the electorate**, can safely ignore the electorate and do what it wants. This is slightly modified in practice, in that for the second half of the term, the government, hoping for re-election, will want to woo the voters with less controversial parts of the programme.
** Note:- A system of “Recall”, whereby unsatisfactory elected officials can be removed from their posts, was first used in the Los Angeles charter in 1903. Although this device became widespread, it still only applies at municipal and state level. There is no equivalent process at federal level.
The fact that a government can and does pass laws that do not represent the wishes of its people is demonstrated by the introduction of a tax in the UK that was considered unfair. The case in point is the Community Charge tax, which was imposed in 1990. This tax was soon termed a ‘poll tax’, for it set set a fixed amount to be paid per person rather than taxing people according to their income level. Opposition to the tax was so strong it led to rioting in London. The community charge tax was repealed in 1992 and replaced with a council tax based on property value, with discounts for certain properties and low-income levels. There is a higher tendency for this to happen if the governing party has been in office for longer than 1 term.
In another example, in 2001 the government in the UK (this time, the other major party was in power) wished to entrust a Public/Private Partnership (PPP) with the upgrading and operation of the London Underground system, in spite of fierce opposition from London’s Mayor, and much of it’s population. A study of the proposals quickly revealed serious flaws:- the proposals were not economically viable, and there was so much inherent risk that the safety of the travelling public would be jeapardised. The government prevailed.
When a party has become unpopular with the electorate, the electorate will vote another party into power at the earliest opportunity. The party policies of the new government may be radically different to those of the previous one. It is then likely that it will spend the first part of it’s term reversing legislation from the previous government – where still possible to do so. This is more likely to happen if it has a large majority in the assembly, which occurs when there is a ‘landslide’ swing from one party to the other by the disenchanted electorate. Progress under these conditions is destined to take a zig-zag path, and will consequently be slower, and ultimately more costly.
If the policies of the various parties become convergent, there is the possibility that they will all be disliked by the electorate, but there is no better choice available. The decision then is not for the best, but for the least bad.
Paradoxically, the electorate, from which power is derived, effectively becomes part of the opposition as soon as the electoral process has been completed.
The present systems, however wrong they may be, have become so entrenched, and so rooted in tradition, that they are almost impossible to change. Peaceful demonstrations may have some effect on an individual part of policy, such as nuclear warfare, but the process is painfully slow, and governments are obstinate. As soon as demonstrations become violent, even though the objective itself may be perfectly acceptable, recent legislation on terrorism has made control much more simple. All the government needs to do now is to put a label of “Terrorism” on some perfectly reasonable dissent, and the anti-terrorism machine swings immediately into action.
One of the problems with this type of action is that the label is initially taken at face value by the general public, which enables the action itself to take place unopposed. It is only after the furore has died down and the dust settled that people start to ask themselves the question; “Was that actually right?” In many cases it would appear that it wasn’t – but the government achieved a tactical advantage by applying the label. This could also be the case where a group of the electorate thought it necessary to change the system of government itself. This may in fact be more understandable, for to undermine the elected government is normally regarded as a treasonable offence.
If we now go back to our definition of democracy, “Government by all the people, direct or representative …”, it would seem that the representatives have created legislation that in fact outlaws the democratic process. This is fortunately not quite the case, as there are two ways in which redress may obtained.
Firstly, the Petition. A petition is an accepted process whereby the governed are able to peacefully enact a change in the system. The rules pertaining to petitions will vary from country to country, but in principle they all require the signature of a minimum number of genuine enfranchised citizens. We can imagine the reception that such a petition would have in this particular case:- the government would be required to legislate itself out of existence! Nevertheless, there is no possibility of such action being labelled ‘terrorist’, and there are enough legal precedents to guarantee it’s function. The “Petition of Right” was used by parliament itself in 1628 to demand that Charles I desist from levying taxes without its consent. In 1848 the Chartists presented a petition for universal suffrage, but this was rejected on questions as to the authenticity of the signatures. The system of recall used in the US is also initiated by a petition.
The physical effort of producing a petition with several million authentic signatures is in itself daunting. There is another way, however, that is much less strenuous, cannot be falsified, and for which an opportunity exists at regular intervals. This is for the electorate en masse to signal to the government their refusal to continue with the present system. This they can do by refusing to vote at all, or by nullifying their ballot papers if they do vote. The latter will be necessary in countries where voting is a legal requirement.
The government is empowered by an electoral majority.
If there is no majority, there can be no power.
If there is no power, there can be no government!
Although I know of no precedent for such an action, I cannot imagine that it would cause the collapse of the country’s system and infrastructure. A ‘caretaker government’ would be appointed to continue day-to-day management until such time as a solution could be found.
This is the point where a carefully thought through solution must be available, and one that has been provided by the electorate, and not the government!