by Serge Berthier

The current issue of Asian Affairs looked as some of the elections that recently took place in Asia. In South Korea, the people voted to protest against the impeachment of their elected President, in India, the poor voted against the BJP that thought ‘India was shining”. In Taiwan, half the population voted for the incumbent President, and the other voted to boot him out. A bizarre assassination attempt swayed the vote in favor of the status-quo to the dismay of the opposition. In the Philippines, the election turned into a tragic farce. The President got reelected officially and lost unofficially. The Indonesian parliamentary elections confirmed that the post-Suharto fever is abating. The Presidential election this summer will probably confirm it by putting into the driving seat a former General.

Our readers will probably agree with John Stuart Mill who said in 1861 that very different ideas are usually confounded under the name democracy.

“The pure idea of democracy, according to its definition, is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented” he said. “Democracy as commonly conceived and hitherto practiced is the government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people, exclusively represented. The former is synonymous with the equality of all citizens; the latter, strangely confounded with it, is a government of privilege, in favour of the numerical majority, who alone possess practically any voice in the State. This is the inevitable consequence of the manner in which the votes are now taken, to the complete disfranchisement of minorities.”

How to organize a democracy is an endless debate. Clearly, the Indian democracy has little to do with the Philippines one, to take two extreme examples. Montesquieu, the great French political philosopher had long ago identified the worst enemy of democracy.

In “the Spirit of the Law”, he explained how governments might be preserved from corruption. He did not see democracy as the ultimate rampart against despotism. He accurately predicted that the standing danger for any kind of government not already despotic was to become one. He thus argued that such a turn of event could only be prevented by a system in which legislative, executive, and judicial power are exercised by different bodies and in which all those bodies were bound by the rule of law. This theory of the separation of powers had an enormous impact on liberal political theory, and on the framers of the constitution of the United States of America. But today, that fundamental principle upon which democracy must rely to have any meaning is trampled upon not only in the Philippines, but in every country where institution building has been playing second fiddle to economic development.

“Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few”, Bernard Shaw was sarcastically saying at the turn of the XXth century.

He would probably be amused to see that the power of the media and the emergence of consumerism as the ultimate utopia have now allowed most democracies to substitute election by the corrupt few for election by the incompetent many.

Of course, we all know that democracy, as Winston Churchill once said, is a bad system of government, except when compared to all the others. Yet, today, we still have to define what democracy should be or should not be. The Americans, referring to their Declaration of Independence defend that all men are created equal, in the sense that they have certain unalienable rights. Unfortunately, after so many billion of dollars spend on education, wisely or not, with hundred of thousand universities around the globe, it is now clear that legislative action cannot and will not equalize the I.Q. of the world population. There will always be differences of ability, drive, and motivation. What laws can make is equality of opportunity more real by trying to equalize conditions before the rat race starts. But this idealistic aim runs contrary to the fundamental tenet of capitalism, which remains the principle of efficiency. That is why democracies chasing economic developments with IMF recipes are bound to perpetuate inequality.

The problem of individual liberty versus the role of democracy is not new. John Stuart Mill was the first to attack the illusion that democracy necessarily solves the problem of individual liberty. He was also the first one to emphasize that the majority rule was the worst form of tyranny since it commands the widest moral support.

The decay of the concept of democracy, best illustrated in the Philippines, comes from the failure among the Western elites to admit that different societies require different methods of voting.

It is well known that any president elected with a plurality but not a clear majority has a weak mandate to set and enforce policies. He or she is vulnerable to attacks from rival factions, most significantly those who do not like democracy.

Salvador Allende, a left-leaning activist, became president of Chile in 1970 with 36% of the vote. He was ousted in 1973 by a right-wing coup that paved the way to 17 years of military dictatorship. The Republicans attacked Bill Clinton's 1992 victory because he had only 43% of the vote. They considered that they represented the 57% that did not vote for him. In 2000, Bush Junior was elected with even less support. To shore up his weak political mandate, he has devised a war on terror to unite all Americans behind him. Abraham Lincoln became US president in 1860 with less than 40% of the vote, which gave secessionists a powerful argument to deny his authority – hastening the Civil War. Closer to us, Roh, the new President of South Korea, had to face an impeachment vote after winning a razor-thin majority in the Presidential election and Kim Dae-jung was without a parliamentary majority during all his presidency. As for Japan, the Japanese have been unable to shake-up the mantle of their post-war politicians.

The first political philosopher to look at the issue of representation was Condorcet, who was to be a victim of the French revolution. Looking at the way the French revolutionary Assembly was voting in 1789/90, he observes that majority voting could not produce consistent results in deciding between more than two alternatives. His remark is now known as the Condorcet’s Theorem.

Yet, nascent democracies tend to be in love with plurality rules, on the flawed assumption that a one-vote one-man system is a sign of equality. But democracy has never been about equality, it has always been about governance and what is best to avoid the tyranny of the few over the masses. Obviously, many have yet to understand the difference.

Serge Berthier