With elections coming up (in 2 years, but we see the first signs of campaigning politicians) it is now more than ever interesting to look at democracy. What is it, and what do we want it to be?
I have noticed that some people are puzzled by my notions that democracy is more than “Vote-once-and-shut-up-for-five-years”. This error is sometimes reflected in concepts like: “There is only one boss at the time”. That is autocracy and not democracy.
Democracy means: demos=people, kratos=rule. People’s rule. This means there are 15 million bosses that rule Malawi together. This is the benchmark of democracy and we need to keep that in mind with everything we say or do in connection with our democracy.
Because it would be a bit cumbersome if every one of those 15 million bosses would have to discuss every single issue, we have appointed some representatives to represent our interests and opinions. These we call MPs and we appointed one called President. What we see happening in history time after time is that appointed authorities develop interests of their own, which are not always in line with the interests and ideas of the people. So we need controls on the appointed representatives, to make sure they stay in line with our ideas. This we do in several ways: one is the separation of powers.
This means we divide authority in three branches:
- the executive, which is administered by our employee the President, who we pay to do this for us. This branch of government is supposed to implement the policies we, the people, want, according to the law of the land. It does not always do that in a perfect fashion, so we have another authority to check on it:
- the legislative, called Parliament. Here we appointed 192 employees. They have several tasks to perform for us, for which we pay them (through taxes). They make laws, which reflect our values, norms and interests. Often these laws are proposed by the Executive in the form of a bill, which Parliament can pass or reject. Also Parliamentarians can make their own bills, where the Executive has no input. On top of this Parliament must control the Executive. In the worst case scenario they can fire the President for us. If we are not satisfied with the performance of our employee the President, we can order our representatives in Parliament to fire him (or her). This is called impeachment, and it has never been done in the history of Malawi, no matter how dissatisfied we were with the President. Personally I think this should be done as soon as we are dissatisfied. Then we have a third branch of government, which is supposed to be independent of the other branches,
- the Judiciary. They implement and interpret the laws made by Parliament. They should be able to overrule the Executive if the policies are not legal, but in Malawi that is extremely rare. Even when Bingu wa Mutharika bulldozed bad unconstitutional laws through Parliament, the Judiciary did not stop him, which they should do. This means that it is difficult for any citizen to have recourse to the law if he/she is maltreated by the Executive or another branch of Government. A problem here is that the head of the Judiciary, the Attorney General, is appointed and fired by the President. This undercuts the independence and with it the power of the Judiciary, and accounts for the situation that we have no recourse if the Executive mistreats us. Here the Presidential powers should be removed to be in line with the international standards for good governance and to give us, the people, an opportunity to fight back if the Executive misbehaves.
These are the official branches of government, but there is more in a real democracy. Especially because in Malawi the Judiciary and the Legislative are dependent on the Executive, we are not protected if people in the Executive develop personal interests and misbehave. We need more. Sometimes the Media is called the fourth arm of government because they also provide a check on Government activities: the Media carries out investigations independently of Government, so they can expose scandal in bad governance to the people. This reporting is essential because sometimes government people can lie to us to protect their own interests and violate the law as well as our interests in the process. Then the Media is supposed to step in and let us know, so we can fire the misbehaving employee, like the President or Member of Parliament. In the worst case scenario we have to wait until elections to vote a misbehaving employee (President, Councilor, MP) out of office. But this can take years, so we need more than just the Media. This is where Civil Society comes in: all of us citizens in a democracy can form an organization (officially registered or not) and organize. We can let the Government know when they are not performing well. We can do this by writing articles on social media or in the Media, we can organize mass demonstrations or civil disobedience. We can occupy government installations (the successful international Occupy movement is called after this form of protest). All of this is part of democracy. Mass demonstrations are legal, but our Government has killed protesters for attending, most recently on 20 July 2011. Other forms of activism may be peaceful but illegal, like occupations or civil disobedience. Even though some forms of activism can be illegal, they are still an important part of Democracy, and are integral to the checks and balances on our employees, the President, the Councilors, the MPs, civil servants and others that we pay to administer our business for us. Especially when the official checks and balances do not work properly, such as when the Judiciary and the Parliament are not acting independently of the Executive, but are being bullied, bought or otherwise commanded. Then we must take strong action. Sometimes illegal action from Government side can only be checked with illegal action from the citizen’s side. Keep in mind that not all illegal action is immoral, unethical or unjustified. The laws were made by Government and Government employees are not always ideal people who perform the task we pay them for. Unavoidably, some of these employees will follow their own interests, and they may make laws to protect their own interests instead of protecting ours (which is what we appoint and pay them for). If they pass bad laws, there is no reason whatsoever that we would be ethically bound to follow those laws. In fact it can be unethical to follow unjust laws. Remember that it was legal to discriminate against blacks and coloureds in Apartheid South Africa. The population revolted against this, often in illegal ways. Consequently they got their rights after decades of hard and illegal activism. If the Government is unjust, undemocratic or otherwise flawed we have a moral duty to resist. The government in the USA South in the 1960s was officially democratic, but it was undemocratic in that it mistreated African Americans. So they revolted, often in illegal ways. They improved their rights so much that there was even an African American President in the USA (about 40 years later!). Here clearly it was ethical to resist in illegal ways to get bad laws changed and improved. We should decide for ourselves when this situation is happening here, and how we are going to act. It is Democratic for us to decide how to defend and improve our Democracy, in legal or illegal ways.