We see some traits of democracy in Malawi, but a lot of them are not there. And there we need to improve. Democracy is not: vote once, and shut up for five years under a dictator. Democracy is much more beautiful than that.
According to experts (and they should know) there are a number of requirements before we can speak of democracy. An important theory holds that we need at least four things for a democracy to be democratic:
- Upward control: the sovereignty lies with the common people, they are the top authority. (this is what democracy literally means: demos is people, kratos is rule) Usually this is translated in free and fair elections, as well as other democratic controls like checks and balances on power.
- Active participation of citizens in political and civic life. This means people should be actively involved in the way the country is run. This is often done through civil society organizations like pressure groups such as PAC, through professional organizations like unions, through the media and these days also social media.
- Protection of human rights of all citizens. This is important for minorities, who otherwise could be mistreated by the majority. We see attacks on this in the US against muslims.
- Rule of law, where all citizens are equal before the law.
If we look critically at the situation in Malawi, we see that we are falling short to all of these, to a greater or lesser degree.
- The upward control is not strong here: we have elections, which are more or less free, but not fair at all: all government parties have abused government resources such as vehicles and state broadcasters for their campaigns. And even though there is one-person-one-vote, the other side of the equation is not free: only rich people who can buy a lot of support can have any reasonable chance of being elected. This means that only the rich part of the country is represented in Parliament and Office of the President and Cabinet. This clearly favours the interests of the rich over those of the common people.
- Active participation in political and civic life is severely limited for the common people in Malawi. The urban population has some kind of access, but the majority in the rural areas cannot afford the smart phones, televisions and other gadgets that ensure the option of participation. If we are only informed by a little radio, we cannot make meaningful choices in elections, or in other political activities. And the President recently tried to dismiss the PAC, which represents the religious section of the Malawian population: he told them to form a political party and wait for years before they can vent their concerns. This clearly shows Mutharika does not understand democracy. Involvement of everybody is important, to make the democracy function. This active participation is supposed to be a channel for the upward control: the common people dictate policy. This is important, because the political class inevitably develops their own interests, which are not necessarily parallel to the interests of the population as a whole. The fight against corruption is severely hampered by the exclusion of common people from the decision making process: it is in the interests of office holders that office holders can steal our tax money, while it is in the interest of the common pople that the money is put to the intended use. Because we have no channels for active participation, and because we have insufficient checks and balances on our political class, the country lacks behind in development, because a lot of the funds are stolen or diverted instead of being put to the intended use. Many projects are not designed for maximum efficacy in development, but for maximum efficacy in opportunities for lucrative contracts and/or kick-backs.
- Protection of human rights is essential for minorities. For instance sexual minorities Have difficulty getting their rights respected. Also women are being discriminated against, for instance we need a 50-50 campaign, because of this.
- Equality before the law is clearly not followed. The person who steals a chicken is punished heavier than the government person who steals billions of kwacha. And many influential people do not even have to face justice. Think of the murder of Robert Chasowa: we have a report that clearly states a number of people involved, but they have not had to face justice. By the same token: a poor person, who does not have the funds to hire a lawyer to further the case can be on remand for many years, which is illegal and a violation of human rights.
We see that our democracy may have one good point: elections, but that we are falling short on many others, and that this impairs on the development of the country. We need to do better, be active, hold office bearers to account. This can mean activism, blog writing, or other ways. But we need to get on the case of the political class to get them to behave. We owe that to our democracy.