SESSION 3:
WHAT MAKES A DEMOCRACY? WHAT IS ITS ESSENCE?

What activity is essential to a state being a democracy?
Why Elections? Who are registered voters? Who are not?
Share experience and ideas about voting? Is it valued? Is it practiced?



Open and Free Elections are the Essence of Democracy

This is the primary condition for a country or system of government to be classified as a democracy.

The Problem with Elections

In a democracy, people choose their government leaders, they decide who will lead them through a process called elections. Those who want to lead compete for people’s votes during a prescribed campaign period. The candidates try to convince voters that they are the better or the best choice.

This campaign period is limited, any candidate who campaigns by any means is guilty of electioneering. But politicians go around the law, with campaign materials at any time, for so long as these do not say, “vote for me!”

The problem with elections is that the choice sometimes involves reasons that have nothing to do with the purpose of government, the choice can be ruled by “likes” – emotions or reasons that have nothing to do with values such as competence or trust. Popularity of politicians may be based on the what draws people to entertainment, show business or sports.

Sometime, they choose candidates because they had met them in person, or because they have a connection, someone they know knows the candidate. In our culture, families choose politicians as sponsors for weddings just to be able to claim the connection with a VIP.

Some of these people may have what it takes to serve the people well. But voters must know about these competencies before they make the decision to make him a leader.

Accepting the results

Citizens and leaders all, including those who lose the election and their supporters, must accept the result after the votes are counted. Every effort must be made to ensure the integrity of the elections and its conduct and this should engage voters even before the day of the election itself. The electoral system provides for “watchers” and for the media to be checking the process and the count.

But there are certainly ways of ascertaining the validity of the count. And once this is clear, the vote must be accepted as the “voice of the people.”  The people have spoken.

In turn, those who win must exercise leadership not just for those who voted for them, but for all citizens. Even those who did not vote for them, or those who do not vote. Think of the rights of children and many others who are vulnerable or who for one reason or another, cannot exercise this right.

Our political culture must recognize the importance of having an opposition force in parliament or in Congress. Those who do not belong to the winning party or the ruling coalition present different views that deserve to be heard by all. They must also be assured of resources for their constituents. Even if they are not in the ruling coalition, opposition politicians retain their power and their role of representing those who voted for them. Minority rights are a principle of democratic rule. 

People expect government to provide conditions for “progress” and “development” to occur not just for the benefit of one but for all.

Competence for government office

Voters are attracted to strong personalities, personalities with force or charisma; because they think such person can solve problems and get things done.

Unfortunately, not all who win the popular vote are competent in managing the programs of government. As some who win or are appointed to government positions are even aware of their tasks: to promote public welfare through lawmaking, through the implementation of government programs, and to distribute public goods for all to share.

Because popularity is such a strong force, the popular vote may not always choose well. Sometimes, elections result in placing persons in the government, sometimes in very high office; who want to be in office for the power that it gives them. But when they have the power, they exercise this for their own self-interest, or for their families and friends.

In democracy as in any other system of government, leaders may not have the competence to manage the affairs of the state, the economy, fulfill the obligations of government to the people. So competence, understanding the different government offices and their functions, experience in administration, a record of public service, all these should be considered by citizens in choosing who to vote for.

Illiberal Democracy

Voters may at times choose leaders who do not believe in the values of democracy.  A leader who does not believe that people have the sovereign power can win elections. Rather, they want to rule as the sole power over all.

The result is illiberal democracy. Voters freely choose a leader who when elected to power rules like a dictator, a despot, thinking he is king. Such a leader uses all kinds of tactics to force everyone to submit to his will. 

This is why it is important for voters to know who they are voting for and why. And that their vote is not based on what they like, the way they like movie stars or athletes. 

Democracy in history

It took a long time after Athens for the idea of democracy to be restored in human history. Democratic societies take a long time to build institutions that uphold freedom and equality for all.  It takes time for leaders to win the popular vote who are also competent and wise.

And yet, in world history, early democratic societies attracted the peoples of the world.

All the different countries in Asia which rose against colonial powers and foreign rule chose to become democracies. The Philippines and India are two of the earliest examples in Asia.

Up until World War II in the 20th century, there were not 20 countries in the world which were democracies. From early 21st century 119 or 62 per cent of the countries in the world chose to become democracies. Many of these countries soon discover that democracy is hard work. And elections are not as simple as they seem.


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