Democracy is no panacea for all ills

The definition of democracy is “the government of the people by the people” but that should be redefined when so many citizens in democratic countries feel disempowered.

Democracy’s failings are tragically playing out in its birthplace, Greece, where the government has to abide by diktats from Brussels else hurl the country into bankruptcy. The privilege of living in a democracy was no comfort to the 77-year-old retired pharmacist who shot himself in Athens’ Syntagma Square, fearing being reduced to eating from garbage cans.

As a concept, democracy is great, but, in practical terms, it’s grossly overrated and isn’t one size fits all. So isn’t it about time we quit prostrating ourselves before its altar, rid ourselves of the quasi taboo of even questioning its merits and began recognising that it has warts?

People in non-democratic countries who believe democracy is the cure to all their ills are sadly misguided. For one thing, it’s a system of governance that relies on an educated population who can understand the issues at stake. In Egypt, where 40 percent of citizens are unable to read or write and where over half live under or just over the poverty line, it’s no surprise that a large number are seduced by political parties that promote their agendas under religious slogans.

For another, it doesn’t work in nations where there are sectarian divisions or tribal links because voters will simply vote according to their ethnicity, religion or inherited personal loyalties. Democracy was forcibly introduced to Iraq but as long as there is a Shiite majority, Sunnis will feel excluded. And in Israel, whose Jewish population boasts that their state is the only democracy in the Middle East, there will never be an Arab-Israeli prime minister or president. Afghanistan is nominally a democracy but how on earth can democracy exist under foreign occupation?

Thirdly, in places where there’s corruption, its outcome can be manipulated by bribes or at the ballot box and in others by convoluted or unfair rules. In the US, former President George W. Bush’s two wins came under a cloud with the first having to be pronounced upon by the Supreme Court even though rival Al Gore received more of the popular vote—and the second having been marred by electronic ‘vote switching’ incidents that favoured Bush.

Fourthly, it provides citizens with the illusion that they are free to make choices or to have a say in the running of their country when nine-times-out-of-ten politicians promise the earth before they’re elected and do exactly as they please once they’re in office. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair didn’t care a jot that the overwhelming majority of British citizens were against the invasion of Iraq when he squandered the lives of servicemen and women, along with his nation’s surplus.

Moreover, any prime minister or president who is elected with a small majority, say 55 percent, is not necessarily representative of the interests of the remaining 45 per cent.

The pro-democracy argument rests on the ability of citizens to vote out a leader they believe has let them down when his term ends, which has merit. However, countries that are suffering major long-term problems need long-term plans and programmes which successive elected governments, each with differing solutions, are unable to implement to fruition.

Real decision-makers

Take the US, for instance, where Democrats have been trying unsuccessfully to institute universal health care for decades. President Barack Obama managed to get a heavily watered-down version of Obamacare—“The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”—passed by Congress but not only is the Supreme Court weighted in Republicans’ favour reviewing its constitutionality, all Republican presidential contenders have sworn to repeal it. Put simply, democracy lacks continuity.

Then, because democracy usually goes hand-in-hand with a capitalist system the real decision-makers are not ordinary people but bankers, corporate moguls and media barons who encourage a debt-ridden, materialistic society that keeps workers on a gruelling treadmill in order to purchase that ‘must have’ plasma TV and to keep up with mortgage payments on a home they think they own, when until that final payment it’s actually the property of the bank.

Democracy gives power to media bosses like Rupert Murdoch, who used to regularly drop in on Blair’s Downing Street without invitation, as which politician in his right mind would dare upset a guy who shapes voters’ perceptions in his tabloids. And, to my mind, the way that political candidates are funded by interest groups and lobbies in the US is wholly undemocratic as it means organisations use their cash and influence to manipulate policies.

To be fair, there are many nations in which democracy has been beneficial, comparatively wealthy Scandinavian countries come to mind, where democracy and capitalism are tempered by welfare systems. Many of democracy’s advocates admit it’s not perfect but say it’s the best available. I once thought the same because, like so many, I was brought-up in a country whose citizens are indoctrinated from an early age to automatically accept democracy as the gold standard.

Most of us are so caught up in nomenclature that often we can’t see the forest for the trees. Any system that can provide people with a decent standard of living, homes, jobs, health care, education and essential freedoms is worthwhile.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

Comments are closed.