Katrina & The Waifs
B U Right Back
Little Children Come
Eat Your Greens
Van Diemen's Land
Bring Me To Life
2008 01 28
Listening to our leaders, you'd be forgiven for thinking that democracy was the uncontested gold standard in world politics.
It seems to be the only cause currently noble enough to elicit sufficient international consent for armed conflict. Please remember the war in Iraq is not only to rid the world of the threat of twenty minute WMDs or cleanse an ancient culture of the canker of despotic tyranny. Rather we're bestowing the gift of democracy. The campaign in Afghanistan is similarly concerned not merely with revenge for September 11th, 2001 but conflated with the parallel objective of constitutional reform.
Gordon Brown was hardly in office as Prime Minister before he was precociously offering to cast away the Royal Prerogative in an effort to demonstrate his democratic credentials.
Yet recent expressions of democratic practice around our global village may have left you as puzzled as me.
Recently Pakistan witnessed the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto; Chairperson of the Pakistan People's Party. In a country ruled by a military dictatorship that doesn't even raise taxes; where public affairs are marred by insidious corruption; the world's media had long championed her as a beacon of democratic hope.
However, the scene following her premature departure from this stage left one wondering if all the players were but members of a single troupe and that this was a family production. Within days, her son Bilawal 'Bhutto' Zardari had been accelerated from obscurity to notoriety as he was hurriedly enthroned as the next PPP leader alongside his father Asif Ali Zardari.
However this hereditary, dynastic succession (more akin to monarchy than democracy?) is what should have been expected given the lineage of Benazir Bhutto, herself the scion and heir of the previous leader, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. When Benazir recently returned to Pakistan from exile, the crowds that greeted her waved placards emblazoned with images not of her but her late father. The inference was clear - their support was not for her specifically but for the Bhutto family / tribe / dynasty. The succession dates from Benazir's grandfather, Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, who helped found the Sindh People's Party in 1934. Sir Shah, a wealthy land-owner and friend of the Governor General before independence, played a key role in that period.
Another focus of world sympathy is Aung San (Suu Kyi), continuing to vie for rule in Burma. The media tends to treat her too in isolation from her dynastic roots, focusing on democratic ideals rather than heredity. General Aung San was the founding father of Burmese independence. General Aung San also founded the very Burmese military young Aung San now seeks to usurp. Part of his negotiation of Burmese independence was to invite the Japanese into Burma during the Burma Campaign of WWII. Many Allied troops died as a result. Like with Benazir Bhutto, Aung San and her claim to power are closely connected in the minds of the people with the standing of her father. Pacifist and democrat she may be, but it's interesting to note that any opportunity for power is substantially afforded her by the family bloodline.
Pakistan and Burma are not unique in perpetuating a feudal nepotism. For generations the Ghandi/Nehru dynasty has ruled by default in India. That's a mere sixty years of rule compared to the current 107 years of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha / House of Windsor rule in England since Edward VII's accession!
We're keen too for African nations to have full and fair elections. Yet despite the arbitrary way the colonial powers formed nation states people just don't perform the way we want them to and continue to 'vote' tribally. This has fueled recent problems in Kenya not to mention Zimbabwe and Rwanda. The belief that an arbitrarily larger tribal group will abuse its position is hard to shake in a population that neither understands or particularly signs up to our concept of liberal democracy.
In fact what is clear is that whether one system or another in enacted in name, certain things remain constant. Heredity and the privilege of birth pervade whatever the protestations to the contrary. In some nations it may a family name whereas closer to home it may be wealth, public school and Oxbridge connections which qualify for admission to the ruling class.
Across the pond we equally see that vested interests pass power from one to another of their trusted acolytes. The current primary elections demonstrate that ably with commentators transparently reflecting that the race is as much won by fund-raising as it is by policy or oratory. Michael Moore even contends that the Bush family is America's very own hereditary dynasty with the family's wealth, sequestered from German Nazis, having propelled two generations to the White House. It is at least clear that any choice which is eventually presented to the American people is a heavily qualified one. Not really 'rule by the people and for the people'.
Given the alternatives of Absolute Monarchy / Tyranny (the rule of one) or Oligarchy / Aristocracy (the rule of an elite) perhaps Democracy, from the Greek demos kratos (rule of the mob) really is the least worst option? However we'd be foolish to consider it as absolute protection from extremism. A certain Chancellor who came to power via a combination of democratic and authoritarian means in 1930s Germany reminds us all of that. Of course he was no fan of democracy per se but bent it to his purposes nonetheless.
The Prophet Daniel may once have commented on these various forms of governance in interpreting the vision of a statue (Daniel Ch 2). Whilst ostensibly referring to the regimes who would rule over Israel, the characterization of the types of political system is sometimes interpreted as 'Gold Head - Monarchy' down to 'Clay Feet - Democracy'.
Democracy, whilst remaining our proposal for 'the last form of government' can be as unstable and fickle as any other - maybe more so. All rule is by the consent of the people. Even a monarch ruling by 'divine right' does so only so long as the populace supports them. Else wise we have a revolution ushering in someone's better idea along with some blood letting and revenge. Whether you're Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher, position can be threatened not only by a plebiscite but also the elect around you, hungry for power. Has anything really changed in the affairs of men throughout the ages? Et tu, Brute? There is nothing new under the sun.
I suppose I'm left with the thought that belief in any political ideology is misplaced. It may be but mere camouflage for the timeless, Machiavellian machinations of that familiar vanity - human ambition. So much for the death of history with the fall of the wall and an Utopian age of consensus.
Whilst it's currently unfashionable to look to the hills or anywhere else for help in man's affairs from a supernatural source, instead we now put our faith in men. We would do well to temper that trust with the thought that these elected representatives have but feet of clay.
© cag 2007