Quo vadis Western-type democracy?
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THE current and ongoing furore happening in desolate Afghanistan has, to my analytical mind, put the spotlight on the continued fallibility of Western-type democratic system in far-flung places like Afghanistan, Africa and South America.
The Soviet Union, bastion of a communist and socialist order, hoisted and flew its hammer and sickle flag proudly and mockingly for all the World democracies anchored by the capitalist ideology to see, from 1922 until its sad demise in 1991.
The Western powers had their last laugh, though, and chuckled mockingly in their chambers, pointing out at the fall of populous idealism embedded deeply in the communist ideology. This while puffing fat cigars and quaffing expensive liquor. Communism was hollowed out by its own promotion of dictatorial leaders, and like any piece of steel in the soil, rusted and eventually disintegrated.
The Western political elite now easily pointed out that there was no alternative to their democratic ideology, fuelled by the economic system termed capitalism. It was enough to make Karl Marx commit posthumous hara kiri.
China and Russia, on the other hand, like our Blade Nzimande, rigidly stuck to their communist ideals, but eventually embraced the capitalistic economic system while shunning democracy in governments. Today, China is the no 2 economic power, while Russia is not doing badly either.
What is unfolding now is that Western-type democracy is right on track to follow in that suicidal path that led earlier to the death of Soviet-type communism. Afghanistan is the latest milestone. Democracy is usually simply defined as a system where a government is by the people and elected by the people themselves. In practice, however, this has been more of a mirage than reality.
Unlike in a monarchy where leaders are appointed by virtue of their birth within a royal family, in a democracy people viewed as paupers in the past are now accorded the right to challenge for the highest office. This is probably the reason that the absolute monarch of our neighbour in landlocked eSwatini does not want to hear the word democracy whispered even in his Covid-19-inspired self-quarantine, but I digress.
Communism at the height of its domination was much like a refined form of monarchy, with its cabinet called a politburo composed of selected rather than elected members of the population recycled in those positions until senility or old age intervenes – whichever came first.
So, you see, while democracy is decked up in best Western attire, on the inside it remains much like the communist system. Central to this problem is that main feature of the democratic system, which is called a constitution. While the constitution contains basic principles and laws of a nation or state and it is supposed to guarantee certain basic rights to the citizens, it is not foolproof, even with its so-called checks and balances.
The main problem is that any country’s constitution, unlike Moses' Ten Commandments, is not cast in stone and it can be changed, and it requires little to do that. Also for a so-called democratic document, most constitutions lumps far too many powers into the presidential office.
Take our much-revered South African Constitution, for instance. According to Chapter 5, Section 83 of our Constitution, the president is head of the state and the national executives. Section 84 deals with the powers entrusted to the president, which are mind-boggling to say the least.
These include the appointment from the deputy president, Cabinet ministers and their deputies, et al, cascading downwards chief justice and deputy ambassadors to Provincial Premiers. Constitutionally speaking, the president also has powers to remove them from office if he had a bad night’s sleep, without offering any reason. Now what type of a constitution, unless the one designed for saintly figures like Mandela or Mother Teresa, could concentrate so much power under the armpits of any mortal without them being tempted to abuse it one sunny day just for the hell or sadistic fun of it.
The African and South American abuses of their so-called Western-type democracies are numerous to post and can fill in the historical archives from Timbuktu to Unisa. Just to give an example, since 1994 South Africa has had 5 different presidents from Mandela who served just one term of five years, followed by Mbeki who served almost two terms of 9 years.
He was followed by the six-month interim President Motlanthe who was succeeded by Zuma for nine years, and the current incumbent, Ramaphosa, who is yawning into his second term. On the other hand, President Museveni of Uganda, brandishing a similar Western-type constitution, amended multiple times to do away with presidential terms, has been in power since 1987 – a total of 34 years and still counting. That is when our Ou Krokodil who has since been demised was still president.
It’s the same in South America, with the latest being President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela who is not yet ready to say “adios“ to power.
As a result of the pliability of the Western-type constitution, most African presidents have died in office without ever being voted out by their disgruntled masses. Those include Omar Bongo of Gabon who died in Spain where he went to be treated for of cancer, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo who died in a plane en route to Europe to seek medical attention, Bingwa Mutharika from Malawi who died in South Africa, where he also came to seek medical care. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia died in Belgium for the same reason, Michael Sata of Zambia died in London and Levy Mwanawasa, his predecessor, died in France in 2008.
The latest is John Magafuli of Tanzania who died in March 2021 in Nairobi of suspected Covid-19 complications. Of all the African presidents of the past era, only Nkrumah and Mugabe died outside office. Both were in coup d’états, with the latter having clung to power tenaciously from 1980 until 2017 - a total of 37 years. All these presidents were protected by Western-type constitutions.
The latest such blatant abuse of constitutional order was done recently in Tunisia, where the incumbent President Kais Saied, on 26 July, 2021, fired all his cabinet and suspended parliament like a dictator in the old days. So, presidential terms as defined in many such constitutions never lasted. Note that in the event of war or uprising, most constitutions can be suspended, as it is happening now during Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.
One might ask how such a constitution, fashioned and codified in the so-called best civilisation of Western world, has so many holes that it can lend itself to such easy abuse. You see when former colonial governments on their departure imposed the constitution on many former colonies in Africa, South America and Asia with the incentive – call it a bribe – to avail foreign financial aid to their struggling economies, what they failed to realise was that the same constitution in the hands of a leader without scruples could be self-serving and dangerous. The so-called checks and balances did not work properly as the document could be simply amended with a two-thirds majority. Referendums were simply ignored.
For instance, in our South African case, the last referendum was held by the last apartheid government under FW de Klerk on 17 March, 1992, where white voters of the time were asked whether government should end apartheid. Our African majority-controlled government has never held a single referendum under its jurisdiction, even though it has made various landmark amendments.
These included abolition of the death sentence and abortion, criminalisation of corporal punishment both at schools and homes, legalisation of gay marriages, declaration of country as a secular state with prayers no longer mandatory at public schools or gatherings and more. All these were enacted without a referendum.
Thus, to some of us watching the current events unfolding in Afghanistan where The Taliban, forced into exile since 1991, strolled back into Kabul like a gunslinger in a Cowboy movie sans firing a single shot, are not surprised.
To me, this signifies the crumbling of Western-type democracy imposed on the Afghans by Western ideological rulers, which in my humble opinion has reached a fatigue stage. The lesson, I guess, is for the world to learn is that Western superpowers need to stop imposing their so-called democratic ideals on their former colonial subjects. The people of Afghanistan ought to be left alone to chart their own future and determine what type of governing structure and system they prefer for their country.
The most such Western powers could do is to supervise the transitional process by sending in their observer missions or organisations like the UN, to monitor that the election or any process of choosing country leadership is free, fair and peaceful. To me, that is real democracy in practice. The days of countries like the USacting like the orld's Sheriff are surely over.
Letepe Maisela is a Management Consultant and published Author of 4 books. The latest is a fiction novel called ‘Sperm Donor‘, published in December 2019.