Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Friday, January 19th, 2018

People Participation and Democracy

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People Participation and Democracy

Democracy is all about participation and competition of various groups in a polity and political organization of the society from which they rise. The rulers and those who determine the broad policies and principles, by which the society organizes its affairs, seek and have the consent of the ruled. Ruling is based on consent rather than coercion. The overarching objective is to achieve the greatest good for the greatest possible number of members of a society and polity.

Recently, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, faced an internal rebellion in his own party as his party MPs voted against the stated position that the party and government had adopted towards the issue of European Union. During this episode from the British parliamentary democracy, the principle of ruling by the consent of the ruled was on full display.

David Cameron, as a ruler, a prime minister and the head of the government, was losing its mandate and ability to continue ruling as he had lost the consent, trust and mandate of a number of rebelling MPs in his party. This episode alone provides a good case study in how the desires and wishes of broad segments of the people get reflected in the political process and how the available system of checks and balances keeps the ruling powers to account.

As a democracy should be able to well reflect the popular wishes and desires of the body politic at large, political participation, political parties and regular elections form the backbone of any democratic political system. Political participation is ensured first and foremost by giving the general people the franchise and the right to vote.

Elections and voting are the first line of defense against abuse of power by rulers. They are also the enabler of the people to take their destiny in their own hands. Political participation by people and various entities within the body politic is also made possible through other means such as political campaigns, lobbying, establishing of pressure groups and interest groups, and ultimately the political parties.

Universal franchise and the ability of every human being above a certain age, who is a member of a country and state, to vote is one of the most important achievements of the twentieth century. In the U.S., the people of black and African-American heritage were not allowed to vote until as recently as 1965.

The civil rights movement spearheaded in the U.S. by Martin Luther King brought about many positive changes in extension of civil liberties to deprived African-American communities. In other countries where the democratic traditions evolved and took root such as the United Kingdom and France, women received suffrage only after long and arduous campaigns aimed at ensuring their equal rights.

However, political participation alone cannot guarantee a functioning democracy. As witnessed in many totalitarian societies, an overwhelming majority of people take part in elections but power is still entrenched and exclusively held in a few hands.

In those Middle Eastern countries where the Arab Spring has taken all by surprise and has created much hope, many strongmen had held onto power for decades prior to their being overthrown by people power. In election after election, the same oligarchs and authoritarian rulers won the popular votes in elections that were heavily rigged and acted merely as rubber stamps for the ruling establishments.

The threat from entrenched powers that are out to steal the votes of people or intimidate them into voting a certain way does not come only from dictators such as those in the Middle East. In recent decades, powerful economic and commercial interest groups have come to play a dominant role in elections and the political process, able to skew legislative and democratic processes in their favor by relying on their deep pockets and those politicians who benefit from their monetary and financial contributions.

Such a situation can be observed mainly in those developed countries such as the U.S. where powerful economic corporations - particularly the banking and financial institutions - are allowed to make unlimited financial donations and campaign contributions to political parties and individual politicians who are running for a public office such as the presidency or a seat in the Congress.

In the case of the U.S., this has caused a massive rift between the people at large and these economic interest groups. In the words of American president, Barack Obama himself, these powerful corporations continue to "drown out the voices of everyday Americans".

As far as the U.S. is concerned, the situation is especially worrisome given the fact that with every passing decade, the influence and power of these corporations over the political process has become only more pervasive and entrenched. The ongoing "Occupy Wall Street Movement" is in essence a popular backlash against a political system that favors economic and commercial interest groups at the expense of the welfare and rights of majority of ordinary people.

Therefore, the health of a democracy and political system and its ability to reflect the voices, wishes and desires of the people at large is something that should not be taken for granted. Elections alone do not make democracies and the general people and those who are tasked with maintaining the system should be ever vigilant against internal and external threats.

In our own Afghanistan, although there has been much improvement in recent years in terms of people's political participation, the lingering weaknesses in the government and its pervasive impotency to uphold the rule of law and justice have made it extremely difficult for Afghanistan to achieve a higher level of political development and maturity.

The continued insecurity and conflict have forced the decision-makers to divert most of the available resources towards fighting a war of attrition against the Taliban and other militant groups. Consequently, only meager resources and attention has been paid to the imperative of promoting political development in the country.

Second to the goal of bringing calm and stability should be bringing about political development and enriching Afghanistan's fragile and immature democratic enterprise. Towards these objectives, development of party-based political participation by people and communities should be encouraged and meaningful reforms be made in the structures of government and the way power, authority and resources are distributed on a national scale.

Many believe that Afghanistan has already become a lost cause and re-Talibanization is its only fate. However, the ground realities and the experience of the past show that Afghanistan still has ample time and opportunities and it can indeed continue its journey of progress if the right decisions and strategies are taken and implemented with redoubled resolve.

The author is the permanent writer of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at outlook afghanistan@gmail.com

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