By Zechariah Manyok Biar
July 7, 2014 - As mentioned in part one of this article, we know that the system of government we want to apply to any type of government (unitary, decentralization, or federalism) that we will choose in the near future is democracy. But the question we have to answer is about the kind of democracy that we want. We know we conducted elections in 2010. Is that all we want?
Elections are part of democracy, but they are not enough. Experiences have shown that elections can be used as mere means of getting into power. Democracy which is based on elections only can make leaders oppress people without questions. True democracy is a process from election to governing.
True democracy, it seems, is the one in which citizens authorize their leaders through elections and hold them accountable throughout their terms of office. In the absence of accountability, elections alone cannot qualify as true democracy. Real democratic leaders, on the one hand, listen to the people they rule because they know that true democracy involves being accountable to people you rule. People who hold their rulers accountable, on the other hand, feel that they are participants in governance because they count themselves as free democrats in a true democratic state.
As Aristotle puts it in “Politics,” Book VI, “The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state.” He further points out that “One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn.” This is the difference between democracy and oligarchy because oligarchy is a government of the few, especially the wealthy ones.
Democracy, unlike oligarchy, is known as the government of the majority. Yet, even oligarchs can disguise themselves as democrats. Aristotle says that “the oligarchs flatter the people in order to obtain a decision in their favour, and so they change the constitution.” Flattered majority who may change the constitution in favor of oligarchs may later regret their decision, but that would be too late. Their decision would be considered as a democratic decision, however much it violates the democratic principles. It is, therefore, the free majority that owns democracy.
Yet, free majority alone does not make democracy better. For example, majorities can use their numbers to maintain power while oppressing minorities against the principles of liberty, equality, and justice on which democracy is based. In 1788, John Adams referred to democracy based on mere numbers as “tyranny of the majority.” Tocqueville repeated the same idea in 1835.
Greek thinkers were the first to recognize the problem of basing democratic ideals on numbers only. They called it “mob rule.” Aristotle also argues that people should be cautious when they talk about democracy as the rule of the majority. Since the majority is always the poor, they could be quarreling with the rich, or even mistreating them.
In countries like South Sudan where tribal loyalty determines one’s political position, majorities could be based on tribes and not on political ideologies that cut across tribes. This means that bigger tribes like the Dinka can maintain power in the name of democracy, while mistreating minorities against the democratic principles.
It is because of the above problems that we should not blindly advocate for democracy for the sake of it as the ideal government that we want; even though we know it is the best form of government. We have to advocate for democracy that is the rule of majority, but not the tyranny of the majority.
Zechariah Manyok Biar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org