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People’s power vital for participatory democracy

6 December 2013 05:04 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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As you read this article, a series of people-power explosions of different magnitudes are taking on regimes that claim to be democratic or working towards democracy. While Thailand and Ukraine have been witnessing huge demonstrations for the past few weeks with protesters accusing their governments of betraying their trust, in Egypt public protests in Cairo and several universities continue in defiance of the harsh measures taken by the military-backed interim regime which seeks legitimacy on the pretext that it is working to bring democracy.

In several other countries, too, people’s power rises against tyranny – against moves by governments to usurp more power than they have been given by the people under a social contract. Such uprisings are a healthy trend and a warning to dictators and would-be dictators. Though people’s power lacks constitutional or legal recognition, its legitimacy is in the spirit of every constitution based on democratic principles. If sovereignty lies in the people as democratic constitutions claim, then people’s power is a legitimate tool to put erring governments on the right track or to overthrow governments which have become anti-people or anti-democratic. But people’s power is like a medicinal drug. It needs to be given in right dosage, taking precautions against its side effects. Otherwise, people’s power will lead to anarchy or a tyranny worse than what it overthrew.

The French Revolution is a classic example. Within a few years, the revolution instead of strengthening the republic it created paved the way for Napoleonic dictatorship. This was largely because the revolutionaries were not prepared with a proper republican structure to replace the monarchy. This allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to move in as a ruler and bring stability to France. But stability came at the cost of liberty.

A recent example is the Egyptian revolution that overthrew the 30-year dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak some two years ago. In the absence of a proper understanding among the revolution’s key players about the form of democracy they sought to usher in, the hard-won freedom has been lost to the military-backed dictatorship which subsequently toppled the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi administration. It was like a man rescuing his wife from a rapist and later handing her over to the rapist with a request to look after her.

But the situation is different in Thailand and Ukraine -- where a democratic structure exists for smooth transition if the government falls.

Since the 2006 military coup that overthrew the government of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand has, from time to time, seen people’s power protests each time the government erred. People’s power protests, if they become rampant, can be a democratic nuisance or scourge, especially when there are provisions for change of government through free and fair elections. But those who believe that sovereignty lies in the people and the government is only a trust insist that people’s power is a powerful check against tyranny. They say a constant reminder in the form of public protests is necessary to protect democracy.

Thailand’s protesters also think so. They are calling on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign because they feel she has betrayed their trust. Her sin: She is trying to pave the way for the former Prime Minister and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to the country under a government amnesty.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who is on her third year in office has been doing a good job -- with the economy growing at a healthy 6-7 per cent rate. But the pro-democracy protesters believe that good governance is too precious a thing to be bartered for a few economic gains. This is why they want Yingluck to resign. It is no secret that sister Yingluck is running the government in consultation with brother Thaksin, who made his billions through a telecom business and major stakes in gold and diamond mines. Thai protesters say that the tycoon-turned-politician-turned fugitive participates at Cabinet meetings via Skype and Yingluck’s ministers and top public officials who are close friends of Thaksin email documents to him or meet him in various world capitals or in Thaksin’s private jet to discuss matters relating to government tenders and contracts. This week’s appointment of a Thaksin loyalist as the head of the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (Capo), which controls the police, is further proof that the racketeering former prime minister is the power behind Yingluck’s government.

Thaksin is still popular in rural areas and his sister Yingluck may even win an election if she calls one now as the Shinawatras have spent lavishly on the rural poor to get their votes. Critics allege that the billionaire businessman made use of his investment in the poor to rob the government together with transnational companies. This is probably why the capitalist world is supportive of Yingluck’s regime and calls it a democratically elected government. They want to protect their investments.
But the protesters comprising the traditional political oligarchy – the royalists, the military-backed establishment and the parliamentary opposition -- say if the government is democratic and committed to the Rule of Law, it should implement the arrest warrant on Thaksin who it is alleged has, together with his cronies, played out billions of dollars in public funds while he was prime minister from 2001 to 2006.

It is true that the protest leaders also have their political ambitions and agendas, but the cause they espouse is what people’s power is meant for.

In Ukraine, too, the people have risen against the government which under pressure from Russia has backtracked on moves to sign an economic deal with the European Union. While the people overwhelmingly support the EU deal, the government is heeding a Russian proposal for a Moscow-led customs union. If democracy is all about government by the people, for the people and of the people, then the Ukrainian government must listen to the people. But realpolitik is all about politics based on power and practical considerations, rather than ideological notions or moral or ethical premises. In terms of realpolitik, the Ukrainian government finds itself unable to defy mighty Russia next-door. Russia has warned the West not to interfere in Ukraine.

Looking east, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has gone to China to improve economic ties while another Ukrainian delegation is in Russia to discuss closer economic cooperation. Russia’s opposition to the EU-Ukraine deal stems from its policy – the Vladimir Putin doctrine -- which discourages its neighbours from developing closer economic or military ties with the West. Asserting this doctrine, Russia even went to war with Georgia in 2008. The Russian military presence in South Ossetia in Georgia is preventing Georgia’s full membership in NATO. At present, Georgia has only a “Partnership for Peace” deal with NATO.

Certainly, Ukraine does not want to end up like Georgia. Ukraine is a case in point where people’s power clashes with a country’s foreign policy.

Elsewhere, people’s power has bloomed and withered away after achieving limited goals or bringing about revolutionary changes.

In 1979, in Iran, people’s power grew as a resistance movement and turned violent but it succeeded in toppling the oppressive regime of the pro-US tyrant – the Shah. In the Philippines, in 1986, people’s power backed by the Catholic Church brought about a peaceful regime change, ending the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people-power uprisings toppled repressive communist regimes one after another.

In the United States, people’s power ended Washington’s brutal war in Vietnam, though a recent manifestation of people’s power in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement fell by the wayside without achieving much. In Pakistan, people’s power rose against the mighty military and established the judiciary’s independence, while in neighbouring India, people’s power formed a weapon against corruption with veteran civic rights activist Anna Hazare leading the campaign. India owes its independence to the people power movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

In South Africa, it was people’s power that ended apartheid. Algeria won its independence because of people’s power. Bangladesh was born in a people-power delivery. These are examples that have proved the might of people’s power.









People power is not a concept that is confined to elections. It has its role in democratic politics – during the birth of a nation and during the nation’s march forward. Constitutions of countries that call themselves democracies say sovereignty lies in the people. In countries where democracy is deficient, the people play little or no role in the affairs of the government after the elections. In healthy democracies, people feel they are part of the government and their views are sought by way of referendums or other means when crucial decisions are to be made. Such democracies, we call participatory democracies. But in reality, many modern states lie somewhere in the middle of the democracy spectrum. On this spectrum, most developing countries, sadly, move towards the negative side or the red zone where the truism ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is the norm. It is the duty and the social responsibility of the people to rise and protest peacefully and proportionately to prevent their governments from moving toward the red zone.


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