Democracy, the public and welfare
This year, we begin our third decade of governance under ‘free and fair” elections. The arrangement of democratic life, especially in political aspects, has been established. The last elections showed that even our entrenched ethnic voting may at last be shifting under the pressures of demographics, as much as its patent failure since independence.
Some indicators of the improvement in the performance of democratic institutions relate to civil liberties and political rights, especially the performance and stability of the electoral system, which as mentioned, might finally ensure the regular turnover of elites here. But it is widely conceded that democracy is not solely related to political freedoms or the electoral system.
Since demonstrated in so many other countries, a democratic system is now expected to deliver development and prosperity. As such, many demand that our democracy deals with economic, social and cultural rights. The success of democracy, they claim, cannot be measured solely on the sustainability of its political aspects, but must also be measured by its role in the process of development. But what is not so well appreciated is that democracy should not be achieved through non-democratic means, and implementation of democratic means only does not necessarily result in a democratic situation.
As an ideal, democracy aims to create a system that ensures the effective popular control of public affairs on the basis of equality (equal rights). From that sense, there are at least three dimensions inherent in the notion of democracy, i.e. popular control, public affairs and equality. The recognition of political freedom and improved electoral systems is only part of the required instrumental aspects and is related only to the aspects of popular control and equality.
Of course, the implementation of instrumental aspects is not meaningless. Progress in the field of civil liberties and political rights is required to improve public control of power. Along with those areas, improving electoral systems and procedures (including oversight) has led to a formulation of the best ways to ensure and fulfill the rights of citizens in elections. The situation may still be far from ideal, but it must be admitted that there is progress in Guyana.
Nevertheless, improvements in the instrumental dimensions oftentimes ignore the public affairs dimension. This shortfall brings about two problematic issues. First, vertical tensions emerge between elected public officials and the public who voted for them. The political process in the aftermath of elections witnesses the formulation of public policies entrusted or handed over solely to public officials.
In fact, their real task and role is to manage, not define or determine the boundaries of public affairs. As a result, the management of public affairs becomes very elitist and increasingly determined by the interests of public officials. The term “public interest” mirrors “elite interests”. Second, are the horizontal tensions between different societal groups – in our case, ethnic. The narrow public space left by the dominant elite emerges as a “hot” arena for the contestation of interests and ideals between our ethnic groups.
They fight each other to transform their ideas and interests into public policies, which often involves conflict between public and private interests. In more advanced countries, the struggle between private and public issues is not too obtrusive, because there are already clear boundaries separating the two. Such a gap of understanding may also interrupt the development process of our democracy.
In turn, implications of the ignorance of the public affairs dimension will spark uncertainty as to which way democracy is headed. Democracy seems to be limited to the rules and regulations that facilitate power struggles and interests, without clarity on what the power struggle is for. We seem to fail to establish a logical correlation that links the importance of public control and equality on the one hand and public interest — general welfare — on the other hand.
It is time now to revisit and rearrange our democratization agenda according to more advanced aspects of public affairs and the creation of welfare, while maintaining our previous democratic achievements. Let us begin this process in this new year.