This week might be remembered for two big dumb decisions.
1) The Hong Kong’s government’s cancellation of talks with protestors.
2) The decision by the enemies of Islamic State not to defend Kobane.
By definition, democracy entails both representative government and majority rule. Factions, minority or majority, who take a disliking to some government policies no longer bide their time, cooperating in the process while waiting for the next election. “The new reality is that tenure in office is set not through an agreed electoral cycle, but by ability to keep protesters off the streets,” suggests author and BBC journalist Humphrey Hawksley. Reasons for protests vary: In societies like Iraq with a long history of mistrust, elections fail to build fair institutions. In nations like Egypt and Thailand, educated and wealthy protesters are alarmed by decisions made by a larger block of rural poor. In Hong Kong, vast numbers simply do not trust the system or leaders’ interpretations of laws. Rapid messaging of social media and outsiders who diminish rule of law by supporting protests for strategic reasons encourage dangerous trends. Democracy requires adherence to the rule of law and patience. – YaleGlobal
In Hong Kong and Elsewhere, Democracy’s Messy Process Challenged in the Street
|Rule of Leung and the street: CY Leung is the constitutionally elected ruler of Hong Kong (top), but is shaken by protestors who demand more drect democracy|
LONDON: Thousands of demonstrators trying to topple Hong Kong’s legal ruler CY Leung and set terms for the 2017 election symbolize a new political trend: Whichever constitutional way a ruler has been brought to power, ability to continue might depend on the consent of the social media–connected populace forcing its will onto the streets. That at least has been the case with Mohamed Morsi of Egypt and Ukraine’s Vladimir Yanukovych. Leung is untainted by corruption, yet even if he continues, his effectiveness has been badly compromised.
In the past two years, a political trend has emerged that takes legitimacy of government into perilous and unchartered territory.
Democratically-elected leaders of culturally diverse countries such as Egypt, Thailand and Ukraine have been overthrown by street protests.
Within weeks of an elected government coming to power in newly independent South Sudan, the country collapsed into violence. War has flared up again in Iraq where the finest minds in international development working with unlimited funds have failed to stop conflict.
And most recently, protesters in Hong Kong, which enjoys a swathe of freedoms and high standards of living, are demanding to choose their own leader, despite not even being a sovereign state.
Since the end of the Cold War, the broadly accepted method of delivering authority to a government has been through voter choice at the ballot box. In the case of dramatic change such as the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the what- next question has been answered by the holding of elections, often under a new constitution and the watch of international observers.
But as a safety valve against discontent, elections now fail to do their job. The new reality is that tenure in office is set not through an agreed electoral cycle, but by ability to keep protesters off the streets.
Elections no longer act as a safety valve against discontent. Office-holders must keep protesters off the streets.
The pact between government and citizens, therefore, is being determined by far more obscure elements, drawing us back to 1762 when Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the phrase “The Social Contract.”This challenged the right of monarchies to rule and emphasized that power should be in the hands of that indefinable entity of the state, whose architecture would be decided by an equally indefinable force – the will of the people.
“Each of the recent protests are different and respond to different issues,” says John Morrison, author of The Social License, which examines how organizations acquire and lose legitimacy. “But some clearly relate specifically to what might be called ‘political license,’ attempts by populations to renegotiate the social contract granted to specific governments – or at least to make such governments more accountable.”
Constitutions are written to define this contract. Elections are held to determine the will of the people through majority vote. So why now is this being so readily torn apart?
The cases largely fall into two categories. One, such as Iraq and South Sudan, involves societies with deep, historical mistrust where the use of western-style elections has failed to build fair institutions. The result has been catastrophic.
The other is more complex, involving educated and comparatively wealthy stakeholders whose societies are mentored western democracies.
The Ukrainian constitution, for example, states that the president is elected for a “five-year term on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage, by secret ballot.” Viktor Yanukovych lasted four years, until February 2014.
Egypt’s provisional 2011 constitution provided for a secret ballot and a presidential term of four years. Street protests and a military coup ended Mohamed Morsi’s tenure after a year.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, elected in a landslide with wide support among the poor, was deposed after less than three years, again after protests followed by military intervention.
|Two trends behind the wave of discontent: social media and western leaders upending rule of law for strategic reasons.|
Hong Kong’s chief executive should serve until 2017, but until this weekend protesters wanted him out now. Their main objection is his support for a clause written into their Basic Law, a constitution published 24 years ago – before many of them were born: The ultimate aim, it states, is to elect the chief executive “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
The nominating committee, seen as a vetting mechanism used by the Communist Party of China, is at the heart of their discontent. The committee follows the constitution, but devalues the implicit promise of respecting people’s wishes expressed in the words “universal suffrage.” One-person, one-vote is not enough as the protesters doubt that Beijing as vetting authority has Hong Kong’s interest at heart.
Two elements appear to be behind this current wave of discontent around the world.
First is what has become known as social media. As technology and communications improve such media become more powerful.
“Social media connects protest to both internal dissent and the wider world, independently of mainstream media and any biases of limitations that may have,” says Richard Sambrook, former BBC director of news. “And as a pure means of self expression it gives meaning, momentum and unity to what might otherwise be individual acts of smaller protest.”
Second – and most importantly – western leaders have diminished the rule-of-law by supporting some protests, notably in Egypt and Ukraine where the elected governments were seen to pose strategic threats. Morsi represented Islamic extremism and Yanukovych symbolized an anti-western Russia pushing influence too far.
The West could have taken a lead, pointing out that creating a strong democracy is a long, messy process; high levels of corruption and mismanagement are inevitable in the early stages, and the best way forward is to follow the constitution and exercise choice at the next election.
One strain running through the protests: lack of clarity about which system or individual is a viable alternative.
Instead, it opted for immediate strategic interests against the very values of fair governance it advocates.
The track record so far in this trend for changing governments has not been good.
Ukraine has lost Crimea and fights a separatist war. There are car bombings in Egypt where human-rights activists say repression is now worse than in the days of Mubarak. A military government controls Thailand. There is war in Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and others.
Hong Kong remains on a knife-edge.
One strain running through the protests is that while knowing whom or what they want to overthrow, there is a lack of clarity about which system or individual is a viable alternative.
Hong Kong protesters are demanding elections carried out to “international standards.” But those standards are far from clear.
Britain’s prime ministers have no direct electoral mandate. US presidents are chosen by indirect election, state by state, via the procedurally intricate Electoral College system. Neither, it seems, would satisfy demands in Hong Kong.
And with US$38,000 GDP per capita and world-class transport, education and health systems, Hong Kong shows this is as much about dignity and control as it is about living standards and money.
A quarter of century ago, after the end of the Cold War, western-style democracy was given free rein to prove its worth, and there have been notable successes, mostly in Europe and Latin America.
But such governance may have reached a stage where both mentors and those campaigning for it are at a loss as to where the end game lies.
Democracy, after all, represents hope and fairness. For democracy to be a system of government, there must be adherence to the rule-of-law, and the West’s support for the abrupt tearing up of constitutions destroys benchmarks of governance. The way forward is precarious.
Rousseau’s social contract also had a problematic track record. It began with the concept that the will of the people would create a stable foundation for future government – 27 years later came the French revolution, the guillotine, mass killings and military rule by Napoleon.
In that story are echoes of the Arab Spring, Iraq, Ukraine and – although too soon to tell – possibly Hong Kong.
Humphrey Hawksley is BBC Correspondent specializing in development. His latest book,Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having the Vote is published by Macmillan.
Credible reports are now coming through of a coup attempt or serious unrest in North Korea. There have been internal travel restrictions in place since September 27th, The leader Kim Jung-un has not been seen in public since September 4th. Last December, he executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had vast power networks througout North Korea and China. He has had five defence ministers since he came to office in 2011. China, South Korea and the United States have been under pressure to make detailed plans for North Korea’s collapse, including securing its nuclear weapons.
And now, senior North Korean officials are sending out olive branches — the latest being a surprise visit to South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. The world’s most precarious political transition could be beginning.
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Artucle 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law or mini-constitution states — the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. In 2007, an amendment came in to apply this to the 2017 election. At no stage did it suggest there should be an election without the candidates being approved by a committee. The protestors are arguing for an election that conforms to ‘international standards’. Given the procedural complexities and different methods in which Americans choose their presidents, the British their prime ministers and Londoners their mayors, is there a detailed document laying out exactly what amendment is needed to the Basic Law and how Hong Kong people want to elect their next chief executive? And if there, could someone let me know the link?
While China’s President Xi Jinping was hunkered down against unrest in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Indian Prime Minister Modi dropped by New York’s Madison Square Gardens to receive a rock star’s reception. The signals are that, like India’s democracy did with Modi’s election, China’s authoritarianism needs to smarten up get ahead of the game. One way forward would be to offer a slots for the 2017 Chief Executive’s election to one of the battle-scarred veterans of the pro-democracy campaign, such as the urbane Martin Lee or fiery Emily Lau. The people of Hong Kong are more pragmatic than ideological. The institutions are strong enough to handle the outcome and no Hong Kong government, whoever’s in charge, can survive by picking fights with China. As Iraq and Ukraine have shown, however much muscle you have, you can’t shoot and tear gas your way to victory. And who knows, the pro-democracy candidate might not even win.
Britain’s looming constitutional debate — a bonanza for the political chatterati — is misplaced. The SNP’s popularity over Scottish independence mirrors the growing support for UKIP over Britain’s independence from Europe. Both are deeply-felt grass-roots sentiments about power and national identity. The governance of England carries no such mass of feeling. If it did, the turn out for the 2012 election of police commissioners would not have been a record low of 15 per cent; nine out of ten cities would not have rejected proposals for directly elected mayors; the referendum on electoral reform would not have failed so spectacularly (68 per cent against; 32 per cent in favour on a 42.2 per cent turn out); and the House of Lords would no longer be an unelected chamber of members appointed for life. Therefore would it not be wise to deliver to Scotland what was promised without linkage and concentrate all minds on Europe. There is a credible scenario of Britain voting to leave Europe and a few years from now Scotland — in another referendum — voting to leave the United Kingdom.
Britain has long experience in handling independence movements from the 1922 partition of Ireland to the 1947 partition of India to the 1980 ‘coconut war’ of Vanuatu to the 2014 referendum in Scotland. Invariably there’s trouble. There are, though, two very different types of unrest. Northern Ireland’s conflict stemmed from a perception of inequality between two religious groups. Power, vested in one, was used to repress the other. Although smaller in scale, this is similar to the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq. It is about birthright and tribe and mistrusted institutions. The present Scottish quest for independence relies on the decision of individuals, regardless of birth, which is why within many households there were opposing views. They are based part on nationalism and part on merit. Other governments from Spain, to Russia to China would be wise to watch how Britain now faces the challenge keeping the United Kingdom together. If it succeeds it will show how, despite arguments, compromises and frustrations, it is possible to weave a complicated political tapestry that retains sovereignty without bloodshed.
Scotland has proven itself a global example of the democratic process — from the discipline of the count to the determination to transport sealed ballot boxes over storm-whipped seas. Its success relied on Scottish institutions, the rule-of-law and the acceptance of the result by the losing side. All this now needs to be forensically examined by those advocating a similar electoral process in parts of the developing world. Like many of them, Scotland’s vote was about the unknown. Therefore, which Scottish institutions were vital for the referendum and how weak could they have been for it still to succeed? After getting it lethally wrong from Iraq to South Sudan, there is now a blueprint on how to get it right.
Peter Greste’s letter from Egypt’s Mazraa Prison gives us a rare insight into stamina, courage, innocence, compassion, family and injustice. Much of what he says about the anger, the frustration, the question of why and the search for calm, must apply to the thousands locked up in Egypt and the tens of thousands of political prisoners held by dictatorships around the world. Egypt’s revolution was meant to be the beacon that led the Arab world into an era of democracy and good goverance. It has failed abysmally, begging the question for tourists and businesses as to why they even go there. There are ancient ruins in Turkey and Peru, magnificent rivers and beaches in Latin America and Africa. There are business deals to be done in Moldova and Bangladesh and contracts to sign in Chile and Malaysia. In Egypt, you know your are dealing with corrosive corruption and courts that bend with whichever dictator happens to be in power. Best stay away. Or Egypt can show it is on the path of reform by releasing Peter, his colleagues and all its political prisoners. bit.ly/1sehwLX
With much debate about the media and war reporting, four points noted by the great Sandy Gall stand well the test of time.