Tuesday, March 02, 2004

The Fetishization of Democracy

It's past time we stopped sentimentalizing democracy as a good in itself. If more democracy is always better, why put up with representative democracy at all? Why not move directly to the purest possible form - direct democracy, or rule by plebiscite?

What good is a right to vote if neither security of the person or of one's property exists? Anyone who thinks universal suffrage is some sort of guarantee of freedom is living in a dream world - the Soviet Union and all of its satellites had regular elections in which voting was mandatory, and Nazi Germany had plebiscites galore, yet I'd rather have lived in Hong Kong under Chris Patten or England under Lord Palmerston than in Hitler's Germany or Communist Poland. The right to vote is in itself a guarantee of absolutely nothing whatsoever, and can even be used to oppress unpopular minorities.

Today's Phillipines illustrates everything that is wrong with a universal franchise in a land in which most are indigent or illiterate. It was bad enough that the Filippino poor elected Joseph "Erap" Estrada, a college dropout and one-time actor in cheapo action movies, as the successor to Fidel Ramos, but despite having lived to regret that decision, they now seem bent on electing yet another action-movie star, in the person of a certain Fernando Poe Jr. Not only is Mr. Poe even less qualified to run the country than an Estrada who was very much out of his depth, what with Mr. Poe being a high-school dropout with absolutely no political experience whatsoever, but he is not even able to articulate what he is supposed to stand for (assuming he actually does stand for something), restricting himself so far to no more than one-line responses issued in stage-managed interviews with friendly reporters. An electorate hellbent on repeating its previous errors is hardly a compelling argument for universal suffrage, but that is just what is taking place in the Philippines as we speak.

Poe, an aging action star (64) has been in show business for 48 years. But politics is a different territory. Poe, known to be intolerant of a critical movie press, hasn't given one-on-one interviews. He speaks in one-liners and only talks to the press in ambush interviews. He has not accepted invitations to participate in debates. When he declared his bid for the presidency, he only said, ``My name is Fernando Poe Jr. and I am running for president.'' He has not laid out a platform of governance (he is a high school dropout) but his mere appearance attracts crowds. His aides are still putting together a team of advisers.

Had the vote been limited to the middle classes, the eminently well-qualified and thoroughly experienced Gloria Arroyo would now be coasting to re-election rather than trying to pander to the same cheap populism that has made Fernando Poe so attractive; naturally, investor confidence has not been boosted by Mr. Poe's candidature, and it is a certainty that inward investment will drop to almost nothing should he ascend to power.

For another example of what can go wrong when we confuse democracy as a means to an end with democracy as an end in itself, we can hardly do worse than look at Russia. Vladimir Putin is indisputably popular with the overwhelming mass of the Russian populace, and what opposition there is to his rule is fractured and limited mostly to the miniscule Russian professional classes. The vast majority of the Russian people are not at all perturbed by the curbs Putin has placed on press freedom, and they approve wholeheartedly of his moves to muzzle alternative centres of power presented by the so-called "oligarchs", rule of law and judicial independence be damned. Habeas corpus and the right to be presumed innocent before trial can go hang as far as the ordinary Ivan on the street is concerned, just as long as the unpopular oligarchs "get what's coming to them." Russians may all still have the vote for now, but in no sense can theirs be described as a "free" country, and what is more, their freedoms are being taken from them with their enthusiastic consent.