Editorial

How bending the rules can hurt democracy

Sunday, September 08, 2019

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Democracy is not perfect but it is the best system for orderly governance in which the people have opportunities to take part in making decisions about leaders, political parties and policies.

To ensure fair, transparent, inclusive operation, democracy requires first, institutionalised monitoring to prevent or minimise the misuse of certain rules and procedures and second, the maximum availability of truthful information.

Without these two safeguards, democracy can be undermined from within using the very rules of democracy, ie misusing certain laws by applying them outside of the context for which they were intended, typically by politicians driven by ambition and hubris to abandon the quest for consensus.

There are two situations unfolding now which illustrate that the threat to democracy can come from within when there is an absence of a will to build consensus in the use of the very rules of democracy.

In Britain, one of the oldest democracies, there is a situation where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in government but not in power, having lost his small majority in the House. This resulted from his attempt to deprive parliament of the right and opportunity to decide on whether to leave the European Union (EU) without a deal, or ask for another extension of the negotiations, by proroguing parliament.

Aided and abetted by a small band of senior Conservative members, a majority passed legislation to prevent a Brexit without a deal. In a fit of pique Mr Johnson is trying call an early general election, putting the venerable queen in the most awkward and unprecedented situation of her long reign. A case of unbridled ambition and hubris, perhaps?

In the United States there is a situation where President Trump is in power but not in government. He too is using rules which are permitted by the Constitution in an unorthodox way. Congress has refused to fund the cost of construction of a wall along the entire USA-Mexico border. To circumvent the will of Congress the president has resorted to declaring a national emergency, a measure usually reserved for national disasters or as a war-time measure.

The Mexicans and others crossing the US border illegally are seen as an invading army. By declaring a national emergency President Trump has diverted funds from the budget of the Defense Department. Democrats plan to challenge this decision in the courts and in Congress. This is a case of being in power but not in government.

The lesson here is that democracy has legitimate procedures which can divert the will of the legislature. In both the US and Britain there is a lack of political consensus which, in the case of Britain, has produced a prolonged paralysis.

This scenario invites prime ministers and presidents to seek out unorthodox measures which only harden the positions of contending parties and reduce the prospects for resolution of crises.

Some unconventional and unorthodox tactics have been used in the contest for leadership of the People's National Party (PNP), which is neither in power nor in government. Hopefully, after yesterday's vote, the party will find a consensus which allows it to be an effective Opposition that can forge a policy consensus with the governing Jamaica Labour Party on issues such as crime.


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