Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Electoral 'democracy'

“Secret ballot doesn't allow voters to be accountable to the others, also affected by their vote, for their vote. With the lack of accountability, voters make biased choices, reflecting badly for the majority, when most voters act this way. This may be viewed as a collective action problem when people act as individuals. This may partially explain why good people do not get elected. Eg. of a biased choice: I vote for 'those who are likely to win because my vote is a waste otherwise'”

The story of democracy seems to look like a sorry tale. Is it just another system with the flawed assumption of equality? We may start off by asking, What is democracy? What we have today in various countries across the world, is this democracy? In that case, it definitely is a sorry affair. What in fact, we have mostly is electoral 'democracy'. Democracy is a theoretical concept. To appreciate or criticize the use of it as a system for nations, one needs to understand how it is being operationalized. Is electoral democracy the best way of practicing democracy? Have we really explored many ways in which democracy can be operationalized in order to benefit the majority which it theoretically claims to do. "Of the people, by the people, for the people." Can we say the governments that form with the elected representatives is of the people, by the people and for the people? The results definitely do not reflect this. Most places across the world, the majority of the population, who are poor and deprived, do not seem to benefit by the democracy practiced in these countries. So does that mean that democracy as a system has failed? The way I'd interpret this is that we have not really operationalised democracy in a way that benefits the majority. And unless that is done, it wouldn’t be a valid argument to say democracy is not good enough.

Now, some assumptions that we make while adopting electoral democracy seem to be
1. Popular opinion is reflected through elections
2. People who really want to serve the society contest for elections
3. Those who are elected will always act in the best interests of the people
4. The voters have a healthy choice of contestants to choose from
5. When a person votes, the person is consciously making an unbiased choice of a people’s representative who would serve in the interests of all
6. Those who are popular are those who ought to be in power
Clearly, all the assumptions are flawed. Popular opinion is that there is an utter lack of morality in the majority of the politicians who are misusing their power. So, elections do not reflect popular opinion. Today, in India, we see that a majority of those who are contesting do not have the best interests of the people as their aim. Many of them have criminal records. Those who are elected have not acted in the best interest of the majority. The contradictions that exist in the society are being perpetuated, inequality is rising in disastrous proportions, to the extent where society is divided into several layers, disconnected from each other, blind to the existence of each other. Do we really have a choice when we vote? Does anybody who wants to serve the society contest in elections? Do people who have the best interest of serving the society, if they do contest, get elected? Are people making an unbiased choice? Or with hardly any real 'choice', people's basis for electing a candidate changes drastically from what it should be? Lastly, a more fundamental assumption behind elections seems to be that those who are popular are those who ought to be in power. Popularity is assumed to be a trait that proves a person to be a good leader. I wonder whether this correlation really exists. Are all those who are popular good leaders? So, if we only take into account popularity which is assumed to get reflected in electoral democracy, is it good enough to prove a candidate to be a good leader?

I would argue, firstly, popularity does not really get reflected in the outcome of elections as the voters hardly have a healthy choice of candidates to choose from. Secondly, even if a person is popular, does that automatically make that person a good leader, does it ensure that the government, made by those winning elections on this basis of popularity, is of the people, for the people and by the people?

There may be not-so-popular people willing to serve the society who may be able to serve the society better than those who are popular. Does electoral democracy have any mechanism to filter in such people and filter out those who are popular but lack any willingness to serve the society?

Is voting the best way to choose our leaders? When we vote through secret ballot, it only reflects an individual’s choice. When a person votes, this person’s vote not only creates a chance for the voted candidate to represent this voter but many others. In that case, does a secret ballot, ensure any accountability of this voter to choose in the best interests of the society which also consists of others? Shouldn’t there be such accountability? Definitely, such accountability should be there. But again, the question is about how this can be operationalized. I have my own assumptions when I’m saying this. There are people with a good record of having served the society in whatever positions they held. When these people contest elections, they do not get elected. Why? It shows that people are not unbiased in their choices. How to ensure that their bias is filtered out of their choice? Is there a mechanism? Can bringing in accountability into the voting system, where each person is held accountable for making a choice that affects a lot many others, ensure this? This is still a theoretical concept. One needs to figure out how to build such accountability into the voting system. Also, there is often this criterion of people that those whom they vote should win and this in turn determines who they vote. It thus, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when a majority do this based on their perception of who is likely to win. This is an example of how biased choices are exercised.

Now, the question arises whether by factoring in such accountability into the system, good leaders can be elected. My answer would be that this alone may not be enough. There are multiple interests in candidates contesting for elections which can be pursued by becoming an elected ‘representative’. Serving the society with the best interest for the welfare of the society may not be the sole interest. In the present electoral system, there is no way to figure this out and exclude, from contesting or getting elected, those who do not have any good interests and those who have harmful interests for the society. And the power to create such a mechanism is in the hands of those who do get elected. If these elected representatives are the people who have harmful interests, it is not in their interest to create such mechanisms of filtration. Probably, an enormous amount of mass mobilization is required to make this happen.