For some time now, democracy across the world has been under attack. Democracies are increasingly slipping into the category of ‘flawed democracies’ with 36% of the world population living under some form of ‘authoritarian regime’ (Democracy Index 2020). From the onset it must be emphasised that democracy is a universal concept and should not be viewed simply as a Western construct. No doubt, the world is fighting an ideological battle where liberalism is pitched against illiberalism, populism and nativism are on the rise and where Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is again relevant to the state of global politics. Although there is no easy method to address this growing fracture, a better understanding of democracy and its impact on societies may help palliate the state in which we are.
In fact, there are number of initiatives at global, continental, regional and national level happening to bring about a better understanding of what democracy actually means. As a scholar, I have been invited to a number of them and here would like to refer to two – the Club de Madrid’s Rethinking Democracy Project and the Ghana Center for Democratic Development and the Democracy in Africa – Democracy Capture Project. Both are concerned with understanding the deep seated problems and disillusions that have caused a continuous decline in democracy even in countries who once where democracy champions.
The need for a pedagogy of democracy
Democracy is far from being a linear or static concept. On the contrary it is both evolutionary and multi-dimensional. One of the key concerns about democracy is that very few people fully understand how it works. It is therefore imperative to develop a clear pedagogy about the meaning, function and usage of democracy. In fact, the popular quote that defines democracy – ‘of the people, by the people, for the people and with the people’ gains significance when the people fully comprehend the process allowing them to become in their own right democracy activists. As mentioned earlier, democracy is under attack and this is happening from different quarters – the advent and acceleration of disinformation and fake news, the hollowing of key institutions, the demise of pluralistic media outlets, the advent of mass surveillance technology and sophisticated cybersecurity attacks to name a few.
Having said this, democracy more than ever remains both important and relevant to the society we live or aspire to live in. Democratic values such as freedom, choice, plurality, equality have been at the centre of protest marches that have mobilised people (often risking their lives) from the four corners of the globe – be it in Belarus, Sudan, Russia or Hong Kong. The writing on the wall seems clear – democracy is worth fighting for. It is interesting to note that in Round 8 of the Afrobarometer survey, where an average of two in three respondents on the African continent support democracy. In the case of Mauritius, the support is even higher where three in four respondents interviewed said that ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’.
Turning democratic deficiencies into gains: The case of Mauritius
The good news about Mauritians’ support for democracy is dampened by the severe drop when it comes to satisfaction with democracy and more precisely ‘the way that democracy works in Mauritius’. In fact, between the 2012 to 2020 period, satisfaction with democracy in Mauritius has dropped from 72% to 51%. Recently published reports namely that of V-Dem (2021) and ‘Changing tides: The evolving illicit drug trade in the western Indian Ocean’ (2021) paint Mauritius in very unflattering terms. Gone are the days where the island effortlessly basked in the glory of being Africa’s democratic lighthouse. Perhaps one of the greatest gains from the Mauritian democratic backsliding is the growing and determinant citizen mobilisation.
Many of us were pleasantly surprised but also heartened when we saw thousands of people take to the streets in the wake of the MV Wakashio oil spill. The other important moment was in reaction to the ‘Consultation Paper on proposed amendments to the ICT Act for regulating the use and addressing the abuse and misuse of Social Media in Mauritius’. Both speak to the fundamental rights that a citizen should enjoy – environmental and information / communication.
Unfortunately, there have been a number of other events where we are helpless spectators witnessing the hollowing of some of our key institutions. The case of the Mauritian National Assembly is the most poignant one, where its core role as an oversight body and representation of the people has been savagely severed. Other examples abound from the Central Bank, the ICAC and even the Police. More than ever, the citizen must become the vigilante of democratic safeguard.
Sustaining the movement for change
Fighting or standing up for democracy is not an easy task – it requires organisation, commitment and even courage. Flash in the pan marches or ad hoc mobilisations will only bring a momentarily semblance of respite but never the transformational change needed. In the run up to the 2019 general election and in the wake of MV Wakashio oil spill there has been a number of new political parties that have come to life.
A few of them are keen in investing in the long haul and doing the leg work with the citizens. In fact, what we need is not more political parties simply contesting elections but investing in the politics of ideas and change. One should understand that democracy is not simply about holding ‘free and fair’ elections but also about fostering a new social, political and economic pact.
Sustaining the movement for change should be inclusionary and here one should ensure that youth, women and all segments of our society have a fair chance of representing the people. Democracy is flawed and ultimately withers away when it is exclusionary.
Last but not least, is the need to harness social media for a constructive and guided movement for change. We need to minimise cheap rhetoric and clickbaits and invest in a true republic of ideas. As we celebrate the International Day of Democracy, we should mull on the fact that democracy should never be taken for granted. Maybe this is one of the gravest mistakes we have made as a nation.