Democracy gone bad

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2008, 12:00am

There is no need to wait until historians pass judgment on George W. Bush. Most people, both in the United States and around the world, have already concluded that he is the worst American president in living memory. A simple test to see how ruinous he has been is to ask something many Americans ask themselves when deciding which presidential candidate to vote for: are you better off now than you were four years ago? In Mr Bush's case, the question for all of us would be: is the world better off now than it was eight years ago when he was first elected?

The answer is obvious. Two unpopular and costly wars are being fought in the Middle East, an entire religion has been stigmatised, many of its followers are in jail without trial on unproven accusations, some have been tortured, the once-admired western model for upholding civil and human rights is collapsing under the heavy weight of double standards and hypocrisy, a new cold-war-type friction is growing between the west and Russia, nuclear disarmament is out the window, global warming has worsened, and now we're heading towards the worst global recession since the Great Depression, necessitating an overhaul of capitalism itself.

All these things, and more, happened under the presidency of Mr Bush, the so-called leader of the free world. And they can all be traced back one way or another to his destructive and divisive neoconservative policies and his warped world view. He and his despised vice-president, Dick Cheney, have polarised not only America but the world.

It can be argued that Mr Bush's polices, which many now see as repugnant, were made unavoidably necessary by the September 11 terror attacks. That is a phoney argument. Invading Iraq was not unavoidably necessary. Neither is the ill-defined 'war on terror' which has seen large numbers of suspects being locked up without trial in the gulag known as Guantanamo Bay. Mr Bush let ideology override the abundance of scientific facts in ridiculing the warning signs of climate change. Rigid adherence to his neocon ideology of unregulated capitalism gave free rein to the Wall Street greed that has now destroyed global financial markets, condemning millions around the world to poverty in their wake.

As the world awaits impatiently for him to be confined to the dark side of history, we in Hong Kong may want to consider if the rise and fall of Mr Bush, and the downright dirty campaign tactics of the two men now seeking to replace him, have any lessons for us in our journey towards greater democracy.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a former security secretary and now a legislator, drew derision when she mocked democracy for having produced Hitler. Mr Bush is, of course, not the monster Hitler was. But what kind of democracy does Hong Kong want? Do we want the kind that produced Mr Bush and kept him in power for eight long years even when the vast majority of people had turned against him? Do we want the unrestrained kind we are now seeing in America where the two presidential candidates have gone beyond the boundaries of ugliness to slur each other with attack ads that use lies and half-truths? How does that advance the democratic debating of issues that matter to voters?

We all know that absolute democracy's best defence is that the people can vote out leaders they don't like. But the reality is that they have to wait. Americans wanted to get rid of Mr Bush a long time ago, but couldn't. They had to tolerate a failed leader with the worst poll numbers in history. Hong Kong does not yet have absolute democracy but the people were still able to quickly force out unpopular officials like Mrs Ip.

Wall Street's unrestricted greed has forced the world to retool capitalism's machinery. Should Mr Bush's uncontrolled excesses under democracy's umbrella give Hong Kong cause to think outside the box in our pursuit of democracy? After all, if we can have new thinking on capitalism, why shouldn't we dare move beyond existing democracy models?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster