In an age of fast thoughts, we should pause to reset our ideas of democracy

Kevin Rafferty says scenes from Turkey raise questions about decision-making in the 21st century

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 1:53am

Ugly scenes of tear gas and violence being used to remove protesters from the heart of one of the most historic cities in the world, which is a classic bridge between Asia and Europe, as well as between Christianity and Islam, are distressing enough. But they should also provoke awkward questions about democracy and its role in promoting economic and social well-being or in encouraging dictatorship.

Both sides in the dispute in Turkey claim the democratic high ground. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan points out that he has been elected three times by the people and claims that the protesters encamped defending Gezi Park in Taksim Square in Istanbul are "louts", who are acting on the instructions of "foreign powers". The protesters retort that he is increasingly behaving as a dictator and is setting himself up to be a latter-day autocratic Ottoman sultan.

Freedom for people to make a choice once every three to five years is not sufficient

Turkey's tragedy is that both sides are right. Erdogan was duly elected in 2002, 2007 and 2011, and opinion polls show that over 60 per cent of the people still support him, more than can be said for most democratically elected leaders midway into their terms of office.

He has overseen a rapid increase in the economic growth and the political profile of his country. But he has increasingly resorted to authoritarian ways that have encouraged human rights abuses, police brutality, arrest of journalists and taming of the press, all of which are destructive of democracy.

The protests speak loudly about Erdogan's attitudes. They are ostensibly about his plans to turn Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spots in the centre of Istanbul, into a shopping and residential complex.

But the demonstrators say that they are fed up with Erdogan's steamroller methods that have seen him impose his social and economic views on the country.

In the fast-moving 21st century, it is time to think again about what constitutes democracy. We have to get beyond the parroting of Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest that have been tried.

What are the essential components of democracy? Most people would probably give a knee-jerk reaction that one-person one-vote elections are essential. But elections can easily be rigged or controlled. Rulers of the old Soviet Union were specialists in winning elections with at least 99 per cent of the vote.

Ask Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who decided who is eligible to stand as a candidate for Iran's presidency, or ask Beijing, trying to ensure that Hong Kong's leader is sufficiently "patriotic", or look at Ferdinand Marcos' playbook.

Saying that the elections must be "democratic" begs the question. Elections must be regular, must give candidates free and fair access to resources and voters, and must provide an opportunity for ousting the incumbent in power. Such elections are a necessary condition for democracy.

But freedom for people to make a choice once every three to five years is not sufficient. There must be an ongoing dialogue in which people are consulted as leaders pick and choose which of the myriad proposals to implement and in which shape and form, and indeed how they plan to tackle challenges that suddenly erupt.

Traditionally, the media provided the critical forum for debate. The trivialisation of much of the old media has gone alongside the explosive growth of the internet, which has virtually allowed anyone to have their say on any topics at any time.

It should be conceded that democracy, in the sense of letting the demos - the people or sometimes the mob - have their say, is not pretty. The founding fathers of the United States were scared of mob rule, which is why they built checks and balances into their constitution.

Churchill also said that "the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

After reading endless, mindless Twitter feeds or following the comments even in distinguished newspapers, it is easy to be appalled at the ignorance masquerading as opinion.

But when you have a mass of outraged people using Twitter to voice the same opinion, then beware, as the Arab spring showed, and as Erdogan is aware. He saved his worst insults for Twitter, describing it as "gangrene", a "menace to society" and foreign "lies". A wiser man would listen and debate before damning his opponents.

Defenders of the strong state ruled by strong leaders who are decisive say that this is the way to get things done. It is Erdogan's argument. It was the Soviet argument. It is the Chinese argument.

But if leaders do not listen, their rule leads to corruption and ends in ignominy and wastes years that destroy their social and economic achievements. As Acton noted: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University