Dark days for champions of democracy

Michael Chugani says the US government shutdown and our own political gridlock, all in the name of democracy, only blacken its name

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 10:59pm

Change - that was Barack Obama's campaign promise when he first ran for US president. He didn't deliver. A year into his second term, the US government has partially shut down after a deeply divided Congress couldn't agree on funding. Change - that was Leung Chun-ying's campaign promise, too, when he ran for chief executive. A year and a half into his first term, Hongkongers are still waiting.

Did both men renege on their promises once elected, as so many politicians do? Or is it that they really wanted to deliver but couldn't? It's the latter. Democracy made it impossible for them to deliver. In a way, Obama and Leung faced the same obstacle - an ideological hatred of who they are and what they stand for. This has prevented both men from advancing their promised visions.

America's far right, heavily influenced by the demagogic "tea party", never accepted Obama's presidency. They despise his liberal leanings but their loathing is also partly racial. Blocking Obama's policies became much easier when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.

Likewise, Hong Kong's so-called democracy camp has never accepted Leung as chief executive. They despise him as an alleged underground communist with a hidden agenda to "mainlandise" Hong Kong. They tried to trip-wire his every move, even to the point of blocking his restructuring of government ministries to make them more efficient. And they refused to acknowledge his policy successes, such as ending pregnant mainlanders having babies here, the two-tin limit on milk power for outbound travellers, and measures to cool the property market.

Right-wing Republicans succeeded in shutting down the US government on ideological grounds because US democracy produced a divided Congress.

Hong Kong's democracy camp succeeded in derailing much of Leung's agenda because our partial democracy produced enough legislators from that camp to trip-wire Leung. You can argue that a democratic process that produces division acts as a check and balance against the abuse of political power. But you can equally argue that a democratic process that produces deadlock prevents elected leaders from doing their jobs.

America's democracy-produced Congress can't even agree on funding for the government to function, resulting in shutdowns of parks, museums and other facilities. Our own gridlocked legislature couldn't even agree on something as basic as landfill extensions and used a filibuster to delay Leung's proposal to increase the old-age allowance.

Even the staunchest defenders of democracy would never claim it is a cure-all for societal ills. But does it still hold true that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others? Maybe, but I must confess the nauseating theatre we are now seeing in Washington has made me think twice. Democracy has made it possible for ideologues to hold the country to ransom.

The US sees itself as a global champion of democracy. But surely it is scaring off people instead when its own democracy shuts down not just libraries but even life-saving medical research.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com