Elections, freedom and democracy

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017

Democracy is said to be a universally admired.  Actually it is relatively new and there are many alternative views on how democracy should be organised.  For the ruling elite across the world democracy is equated with elections every five years, when the majority of the population are given a limited choice on who to vote for.

Democracy originated in Ancient Greece (the term comes from the Greek words ‘demos’ - people - and ‘kratia’ - rule). Citizens could participate directly in the discussions and vote directly for laws.  But this was restricted to adult male Greeks. It did not include women, slaves or foreigners.  As a result, it involved 10% or less of the population.

It took a further 2,500 years for the vote to be extended to all adults.  And even now ‘democracy’ provides very little choice – just a choice between the corrupt (usually men) who will spend their time becoming extremely rich, rather than doing anything to help the majority of the population.

We get to vote once every five years but the Standard, the Daily Nation and the rest of the ‘free’ press churn out their propaganda every single day. Whilst most of the real power in society is retained by the rich elite and the international corporations.

Democracy may allow us to choose the name of our president, but it does not allow us to choose how society is run.  Whoever wins the next election, Kenya will still be run for the benefit of its tiny elite.

Democracy is new

The impression is given that most developed countries have always been ‘democratic’.   In fact, half the population, that is women, did not gain the vote until less than 100 years ago in the United States and Britain.  Women in France and Italy did not win the right to vote until around 1945 and those in Switzerland were not able to vote until 1971.

The Kenyan elections of 1961 were the first held under universal suffrage.  Even then nearly two thirds of the seats, in the equivalent of Parliament, were reserved for minority ethnic groups (Europeans, Indians and Arabs).  As a result, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) won over two thirds of the votes, but gained less than a third of the parliamentary seats.

Multiparty elections were only introduced in the 1990s and the power of incumbent politicians is still strong in many counties.  This power was shown clearly in Sudan where Gaafar Mohammad Nimeiry was President in the 1970 and 1980s.  The daily radio news always started by saying what the President had done.  He always won elections by a landslide.  But when he stood as an independent in 2000, 15 years after being removed from power, he gained less than 10% of the vote.

Tim (Socialist Review - )

Other forms of democracy

There are other forms of democracy beyond one person one vote.  During large strikes and other forms of collective struggle mass meetings often take the key decisions.  Instead of voting only on one day every five years, continuous direct democracy rules. Regular mass gatherings allow everyone to take part whenever urgent discussion is needed. 

This is a clear part of developments in Guyana where, as I write, there has been a general strike for three weeks.  Negotiations with the Government are led by the 500 Brothers against Delinquency and the collective So That Guyana Takes Off. All important developments are referred to mass meetings for a decision.

Such mass, participatory democracy, is a symptom of every popular movement.  The protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt adopted this approach during the Arab Spring of 2011.  This approach originated in the Paris Commune of 1871 and reached its most developed state with the Soviets in Russia, immediately after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.  Soviets or workers’ councils also re-appeared in as shoras in Iran in 1979 and Solidarity in Poland in 1980.

Soviets were based on direct democracy in the work-place.  Representatives were then elected to higher bodies, ultimately at the national level.  These representatives were elected for a fixed term, but could be re-called at any time by the people who elected them. They were not given additional privileges and were paid the average salary of the people that they represented.

Putilov 1920 (from Socialist Review- )

Recall was recently introduced in Kenya. The recall clause should enable citizens to force out non-responsive members of parliament and trigger a by-election. The recall is however limited to Members of Parliament – it does not apply to mayors, governors or the president. 

Democracy – power to the people?

There are various criticisms that can be made of the type of democracy that is currently practised in most countries across the world.  One of the chief problems is the role that money plays in elections and the power of the media.

Huge sums of money are spent during general elections and it is usually the politicians with the most money who get elected.  Until the most recent presidential election in the US, it had always been the case that the party with the most money won the election. This tradition was maintained in the primaries with Hilary Clinton being able to raise far more funds than her socialist rival, Bernie Sanders.  As a result, American democracy is really more about one dollar one vote than one person one vote.

The free press is often seen as a Bastian of democracy, but it can also be seen as being free in the sense of being free of democratic control.  The editorial control of almost all newspapers, radio and television stations lies with the owners of these institutions. In many cases, their political affiliations are clear - Fox News in America is a keen supporter of Donald Trump.

There has been a lot of talk recently about Russian interference in the American presidential elections.  But much less fuss is made of the role of foreign owned media in many democratic elections.  The BBC World Service was established to ensure that the views of the British Government were heard across the world.  The television company CNN now plays a similar role but in terms of the views of American global companies.

Even when newspapers and other mass media do not clearly support individual candidates, they help to develop and maintain a common view and understanding of how the world should be run.  As a result, they help to maintain the status quo and help to ensure that socialist and other radical candidates are rarely elected.

Even when politicians who want to challenge the status quo are elected, their supporters are usually disappointed. The left wing, anti-austerity Syriza government was elected in Greece in January 2015 on a platform of rejecting the financial blackmail of the IMF, European Central Bank and the European Union. The expectation was that the EU would have to listen to the will of the people. But, as European Commission vice-president Jyrki Katainen made clear, ‘We don’t change our policy according to elections’. And indeed they didn’t — the deal was imposed and the Syriza government strangled into submission.

In the 1920s and 1930s the ruling classes in Italy and Germany gave power to fascist movements to break insurgent workers’ movements.  Radical rulers like Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana were overthrown in the 1960s. In Chile in 1973, General Pinochet’s coup broke the power of a mass movement that threatened Chilean capitalism. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the IMF and the World Bank forced many African governments to adopt neoliberalism – to privatise, deregulate and reduce subsidies.

Declining interest in elections?

Across Europe rates of voting have declined from around 85 percent in the 1960s to 77 percent in the 2000s, while politicians are among the most derided professionals, with an approval rating of 3.9 out of ten, according to Eurobarometer.

However, this pattern changed earlier this year in the Dutch elections with the record turnout of 82%. As a result, the far right politician Geert Wilders failed to gain the expected support, but the Green-Left Party sprang up to third place and gained 10 more seats over-taking the traditional Labour Party.

In France similar results could follow this polarisation of politics. After the fascist National Front came out ahead in elections to the European parliament two years ago, Marine Le Pen may top the first round of voting, but is expected to be defeated in the second round.  Four candidates are, at the time of writing, equally placed in the opinion polls.  Two are former members of the Socialist Party which formed the last government and is well behind the leaders in the poll.

There are also allegations of corruption as the centre right candidate is accused of employing his wife and other family members as his ‘advisors’ in Parliament. The National Front faces similar allegations over the employment of staff in the European Parliament.

Hopes for the Future?

Whatever the outcome of the elections, the next Kenyan government will still claim that we have to attract foreign capital to develop the economy – so the majority of people will have to continue to suffer austerity. They will not provide our teachers or nurses with adequate salaries nor enable them to provide decent education or health services.  The wealth created by the mass of Kenyans will not be used to provide a reasonable life for the majority of the population.  It will continue to be used to benefit a tiny elite – despite the promises of our ‘democratic’ politicians. Democracy is important, but it is not enough.

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