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The Equilibrium of Democracy

Posted by RB Kollannur on December 28, 2008


“Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth” – Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863 in Gettysburg, USA

A century ago, Abraham Lincoln made this powerful statement in the wake of a revolution in his country. The statement resonated over the course of the twentieth century as Old World Imperialism was shunned away and New Age Democracy came into being around the world. The twentieth century personified the power of the people and brought about a level of societal progress never heard in the lore of history.

It is in the second half of the eighteenth century that the power of the people started to rumble. The Americans freed themselves from the dominion of the German prince ruling far away beyond the Atlantic and formed one of the oldest democracies we have in our world today. USA have been a stellar example of the success of democracy and its strongest herald, spreading the message of democracy around the world and as its influence over the world grew, so did their rhetoric over democracy and impatience over non-conformance.

But it was in France that people found a stronger voice when they stormed the fortress of Bastille, usurped their king and freed themselves from tyranny. Though the French First Republic was a failure, France has had a tumultuous time chasing the right rule for their people – Two empires, two monarchies and four republics followed the failure of their first attempt of self rule. Safe to say, France can be an apt reference to understand the evolution of a democracy.

After the fall on Napolean, the usurped Bourbon Monarchy of France was restored but not with absolute powers. France became a constitutional monarchy in the lines of a Presidential democracy (With the King as the President). However, when the king attempted to over reach his authority, he was removed and replaced by a distant cousin. This monarchy also did not work and the French Second Republic was formed as a Presidential democracy, with Louis Napolean, a nephew of the former Emperor, at its stead as the popularly elected President. However, three years later he was able to divert his popularity to crown himself as Emperor Napolean III through a referendum.

French Third Republic was formed after the defeat of Napolean III in a war against Prussia. It was a Parliamentary democracy, though a strong public sentiment towards the Bourbon Monarchy continued. However, an attempt by a monarchist leaning President to dismiss his republic leaning Parliament to move the opinion towards monarchy fell flat and the cause of monarchy was finally laid to rest.

French Third Republic, however, was crippled with political instability although it somehow managed to stumble from one crisis to another unscathed, till it finally faced one beyond its control – Nazi Germany. After World War II, France was reorganized as the Fourth Republic, in lines with the previous one. However, political instability continued (Running through 20 Prime Ministers over 11 years) and faced with the Algiers Crisis, France needed strong leadership. They went to their WWII hero, Charles de Gaulle, who insisted on complete authority, and came into power as a popularly elected President. The French Fifth Republic adopted a Semi Presidential system, with a grim reminder of the autocratic leaders of eighteenth century France.

Over the past two centuries, France has seen it all when it comes to democracy. Its failures also underline the defects of each democratic process. Presidential democracy with its focus on singular leadership has the tendency to move towards an autocratic and an absolute regime, while Parliamentary democracy with its focus on plurality of voices has the tendency to move towards split verdicts and political instability (It has been suggested that political stability is more due to proportional representation used to elect the legislature, but as we can see in India, which follows the Westminister system, fractured verdicts and divisive politics are part and parcel of the system). Both tendencies can prove fatal to a nation if the wrong decision or no decision is taken in times of need.

Exceptions exist in both systems. USA has successfully completed two centuries as a Presidential democracy, while UK has managed to wade through the deep water of coalition politics without much harm. However, from an Indian perspective having given fractured verdicts for two decades, a stitch in time may save nine.

France has made an attempt to outlive the deficiencies by constructing a hybrid model. However, there should be clear separation of powers between the branches of the executive. Otherwise, a strong dissonance between the two may arise leading to inaction or incorrect action. Even if the division of powers is formalized (Finland) or accepted (France), it does not provide the complete solution. Coalition politics will still persist in the legislature and could lead to instability on one hand of the executive. If the President is given more powers, then the tendency towards autocracy will persist. So, in essence, it just prolongs the inevitable.

So, what is the solution?

The tendency towards autocracy or towards plurality is a factor of the mindset of the electorate. Louis Napolean became an Emperor with the support of the people and later Charles de Gaulle managed to overcome the failure of the republic with the support of the people. It is the electorate that continues to give one fractured verdict after another in a Parliamentary democracy leading to coalitions and political instability. While the society is tuned to accept an autocratic leader in the former, it is ready to accept fractured verdicts in the other.

To avoid the pitfalls of each system, what is needed is a correction in the system at the right time. When faced with increasing political instability, some of the political dissonance should be reined in to focus on leadership driven society. When faced with increasing autocratic overtures by the executive, the political discord should be let loose, by having a plural system. A fixed state of constitution cannot solve a problem which arises well after its formation.

From a long term perspective, equilibrium is formed meeting the plural and singular needs of the society, moving from one axis to another.

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One Response to “The Equilibrium of Democracy”

  1. […] Using the example of the French in the evolution of their governing system, Arby explains why India might also need a correction in its system. […]

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