A glance through the pages of the history of democracy reveals that democratic systems evolve over time, rather than arriving perfectly in one go, and that the road to democracy is strewn with difficulties and setbacks. Even the “advanced democracies of Europe and America” — a phrase that slips so easily off the tongue — went through a period of excruciating labor pains before giving birth to democracy.
Take, for example, the US, which many consider to be the biggest representative of democracy in the world today. Genuinely equal rights for men and women did not arise of their own accord when the US emerged as an independent nation.
It was not until the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1920 that women were given the right to vote in all US states. As for black Americans, they had to wait another 45 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure their right to vote in every state.
These democratic countries’ troubled past now serves as a negative lesson for newly emerging democracies as they select and design their democratic systems.
It is now very difficult for any country that seeks to differentiate people’s political rights according to factors such as race, color, gender, wealth and creed to be accepted by the global democratic community as one of its members.
Democratic politics has evolved and is distinguished by two important features.
The first is that the system is more important than individuals. In a well-developed system, the nation’s leader does not have to be a superman, nor a professor of this or that. To put it plainly, in a democratic society, nobody is indispensable, because there is no shortage of talented people capable of leading the country.
However brilliant a leader may be, when that leader leaves the stage, the sun will still rise in the east right on time the next day. There is no room in a democracy for one person to rule the country for 20 or 30 years.
It is not acceptable for a strongmen to treat political power as their own or their family’s exclusive domain: These include leaders like Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), who ruled Taiwan in succession until the end of their days; Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 23 years; Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years; and Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years. Even if these leaders had the title of “president,” in what way were they different from the kings and emperors of ancient times?
The second feature of a modern democracy is that it means that the people rule, not that somebody rules on behalf of the people.
The military-political form of “democracy” that one sees under dictatorships does not fit the bill, while the didactic democracy that is controlled by an elite who double as rulers and teachers is also being swept into the dustbin of history.
Democracy today is no longer a matter of choosing someone to sit in a lofty place, or even riding on the backs of the public, giving instructions about this and that and making decisions on behalf of everyone else.
Instead, it is about appointing people to seek and form a consensus — through referendums if need be.
After that, all they have to do is to carry out the policies entrusted to them by the public. Indeed, democracy means that everything leaders do in government is based on the public will.