THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
International Day of Democracy, commemorated each year on 15 September, is an occasion to celebrate the promise of democracy — to build resilient, inclusive and peaceful societies, promote the dignity and rights of every person, and create a just world for all. It is also an opportune moment to examine the strengths and universal values of democracy, as well as its shortcomings and how it could be made ‘fit for purpose’ in a rapidly evolving world.
In a region where parliamentary democracies are a rarity, Kuwait is an outlier. Democracy as practiced in Kuwait is often described as a ‘hybrid’ system, as it combines elements of a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. While the monarchy wields considerable executive authority and holds sway over most state institutions, it also coexists with a powerful elected parliament that often influences and challenges the government.
Despite this political dichotomy, Kuwait has a long history of political participation and freedom of expression. The country’s independence in 1961 led to the drafting and promulgation of a constitution a year later. Democracy that prevails in Kuwait today owes its genesis to the constitution, which affirms that: ‘’the system of Government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers. The constitution gave rise to universal suffrage, secret ballot and an elected unicameral parliament.
It also guarantees personal liberty, freedom of speech, assembly, and association. This constitutionally delineated democratic form of governance, as well as political and personal freedom has led to the vibrant political culture, the relatively free media, and a well-mobilized civil society that we currently witness in Kuwait.
Though political parties are not recognized, elected representatives affiliate with groups within parliament so as to amplify their influence and impact, and usually vote en bloc on contentious issues. Activists, civil society groups and associations often air their views and needs through the media and in meetings, as well as on rare occasions hold public rallies and gatherings to display dissatisfaction with social issues or political decisions.
In recent years, there have been calls for further democratic reforms in Kuwait, and some activists have even called for curbs on powers of the executive and the introduction of a fully elected government. Although the government has so far resisted these demands, the issue of reforming democracy is unlikely to go away and could remain a contentious one in Kuwait for the foreseeable future.
A decline in political and personal freedoms remains a persistent threat to democracy everywhere. The 2023 World Freedom Index published by Freedom House — the United States based non-profit organization that advocates for democracy, political freedom, and human rights — found that 60 countries suffered declines in freedom over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of 2022, only about 20 percent of the global population now live in ‘Free’ countries, while 8 in 10 people live in ‘Partly Free’ or ‘Not Free’ countries, the highest ratio since 1997.
Kuwait scored 37 out of a possible 100 in the Global Freedom index and was relegated to the ranks of ‘Partly Free’ countries. The country received 24 out of 60 in civil liberties, and surprisingly, only 14/40 in political rights. One reason could be that political participation in the country is limited to citizens. The majority of the population, comprising non-citizen residents, have no say in the political process, and their voices and needs often remain unheard.
The way in which a government operates, provides or restricts freedom; the ease of access to information and personal privacy; whether services are delivered in an equitable manner or discrimination occurs in distribution; do authorities provide or prevent opportunities for freedom of expression that allow for people’s voice to be heard and included in the policy making debate. These are important traits that have an impact on the way that a country is perceived, and the degree of democratic legitimacy that it is accorded.
Social analysts point out that democracy is as much a process as a goal. It is only with constant tweaking to its workings, and through the full participation and support of everyone, including government, parliament, and civil society organizations, as well as citizens and residents that the values and ideals of democracy can become a reality, and its fruits enjoyed equally by everyone in the country.
The social upheaval and political polarization that we see in many places today, often starts with political institutions and dysfunctional governance systems that are unable or unwilling to meet the needs and aspirations of all people. Surveys show that dissatisfaction with political systems that fail to deliver on their promises and potential, and which appear to reinforce the enrichment and entrenchment of a small coterie of elites, is at an all time high.
On this occasion, it is also worth considering whether the current backsliding in democracy witnessed in many places, and increasing instances of public dissatisfaction with the democratic model of governance, are the outcome of intrinsic shortcomings in democracy, or are we the people, with our personal prejudices and political pathologies to blame as well.
Despite the deep dissatisfaction with democracy when people come to believe that their elected representatives and officials do not care, or deliver on their promises, polls show that people still aspire to live under democratic governments, especially in countries that are currently under autocratic regimes. The universal values and principles of democracy such as freedom, dignity, equality and respect of individuals and human rights, continue to appeal to people everywhere.
And there are as many flavors of democracy as there are democratic countries that nations can adopt. Although many Western countries swear by their representative form of democracy, there are other variations, including constitutional democracies, parliamentary democracies, presidential democracies, hybrid varieties, and even autocratic democracies. Although it sounds an oxymoron, autocratic democracies do exist and have all the trappings of democracy, but they also possess the qualities of an autocratic state, where power is concentrated in a charismatic leader or group.
But democracies are more than about their flavors, or about universal suffrage, or an elected parliament.
In its idealized form, democracy is a governing system that draws its strength from the consent of the people it governs. It has effective and independent institutions that monitor trespasses and hold the government accountable to the people. They also have checks and balances that prevent majoritarianism and protect the rights of minorities, as well as ensure that the rule of law is equally enforced and independently adjudicated.
While all democratic countries aspire to achieve these idealized democratic traits, the fact remains that very few succeed. As political commentators and experts maintain, democracy is a dynamic social and political system whose ideal functioning is never fully ‘achieved’. The minimum that democracies should strive to create is a level playing field where everyone, no matter the circumstances of their birth, background, gender, or choices, can enjoy their universal human rights, as well as participate in politics and in governance.
Critics of democracy often point to the various flaws associated with democratic systems, many of which are valid and need to be addressed. Among the perceptible drawbacks of democracy is ‘majority rule’, under which the interests of minorities could be overridden or trampled over, and underprivileged sections of society could be discriminated against.
In addition, democracies have been blamed as being inefficient due to the inherent debates and compromises involved in reaching majority decisions. The search for consensus on issues often severely handicaps the implementation of policies and processes, especially in times of crises, as we saw in many democratic countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democracies are also vulnerable to corruption and pressures from lobbyists and the wealthy who have the means to influence decision-making and mold laws to enhance or protect their interests.
Democracy’s detractors also often deride other infirmities that are associated with democracies, including the ‘short-term’ mentality of legislators in parliament and by decision-makers. Due to four or five year electoral cycles during which they hold office, elected or appointed officials tend to focus on short-term policies that provide immediate returns designed to placate their voters. They also refrain from taking decisions, reforms or initiatives that could cause near-term pain to voters, even if these actions could result in long-term gains for the country.
Another downside to democracy is the periodic elections that take place to decide representatives for various positions. Although the vote allows people to choose their preferred candidate, the vitriolic campaigning involved in electoral processes often foments or exacerbates harmful societal divisions that could then spillover into political conflicts and undermine national unity.
Moreover, voter ignorance and irrationality in making judgements and voting for candidates based on their capabilities, policies or past performances is a major drawback of democratic elections. Votes are often cast on the basis of ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines, or cast for leaders who promise to further parochial interests or meet the specific needs of voters.
Amid these valid criticisms it is important to remember that democracy is a system that is constantly evolving and improving its processes. It could at best be termed a work in progress, which requires constant tweaking, refining and reforming of its policies and processes so as to address apparent flaws, and make it a more effective and just system of government for all.
In this context, many civil society organizations and activists in democratic countries are demanding a rethink of political systems so that it becomes more responsive to the needs of all people. As the UN Development Programme notes, we need to create dynamic governance systems that are more inclusive to include the voices of people and groups most affected by social challenges. We need a system that can adapt to the constantly changing needs, expectations, rights, capabilities of all actors and institutions that make up our societies.
Such a reset will require deliberative dialogue and engagement with a multiplicity of actors at all levels of the socio-economic and political landscape of the country. It will also need building up from the bottom, starting with educating children on democracy, civic sense, on elections, voting and parliaments, so as to help entrench democratic values and principles in the minds of citizenry from a young age.
As the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it: “No one is born a good citizen, no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth.”