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The majesty inherent in democracy

  • Published at 06:04 pm September 25th, 2019
Boris Johnson
Even a prime minister can be found guilty. REUTERS

It speaks the voice of reason, it liberates the soul

The majesty of democracy keeps the rule of law going, indeed thriving, in our times. That truth has been brought home to us anew through the unanimous ruling of the United Kingdom Supreme Court that the prorogation of parliament by Prime Minister Boris Johnson was null and void and of no effect. 

It was a clear, unambiguous assertion of the principle that the law could not be trifled with, not even by a head of government, not even on issues a government might consider to be of an emergency nature requiring emergency solutions.

And therein shines the beauty of democracy, informing people around the world that beyond personalities, beyond an arbitrary exercise of power, beyond a cultivation of cults of personality, it is the law which matters, because it is the citizen who matters. Governments are elected to serve the people who elect them, and also those who have not voted for them. 

Governments perform on the strength of popular support at the ballot box and on the basis of majorities in parliament. Governments are empowered to legislate, to reorder society, to configure national perspectives in light of changing realities. But they do not have the authority to bypass the rule of law or mislead citizens in their narrow parochial interests.

That is the truth about democracy so resolutely restated today, this time by the 11 justices of the Supreme Court of the UK. That the queen had been misled on the reasons for the prorogation of parliament; that therefore such prorogation was a defiance of the law; and that therefore it is the considered opinion of the judiciary that the illegality resorted to by Prime Minister Johnson did not legally amount to a prorogation of parliament and that parliament has therefore continued to be in session was the Olympian judgment, the hard truth, delivered on a rainy London morning.

The ruling brought with it an added reality of modern politics, which is that where the judiciary is independent, where judges and justices are not beholden to the executive branch of government, democracy enriches life in so very many ways. Again, the ruling was a manifestation of the truth that where parliament asserts itself, where it stands ready to question prime ministers and ministers and thereby holds them to account for their actions and behaviour, government by the consent of the governed flourishes. 

The executive must be subservient to parliament, no matter how much power a prime minister may be privy to or how much charisma he or she may bring into an exercise of political leadership. 

Democracy has little patience with gods and goddesses with feet of clay. When Richard Nixon attempted to subvert the constitution of the US and thought he would get away with it, the rule of law caught up with him and made him eat humble pie. When Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency in India and then expected a lifting of it followed by fresh elections to reinforce her hold on the country, she was shown the door in a profound assertion of democracy by voters. 

Strong, seemingly unassailable leadership, in a proper, thriving democracy, must at a point succumb to the greater strength of constitutional norms and the rule of law. That was a lesson Nixon learned in 1974. That was the truth Gandhi confronted in 1977. Democracy, let it not be forgotten, was a rude awakening for Najib Razak in Malaysia. 

The corruption his government lost itself in could only be judged in the court of public opinion through an expression of democratic rights. Malaysians went for that exercise. They brought Mahathir Mohamad back to office.

Democracy entails the building and constant refurbishment of institutions. It keeps the executive on its toes. It disallows law-makers from turning into sycophants and hangers-on of those wielding executive power. It replenishes the power of the judiciary and reminds people of the fundamentals of the law that it will and must uphold. 

In a democracy, as we observe it in the UK, in Europe, in North America, as we wish to see it take hold in other parts of the globe, a strong and vocal media must keep a check on the doings of men and women in public life, must be able and bold enough to scrutinize the working of government ministries and private organizations and expose the corruption that may be eating them away from within. Democracy empowers the citizen with authority to keep a check on those he or she has voted to parliament and into government.

The ruling by the 11 justices in London, when everything is said and done, reinforces the notion and the principle of democracy being an instrument for the promotion of social sanity and a dissemination of the idea of decency and citizens’ self-esteem. No president, no prime minister, no minister, no elected representative of the people, no individual in the service of the republic is above the people and above the law. There is, therefore, that unequivocal requirement for an obeisance to the rule of law, to the constitution, to political pluralism on the part of all.

Democracy has no place for an abuse of power or a misuse of authority. It has no space for elected authoritarianism to flourish or the arrogance of power to override the will of the people.

The majesty of democracy is just that, no more and no less. It speaks the voice of reason, it liberates the soul, it sprinkles with a liberal profundity of music the quality of life in a society. 

Democracy approximates the universe. Both keep expanding and branching out into newer, widening regions of possibilities. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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