The strengths of democracy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Autocracies, unlike democracies, cannot correct leaders’ errors

First published in BusinessLive

05 MAY 2022 – 15:25

Despite burgeoning international literature on the threats confronting liberal democracy it is surprisingly difficult to assess any democracy’s vulnerability to authoritarian rule.

There is rightly concern that electoral participation in SA has slumped, to the point where fewer eligible electors now vote for the ANC than stay at home. Opinion surveys, unreliable though they can be, offer further alarming insights into the citizen body’s views about democratic government.

At first glance the 2021 Afrobarometer surveys provide modest reassurance. Two thirds of respondents rejected one party or military rule. Just a quarter of South Africans believed parliament should be abolished and the president should rule alone — a suggestion former president Jacob Zuma once touted as a potential solution to the country’s troubles.

While four out of 10 respondents think democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, a fifth venture that a nondemocratic government is sometimes better. Up to 37% of respondents — perhaps despondents — reflect that “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”.

While a narrow majority agree that accountability to the people should never be sacrificed, even if slows government down, a full 45% intriguingly believe that “it is more important to have a government that can get things done, even if we have no influence over what it does”. It is perhaps here that democracy’s recent vulnerability lies. The generation of global “strongmen” leaders, in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere, trade heavily on their ostensible effectiveness. The Chinese system’s greatest attraction lies in that country’s practical accomplishments.

However, recent global events are eroding the “performance legitimacy” on which many autocrats depend. Few people doubt that Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has been frankly disastrous for the Russian people, and for the economy on which they depend for their prosperity. Equally few, whatever their wider sympathies, fail to recognise that it is autocratic rule that has disabled the mechanisms of intelligence gathering and collective reflection that provide essential safeguards against major leadership blunders.

The invasion has also rejuvenated a flagging alliance of avowedly democratic states, which now includes a partially remilitarised Germany, a refocused EU, a relegitimised Nato, and a rapprochement — unfortunately largely on American terms — between the Anglosphere and its once faltering allies across Europe and Asia.

Of course, it is China rather than Russia’s declining kleptocracy that is the key to the emerging international order. Yet Putin’s adventurism has galvanised opposition to China’s own divide and rule strategies, and to its territorial and maritime expansionism.

Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping’s own performance legitimacy, and that of his party, have been thrown into doubt by his personal insistence on a “Zero Covid” strategy that has left more than 300-million people under lockdown.

Democracies, most notably the US, have endured a devastating death toll during the pandemic, but this has not rocked the foundations of their political systems. Moreover, the relatively open systems of knowledge creation that democracies maintain have also proved markedly superior to autocracies in generating scientific advances — not least among which have been highly effective vaccines.

Beyond government performance, we do not have to look far afield to understand the nature of what the Chinese call “the bad emperor problem”. Many citizens in SA are sharply aware that Thabo Mbeki’s pursuit of the life presidency of the ANC in 2007, and the Zuma faction’s craving for perpetual access to state resources a decade later, were averted only by the imperfect forms of democracy that exist in the ANC and the wider political system.

For all its limitations, democracy provides what may be an indispensable mechanism for averting the catastrophic errors of judgment to which autocratic leaders are prone.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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