Call for participatory democracy premature

Call for participatory democracy premature

IT was the outstanding English journalist Walter Bagehot who in 1867 opined that “a parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people”.

Such a vulgar comment today illuminates the vision we have of Parliament’s declining role in our democracy. In fact the call for “participatory democracy” at this year’s official opening of parliament by President Pohamba inadvertently reinforces Bagehot’s view of parliament and brings into disrepute its platform of deliberative democracy.It is hard to tell from the armchair if such a call was by design or an accident on the part of speechwriters or the President himself.I argue this way in the form of a caveat because implicit in the notion of participatory democracy is its critique of the deliberative nature of parliaments.Not uncommonly, as a lieu of representative democracy the nature of parliament cannot be equated with participatory democracy.Nonetheless, it’s futile to dwell on the normative and theoretical differences between the two.In essence, any discussion about parliament is one about its performance, not only as an agent of democracy, but substantively how it makes a difference in our lives.Our Parliament has not seen any serious bouts compared to the flying shoes and fists that we see in the chambers of South Korea or Taiwan.So, to say the performance of our Parliament has been contrasted amount to tautology and that discussion will be evacuated too.Earlier analyses about parliament such as those proposing getting rid of the National Council or changing our electoral system to enhance our democracy, obscure more than they illuminate.A more substantive debate could take place when we look at this problem first as an axiological one (the values and ethics epitomised by Parliament and politicians) and we would avoid the misleading cut-and-paste solutions.The second related worry would be deontological (how politicians conceive of their duties and their profession, if at all they see it as such).This would be, among others, a useful aid in understanding even the relationship between the National Assembly and the National Council and politicians themselves.It is through study of such values that we are bound to acknowledge that the progressive weakening of Parliament is more a result of our politicians than citizens or a media that is arguably not too excited about its existence.The French political philosopher Montesquieu emphasised the need to resist tyranny by fragmenting government power, notably through the separation of powers.Such separation is merely institutional and does not culminate in a democratic process.Yet, in a system like ours, with a National Assembly not influenced by a powerful executive, but dominated by it in the legislative process, government power is not fragmented.As a consequence, the capacity of the Assembly to shape or at least influence public policy is compromised.One would hope that the National Council as the locus of “popular authority” would fragment government power (normally it should fragment legislative power) through robust engagement with the first chamber during bills under review.Such internal tensions, which could free debates from taboos, have been pretty intermittent.The State-Owned Enterprises Bill is but one of a few case studies.Thus, while the National Council is not without use, its existence makes perfect political sense in a society that is artificially cohesive like ours because of the way in which its members are recruited.Conversely, its utility to our democratic process is merely theoretical since bicameralism is seen as a central principal of liberal constitutionalism, one to which our democracy lays claim.There have been calls to increase backbenchers in order to possibly fragment government power.Such an option, attractive as it may seem, is not necessarily a solution because the prevailing political culture does not allow for open contradictory debates.By the same token, the monopolistic nature of Swapo has turned the Assembly into a propaganda weapon, with Government policy mostly being approved unanimously.This is where our axiological concerns find resonance because the politics Swapo seeks to fashion in the chambers promote more high-sounding but essentially vacuous, idolatry speech.Such a political culture which compounds the rubberstamp nature of our chambers provides less scope for attracting critical, highly educated and talented politicians.On that score, we can equally infer that the deontology of politics is also lost.In a nutshell, we can’t call for participatory democracy if we haven’t sufficiently responded to these deontological and axiological aspects of our chambers.Failure to do so, our parliament would remain as Bagehot would claim “a big meeting of more or less idle people”.* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a Ph.D fellow in political science at the University of Paris-Panthéon Sorbonne.In fact the call for “participatory democracy” at this year’s official opening of parliament by President Pohamba inadvertently reinforces Bagehot’s view of parliament and brings into disrepute its platform of deliberative democracy.It is hard to tell from the armchair if such a call was by design or an accident on the part of speechwriters or the President himself.I argue this way in the form of a caveat because implicit in the notion of participatory democracy is its critique of the deliberative nature of parliaments.Not uncommonly, as a lieu of representative democracy the nature of parliament cannot be equated with participatory democracy.Nonetheless, it’s futile to dwell on the normative and theoretical differences between the two.In essence, any discussion about parliament is one about its performance, not only as an agent of democracy, but substantively how it makes a difference in our lives.Our Parliament has not seen any serious bouts compared to the flying shoes and fists that we see in the chambers of South Korea or Taiwan.So, to say the performance of our Parliament has been contrasted amount to tautology and that discussion will be evacuated too.Earlier analyses about parliament such as those proposing getting rid of the National Council or changing our electoral system to enhance our democracy, obscure more than they illuminate.A more substantive debate could take place when we look at this problem first as an axiological one (the values and ethics epitomised by Parliament and politicians) and we would avoid the misleading cut-and-paste solutions.The second related worry would be deontological (how politicians conceive of their duties and their profession, if at all they see it as such).This would be, among others, a useful aid in understanding even the relationship between the National Assembly and the National Council and politicians themselves.It is through study of such values that we are bound to acknowledge that the progressive weakening of Parliament is more a result of our politicians than citizens or a media that is arguably not too excited about its existence.The French political philosopher Montesquieu emphasised the need to resist tyranny by fragmenting government power, notably through the separation of powers.Such separation is merely institutional and does not culminate in a democratic process.Yet, in a system like ours, with a National Assembly not influenced by a powerful executive, but dominated by it in the legislative process, government power is not fragmented.As a consequence, the capacity of the Assembly to shape or at least influence public policy is compromised.One would hope that the National Council as the locus of “popular authority” would fragment government power (normally it should fragment legislative power) through robust engagement with the first chamber during bills under review.Such internal tensions, which could free debates from taboos, have been pretty intermittent.The State-Owned Enterprises Bill is but one of a few case studies.Thus, while the National Council is not without use, its existence makes perfect political sense in a society that is artificially cohesive like ours because of the way in which its
members are recruited.Conversely, its utility to our democratic process is merely theoretical since bicameralism is seen as a central principal of liberal constitutionalism, one to which our democracy lays claim.There have been calls to increase backbenchers in order to possibly fragment government power.Such an option, attractive as it may seem, is not necessarily a solution because the prevailing political culture does not allow for open contradictory debates.By the same token, the monopolistic nature of Swapo has turned the Assembly into a propaganda weapon, with Government policy mostly being approved unanimously.This is where our axiological concerns find resonance because the politics Swapo seeks to fashion in the chambers promote more high-sounding but essentially vacuous, idolatry speech.Such a political culture which compounds the rubberstamp nature of our chambers provides less scope for attracting critical, highly educated and talented politicians.On that score, we can equally infer that the deontology of politics is also lost.In a nutshell, we can’t call for participatory democracy if we haven’t sufficiently responded to these deontological and axiological aspects of our chambers.Failure to do so, our parliament would remain as Bagehot would claim “a big meeting of more or less idle people”.* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a Ph.D fellow in political science at the University of Paris-Panthéon Sorbonne.

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