Inside Our Asphyxiated Democratic Process

Inside Our Asphyxiated Democratic Process

WHEN Bernard Henry Levy (alias BHL), a leading contemporary French philosopher, returned from his journey to the United States in search of the footprints of one of the decisive democracy theorists, Alexis de Tocqueville, he (BHL) had the following to say on democracy: “Democracy is not only an institutional affair, the system is not enough.

We need to learn to live with each other. Horizontal democracy is as important as vertical democracy.”In fact, this is one of the most essential contributions of de Tocqueville, compared to Montesquieu, because he sees democracy not only as a political system, but as a social state.The thinking of de Tocqueville, presented here by BHL, is instructive for an emerging democracy like ours and this is why it becomes important for democracy to renew and reinvent itself, not only its system, but also the social state.To retrace our debate, at its conception, the founders of the Namibian constitution had an enemy in mind and as such opted for an executive presidency (presidential system) in light of a perceived threat.Based on that reflection, there is everything right with how the framers went about their work because systems or organisations were created by their enemies and against perceived threats.One would assume (rightly so) that their thinking was that the political system would ultimately shape the social state of the democratic process.However, 16 years on, Namibia is at a crossroads and the time has arrived for Namibians to rethink and reform our political system to better respond to the governance and democratic demands of our times.On this subject, about two months ago, an eminent trio of intellectuals such as incumbent Prime Minister Nahas Angula, leading academic Joe Diescho (who is no ‘ordinary Joe’) and the founding Prime Minister Hage Geingob raised interesting perspectives on how our political system is organised and why it should or shouldn’t persist in its current form.Diescho, for his part, seems to have opened a Pandora’s box by calling for a constitutional review of our political system in favour of a system where the president could appoint and draw cabinet members outside the parliamentary remit beyond the current constitutional restriction of six nominations as is the case in many advanced democracies such as the United States and France.Secondly, Diescho also called for a vice president and argued for a more penetrating separation of the legislature and the executive.In fact, one of the local dailies even went as far as referring to Diescho’s appeal for a vice president and a wider constitutional review as “controversial.”In defence, Dr Geingob, a chief architect of the current political system, supported by Prime Minister Nahas Angula, validated the status quo, arguing in the case of the first that our political system shouldn’t be compared to that of the United States or the Westminster parliamentary system, but has similar shades to that of France where accountability resides in the Prime Minister as leader of government business in parliament.Prime Minister Angula for his part advanced the view that a stronger opposition could be the missing link in our democracy.If we take the thesis of BHL in its crude form, largely with regard to the institutional aspects, the sitting Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister have a case to argue both in theory and practice.There is a constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers since the executive is accountable to parliament and elections are held regularly.To these, we can add the independence of the judiciary, organised groups and interests from Government.A priori, this paper is not a potent defence of Diescho thesis per se, but his seminal provocation and proposition on that question are not without merit and deserve deeper analysis.In congruence with his diagnosis and maybe not his remedy, one could argue that there are binary confrontations in our democratic life that should necessitate reform of our political system and the way in which government is organised.Firstly, to turn the thesis of BHL and de Tocqueville on its head, democracy as an institutional affair becomes less important in advanced democracies because the necessary conditions exist and have been met for democracy not to limit itself to the institutions of the state, such as checks and balances through a separation of powers.There is an inter-penetration of how these structures and processes interact with the larger society and democracy has been internalised by an informed citizenry.But then if we take a chic reading of the BHL quote one could conclude that our political system, despite the fact that a system of checks and balances exists, has no form of institutionalised fragmentation in a generic sense because the legislature is weakened to counter a strong executive.In addition to that, democracy as a deliberative exercise escapes the larger part of our population, but only exists in its electoral form.We need not look further than the trade unions, intellectuals (with the exception of a few voices) and the churches who have quarantined themselves from a vibrant democratic debate.In its current form and practice, it is not wrong to invent the notion of a vulgarised presidential democracy or an “electocracy” in reference to our political system in light of the excessive concentration of power in the executive and emphasis on elections as a means of democratic expression.The refusal of parliament to play the role of a counter-force is rooted in the absence of democracy as a social state and this goes beyond mere institutional and constitutional arrangements.As such there is an absence of real executive accountability and leaders are outside scrutiny and control of the public.Where leaders sit in the executive, depends largely on where they sit in the party.This is evident when one considers that our ministers don’t even have to worry about being driven out of office for non-performance since no real public demand for excellence exists.It’s where the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas situates the democratic deficit in the sense that those who decide don’t suffer the consequences of their decisions and actions.Since comparison is the life-line of the social sciences, and more specifically political science, it is fitting to compare our system to other models without simplifying, be it the United Kingdom, the United States or France to which Dr Geingob drew parallels with ours and from which Dr Diescho equally drew strength in his argument.In fact, when Alexis de Tocqueville published in 1850 his classic ‘De la democratie en Amerique’ he had the French ancien regime of his time in mind.It is so because no political system sui generis and its force and weaknesses are in opposition to other political systems.This also suggests that there’s no straight-jacket solution when it comes to political systems since democracy is after all a debate about what democracy is.Yet, it is also no reason for a system not to be evaluated and be adapted to changing times.In its ontology, there is nothing wrong with our political system, but the practice would suggest a different picture.Our parliament is weakened by a heavy executive and there are two or more possible interrelated remedies.These could range from shock therapy as proposed by Diescho in the form of cabinet appointments being drawn from outside parliament as is the case in the United States or France.In that sense our system is far away from the French model.In that sense, as a majoritarian democracy, we lean closer to the Westminster system.But then there is a caveat when evoking the language of shock therapy.As Diescho suggests, it is important to take note of the structure of the political system.So, the solution does not necessarily lie as Diescho posited in the president appointing cabinet members at will outside parliament, as is the case in the United States.This would not necessarily increase accountability, because there is political party primacy in both the executive and parliament, and the famous “party line” is eating away the soul of our democracy.Therefore, when evoking the language of change, Diescho ought to look at things through political sociology.That would mean that we need to understand the whole socio-political make up of our system and the primacy of the party over the state.Therefore, the solutions are both political as well as a sociological, and even psychological.On the political side, a decrease in the size of the executive and an increase in the pay-package of MP’s could provide the lifeline to what has become an otherwise, moribund parliament.On the whole, more financial resources should be dedicated to the service of MPs in the form of proper offices, researchers and assistants.The effect of such a multi-layered approach could serve as a catalyst to attracting more skilled and educated Namibians to enter the political scene and this would increase the quality and output of parliament.At present, there is no incentive for skilled and educated Namibians to aspire to become backbenchers.Parliament would become a different place when the public start to look at it differently.To put it honestly, for many of us, parliament is the permit to become a minister and not a parliamentarian per se because of financial concerns.The second aspect is one of social capital theory, an issue neglected in our democracy.We need to develop the social state in the democratic process.The trade unions, the churches, the intellectuals and all forms of organised civil society should play an important role in setting the government agenda.Joe Diescho is acquitted on the second count with regard to governance by advocating the need to scrap the Prime Minister-ship in favour of a vice president.First, this process is manifesting itself malgre lui as a result of the ongoing administrative strengthening of the cabinet secretariat and the presidency.The cabinet secretariat over the past years has been operating within the ambit of the prime minister and the secretary to cabinet, even though accountable to and appointed by the president, reported to the prime minister out of necessity.This justified from an administrative point of view, the raison d’etre of the Prime Minister’s Office and parallels could be drawn here with no.70 Whitehall (Cabinet Office) in the United Kingdom.However, the current transformation process of the cabinet secretariat into a possible fully fledged cabinet office and its future relocation to the new State House will render the prime minister obsolete.The role of the prime minister as a privileged advisor to the president is further watered down by the existence of a minister for presidential affairs, who by virtue of his presence in parliament is already reducing the need for the prime minister as a privileged interlocutor.By implication, the Prime Minister becomes one in name, but simply a de facto Minister of Public Service as is the case in South Africa for example.One of the few ways in which the Office of the Prime Minister and possible our democracy can be saved is by way of a rapprochement with the French semi-presidential system with its dual separation of the positions of head of state and head of government.By virtue of being Head of Government, the French Prime Minister nominates ministers for approval by the head of state and as such executive accountability to parliament is increased by virtue of the Prime Minister’s role in the appointment of cabinet members, the crafting and direction of government policy.In our case, the Prime Minister doesn’t own policy and could be reduced to a cabinet messenger or spokesperson to parliament, since ministers are not obliged to consult him on policy as they are accountable to the President.Again, our system is far away from the French model.The attractiveness of a semi-presidential system is that it avoids concentration and could lead to the consolidation of democracy as a social state in terms of a distribution and a split of roles which fosters interdependence.On the contrary, our thinking about the system perpetuates untouchables in the “presidencies” and to borrow from the American political theorist Kenneth Waltz “only equals negotiate as equals.”The attractiveness of democracy resides in its illusions about liberte and egalite and political interdependence could create a push towards equality.In its current form, our political system, by virtue of power concentration in the “two presidencies” perpetuates that unequal distribution of roles as power is not fragmented across the government organs.Our political inertia manifested by an absence for a democratic push within the political parties and disinterest in the future of our parliament is increasingly asphyxiating our democratic process, and no shock therapy can solve that as Joe Diescho suggested.We need to think anew about civic engagement as Alexis de Tocqueville would postulate.* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari holds a BA in politics and sociology from Unam and an MA in international relations from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.He is currently a doctoral student in political science at the Universite de Paris-Patheon Sorbonne, France.Horizontal democracy is as important as vertical democracy.”In fact, this is one of the most essential contributions of de Tocqueville, compared to Montesquieu, because he sees democracy not only as a political system, but as a social state.The thinking of de Tocqueville, presented here by BHL, is instructive for an emerging democracy like ours and this is why it becomes important for democracy to renew and reinvent itself, not only its system, but also the social state.To retrace our debate, at its conception, the founders of the Namibian constitution had an enemy in mind and as such opted for an executive presidency (presidential system) in light of a perceived threat.Based on that reflection, there is everything right with how the framers went about their work because systems or organisations were created by their enemies and against perceived threats.One would assume (rightly so) that their thinking was that the political system would ultimately shape the social state of the democratic process.However, 16 years on, Namibia is at a crossroads and the time has arrived for Namibians to rethink and reform our political system to better respond to the governance and democratic demands of our times.On this subject, about two months ago, an eminent trio of intellectuals such as incumbent Prime Minister Nahas Angula, leading academic Joe Diescho (who is no ‘ordinary Joe’) and the founding Prime Minister Hage Geingob raised interesting perspectives on how our political system is organised and why it should or shouldn’t persist in its current form.Diescho, for his part, seems to have opened a Pandora’s box by calling for a constitutional review of our political system in favour of a system where the president could appoint and draw cabinet members outside the parliamentary remit beyond the current constitutional restriction of six nominations as is the case in many advanced democracies such as the United States and France.Secondly, Diescho also called for a vice president and argued for a more penetrating separation of the legislature and the executive.In fact, one of the local dailies even went as far as referring to Diescho’s appeal for a vice president and a wider constitutional review as “controversial.”In defence, Dr Geingob, a chief architect of the current political system, supported by Prime Minister Nahas Angula, validated the status quo, arguing in the case of the first that our political system shouldn’t be compared to that of the United States or the Westminster parliamentary system, but has similar shades to that of France where accountability resides in the Prime Minister as leader of government business in parliament.Prime Minister Angula for his part advanced the view that a stronger opposition could be the missing link in our democracy.If we take the thesis of BHL in its crude form, largely with regard to the institutional aspects, the sitting Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister have a case to argue both in theory and practice.There is a constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers since the executive is accountable to parliament and elections are held regularly.To these, we can add the independence of the judiciary, organised groups and interests from Government. A priori, this paper is not a potent defence of Diescho thesis per se, but his seminal provocation and proposition on that question are not without merit and deserve deeper analysis.In congruence with his diagnosis and maybe not his remedy, one could argue that there are binary confrontations in our democratic life that should necessitate reform of our political system and the way in which government is organised.Firstly, to turn the thesis of BHL and de Tocqueville on its head, democracy as an institutional affair becomes less important in advanced democracies because the necessary conditions exist and have been met for democracy not to limit itself to the institutions of the state, such as checks and balances through a separation of powers.There is an inter-penetration of how these structures and processes interact with the larger society and democracy has been internalised by an informed citizenry.But then if we take a chic reading of the BHL quote one could conclude that our political system, despite the fact that a system of checks and balances exists, has no form of institutionalised fragmentation in a generic sense because the legislature is weakened to counter a strong executive.In addition to that, democracy as a deliberative exercise escapes the larger part of our population, but only exists in its electoral form.We need not look further than the trade unions, intellectuals (with the exception of a few voices) and the churches who have quarantined themselves from a vibrant democratic debate.In its current form and practice, it is not wrong to invent the notion of a vulgarised presidential democracy or an “electocracy” in reference to our political system in light of the excessive concentration of power in the executive and emphasis on elections as a means of democratic expression.The refusal of parliament to play the role of a counter-force is rooted in the absence of democracy as a social state and this goes beyond mere institutional and constitutional arrangements.As such there is an absence of real executive accountability and leaders are outside scrutiny and control of the public.Where leaders sit in the executive, depends largely on where they sit in the party.This is evident when one considers that our ministers don’t even have to worry about being driven out of office for non-performance since no real public demand for excellence exists.It’s where the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas situates the democratic deficit in the sense that those who decide don’t suffer the consequences of their decisions and actions.Since comparison is the life-line of the social sciences, and more specifically political science, it is fitting to compare our system to other models without simplifying, be it the United Kingdom, the United States or France to which Dr Geingob drew parallels with ours and from which Dr Diescho equally drew strength in his argument.In fact, when Alexis de Tocqueville published in 1850 his classic ‘De la democratie en Amerique’ he had the French ancien regime of his time in mind.It is so because no political system sui generis and its force and weaknesses are in opposition to other political systems.This also suggests that there’s no straight-jacket solution when it comes to political systems since democracy is after all a debate about what democracy is.Yet, it is also no reason for a system not to be evaluated and be adapted to changing times.In its ontology, there is nothing wrong with our political system, but the practice would suggest a different picture.Our parliament is weakened by a heavy executive and there are two or more possible interrelated remedies.These could range from shock therapy as proposed by Diescho in the form of cabinet appointments being drawn from outside parliament as is the case in the United States or France.In that sense our system is far away from the French model.In that sense, as a majoritarian democracy, we lean closer to the Westminster system.But then there is a caveat when evoking the language of shock therapy.As Diescho suggests, it is important to take note of the structure of the political system.So, the solution does not necessarily lie as Diescho posited in the president appointing cabinet members at will outside parliament, as is the case in the United States.This would not necessarily increase accountability, because there is political party primacy in both the executive and parliament, and the famous “party line” is eating away the soul of our democracy.Therefore, when evoking the language of change, Diescho ought to look at things through political sociology.That would mean that we need to understand the whole socio-political make up of our system and the primacy of the party over the state.Therefore, the solutions are both political as well as a sociological, and even psychological.On the political side, a decrease in the size of the executive and an increase in the pay-package of MP’s could provide the lifeline to what has become an otherwise, moribund parliament.On the whole, more financial resources should be dedicated to the service of MPs in the form of proper offices, researchers and assistants.The effect of such a multi-layered approach could serve as a catalyst to attracting more skilled and educated Namibians to enter the political scene and this would increase the quality and output of parliament.At present, there is no incentive for skilled and educated Namibians to aspire to become backbenchers.Parliament would become a different place when the public start to look at it differently.To put it honestly, for many of us, parliament is the permit to become a minister and not a parliamentarian per se because of financial concerns.The second aspect is one of social capital theory, an issue neglected in our democracy.We need to develop the social state in the democratic process.The trade unions, the churches, the intellectuals and all forms of organised civil society should play an important role in setting the government agenda.Joe Diescho is acquitted on the second count with regard to governance by advocating the need to scrap the Prime Minister-ship in favour of a vice president.First, this process is manifesting itself malgre lui as a result of the ongoing administrative strengthening of the cabinet secretariat and the presidency.The cabinet secretariat over the past years has been operating within the ambit of the prime minister and the secretary to cabinet, even though accountable to and appointed by the president, reported to the prime minister out of necessity.This justified from an administrative point of view, the raison d’etre of the Prime Minister’s Office and parallels could be drawn here with no.70 Whitehall (Cabinet Office) in the United Kingdom.However, the current transformation process of the cabinet secretariat into a possible fully fledged cabinet office and its future relocation to the new State House will render the prime minister obsolete.The role of the prime minister as a privileged advisor to the president is further watered down by the existence of a minister for presidential affairs, who by virtue of his presence in parliament is already reducing the need for the prime minister as a privileged interlocutor.By implication, the Prime Minister becomes one in name, but simply a de facto Minister of Public Service as is the case in South Africa for example.One of the few ways in which the Office of the Prime Minister and possible our democracy can be saved is by way of a rapprochement with the French semi-presidential system with its dual separation of the positions of head of state and head of government.By virtue of being Head of Government, the French Prime Minister nominates ministers for approval by the head of state and as such executive accountability to parliament is increased by virtue of the Prime Minister’s role in the appointment of cabinet members, the crafting and direction of government policy. In our case, the Prime Minister doesn’t own policy and could be reduced to a cabinet messenger or spokesperson to parliament, since ministers are not obliged to consult him on policy as they are accountable to the President.Again, our system is far away from the French model.The attractiveness of a semi-presidential system is that it avoids concentration and could lead to the consolidation of democracy as a social state in terms of a distribution and a split of roles which fosters interdependence.On the contrary, our thinking about the system perpetuates untouchables in the “presidencies” and to borrow from the American political theorist Kenneth Waltz “only equals negotiate as equals.”The attractiveness of democracy resides in its illusions about liberte and egalite and political interdependence could create a push towards equality.In its current form, our political system, by virtue of power concentration in the “two presidencies” perpetuates that unequal distribution of roles as power is not fragmented across the government organs. Our political inertia manifested by an absence for a democratic push within the political parties and disinterest in the future of our parliament is increasingly asphyxiating our democratic process, and no shock therapy can solve that as Joe Diescho suggested.We need to think anew about civic engagement as Alexis de Tocqueville would postulate.* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari holds a BA in politics and sociology from Unam and an MA in international relations from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.He is currently a doctoral student in political science at the Universite de Paris-Patheon Sorbonne, France.

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