Friday, February 12, 2010

Vox Populi, Vox Dei? Democracy Must Accept Constraints on People Power

I don’t see the point of organizing large and noisy public demonstrations over, for instance, the Bank Century case or, for that matter, the general performance of the administration.

This is not to question the right of people to demonstrate; a democratic system like ours protects freedom of expression.

But I do wonder: What is the practicality of it? A thoughtful debate at a convenient time and place, with the media in attendance, would probably be more useful and more interesting. Why bus crowds of people to some conspicuous spot in the city, slow traffic to a crawl and then shout slogans spiced with insults? Why go to the expense and trouble? What’s the big idea behind the attempt at creating the illusion of large numbers?

Something is being dramatized in these demonstrations. Each has its message on some issue of the day, but the medium — the demonstration itself — is also a message: We are many! We are loud! We are the people! Our collective voice is the voice of God!
Vox populi, vox dei. In a democracy, we the people are supreme.

What’s wrong with that? It seems to me that this is a fantasy that humankind has been living with for a long, long time: that the voice of the people is the voice of God and it is expressed politically in the democratic system as the decision of the majority. There is no denying that at various junctures in history, the dogma of majority rule proved useful in banishing kings, emperors, dictators and all sorts of oligarchs.

This dogma is based on the argument that all men are equal in the eyes of God and man, and if one man is worth as much as another, then no single man and no single group of less than half of the population can rule over a country. Only the 51 percent can rule because 51 percent or more represents the greatest accumulation of individual human worth in a nation or society.

But this dogma, which has been useful in obliterating tyrannies by minorities, has also created its own tyrannies. In fact, in many cases, democracy is hell for minorities. The simple transfer of power from a monarch to the people does not guarantee that there will be a wise and just government.

Take the case of Indonesia. If by some morbid miracle the officials in the present government were to be replaced by the street demonstrators, is there any reason to expect they would form a wiser, more effective, more efficient or more honest government? Very likely it would be much worse.

The bottom line is that if democracy were nothing more than majority rule, it would not be much of an improvement over other forms of government. Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. In other words, if we happen to live in a democracy, let us live with its imperfections, its evils and its tyrannies.

To my mind, that is not much of an argument for democracy. Nonetheless, I staunchly believe a strong case can be made for democracy — but only if we move beyond its literal meaning — “demos,” referring to the people, and “kratia,” signifying authority or power. We have to replace this simplistic meaning with an idea of democracy that is invested with common sense and the collective wisdom born of human experience in governance over the centuries.

A democracy can and will work if the people are governed by their own representatives on the basis of their consent (hence, the need for honest elections) in a regime of freedom and human rights and obligations. This means a democracy that is also a government of laws, where there is a higher law than the simple will of the people.

The legal tradition of most countries today can be traced back to the first Roman Republic more than two millennia ago — so that when a government of our time claims to be a republic, what it is saying is that it is a government of laws and not of men. Apart from a body of laws that govern the activities of citizens, societies have also felt the need for a set of fundamental laws that guarantee the rights of its citizens; rights that are inherent to their humanity. That is the constitution.

The constitution establishes the limits of what the government can do to its citizens: It cannot deprive them of their right to freedom of expression, their right of association and their right to due process. It also establishes the limits of what the majority can do to the minority. The Muslim majority in Indonesia, for example, cannot be allowed to impose their beliefs on the Catholics or, for that matter, the members of the Ahmadiyah sect. Not if our democracy happens to also be a constitutional republic that is true to its name.

The rights guaranteed by the constitution, however, are not absolute. You are free to move any part of your body any way you want, provided your fist does not get in the way of your neighbor’s nose. The limits to that freedom of movement are established by the location of the other person’s nose. Freedom of expression does not entitle a prankster to shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Nor does it exempt you from the laws on libel, slander and subversion.

When demonstrators bring a water buffalo with them into a public park, they can make the claim that the presence of the animal in their midst is a form of expression. But if the police authorities deem its presence a threat to human life and limb and an intrusion on public order, then it is within their authority to remove it. The police may even prevail on the demonstrators to remove themselves from the area in the name of public order. As to the burning and trampling of the flag, I think that police power can be summoned in those cases to defend public order, even if in some societies, like the United States, such actions are protected as forms of free expression.

What the police cannot do is to stop the demonstrators from using words — written or represented in graphics, spoken (shouted) or electronically broadcast — to make comparisons between the poor animal and the public official who is the target of their venom, even if he happens to be the president of Indonesia.

And there should be no prior restraints on the use of words. No man can be prevented from speaking libel, but he should be held responsible for whatever libel he has spoken Thus the demonstrators should still be careful that in freely expressing their displeasure and their harsh opinions about the president, they do not make false claims or accusations about wrongdoing. Even when only words are being used against a person, there are limits.

Limits are the very stuff of a real democracy — a representative, constitutional republican democracy. Even in the structure of a democratic government there must be checks and balances among its three main limbs: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.

No one among them can usurp the exclusive powers of any of the others. On the day the executive assumes the power to make laws or to interpret them, on that day democracy dies. Indonesia itself witnessed this not many years ago. Democracy is not a happy-go-lucky breaking of handcuffs. It is neither party nor picnicnor feast. It is serious business. It is about obligations to others. It is about authority and its limits. It is about rights and freedoms and their limits.

And vox populi is not vox dei. Democracy is not people power. Democracy is the social discipline that makes freedom meaningful and a true blessing: “the wise restraints that make men free.” By Wim Tangkilisan president and editor in chief of the Jakarta Globe.

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