Define democracy. The exercise is harder than it sounds and, judging by the recent unrest in Ukraine, Venezuela and Turkey, some world leaders need a refresher.
Unlike the regimes toppled during the Arab Spring, the governments of these countries were democratically elected – a fact those in power have repeatedly stressed to the crowds of protesters challenging them these past months. I was voted in, the argument goes, and you have no right to complain. For this humble commentator, that reasoning is as weak as those making it.
President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, for instance, boasts about his country’s “democratic freedoms” on a regular basis. Just days after the start of the ongoing demonstrations against his administration, he told a rally of oil-sector workers: “We just had elections eight weeks ago… I ask the whole world, where else have there been 19 elections in the last 15 years?”
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced those demonstrating against him as “fakers,” who “have nothing to do with being democrats” and are seeking to disrupt the upcoming local elections. Before his ousting, Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych had pushed an “anti-terror” operation against the Maidan protesters, with the deadly results we are all sadly familiar with.
Let’s be clear: all three situations are different. But one common thread is the misconception that a democratic election gives free rein to the winner for the duration of his term.
Not only is this idea simplistic, it’s plain wrong. Democracy goes beyond the polls. It’s about good governance and public administration. It requires a separation of powers, accountability and freedom of the press – incidentally, all values that have been undermined by the governments mentioned above. In Caracas, Kiev and Istanbul, people have been protesting against corruption, mismanagement and economic sclerosis. They’ve been trying to hold their elected leaders accountable.
A democratic response would be to try to find common ground – to compromise. Instead, Yanukovych, Maduro and Erdogan have all encouraged a crackdown on demonstrators over the past months. They never wanted a dialogue. They felt entitled by the polls. What they’ve failed to see, though, is that being a democratic leader doesn’t give you rights: it gives you responsibilities. A government by the people is for the people, too.
While mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan once attempted to define democracy: “It’s like a streetcar,” he said. “When you come to your stop, you get off.” For those who forget their electoral duties, the stop may come sooner than expected.
Daphnée Denis is an associate producer for Monocle 24.