Friday, 28 December 2007

Let's end all political dynasties!

The headline links to a Guardian article speculating on what Benazir Bhutto's sons might do. I hope they read the article and conclude that there are better ways of helping Pakistan than running for office on the strength of a name. (UPDATED I got that wrong - her son is running now.)

Historically, democracy was born out of dissatisfaction with the hereditary principle. Simply because someone was the heir to the family that had once organised a successful coup d'etat was not seen as a good indicator of their ability to rule. Or indeed their "divine right". Most successful democratic states have dispensed with hereditary offices - even Britain has finally got around to reforming the House of Lords, although I think they still have some way to go. (Canada's Senate is not hereditary - but that needs reform even more urgently.)

Yes, I am afraid it does apply to Our Own Dear Queen too, despite the fact that as titular Head of State she has done a Good Job. She still wields influence - and on the whole has been very discreet and sensitive in its use. But still, it is highly offensive to the ideals of liberty and equality that she does so.

What beggars belief is that Americans appear to buy in to the idea that relatives of former presidents are good candidates for office. The present office holder must surely dispel for all time the idea that "political dynasties" have any role in a modern democracy. Does that disqualify Hilary? Well, I don't know that she is running as Mrs Bill - she is her own woman - or at least enough of her own woman to get elected, so we cannot disqualify everyone who just happens to have had a relative in a top job.

Tony Blair did not have the right to pass on his job to his selected candidate - no matter what he promised over the dinner table. Brown is suffering not least because he has no discernible mandate - and seemed reluctant to get one when he could. We want to elect our leaders - and we also want to be able to get rid of them when they do not perform.

The US process for getting rid of a President is now so cumbersome and ineffective it needs to be reformed too. It is ludicrous that a President can be impeached over a tawdry affair with an intern, but not over the "high crimes and misdemeanours" that W - and his VP - have committed.

The idea behind democracy is that we trust the people. What is happening in Pakistan at present is that gangs who want to take control have no intention of trusting anyone. They cannot get a popular mandate but will happily seize power any way that they can. The way that the democratic process in most democracies can be held in abeyance is a warning. People talk about "checks and balances" but what is most noticeable is that the people who depend on them most could not win a popular vote - and most of them are not willing to try. They cannot resist the temptation to meddle with the system to their own advantage as our Premier of BC is currently demonstrating.

What people must learn - over and over again - is that just because someone has a familiar name or looks good on tv does not mean they can be trusted with power. I think the way to do that is to allow for more voting, not less. More direct decision making through referenda, but also more directly elected bodies - at all levels of government - with much shorter terms of office. Voting should not be a rare opportunity but something we get to do all the time. And then perhaps, if practice makes perfect, we might get a bit better at it.

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