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Democracy or Democratic Process without the dividends

Democracy or Democratic Process without the dividends

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Amb. Curtis A. Ward

(04 June 2024) — For a long time, I have exalted Jamaica as an example of democracy that other countries should want to emulate. The Jamaica democratic process, despite its faults, represented a system of government which operates on the presumption that power is vested in the people to choose their leaders and for those chosen to be accountable to the entire nation. It exemplified a form of governance that rejects autocracy and other non-democratic systems of governance. But is it fulfilling our expectations?

Serving Jamaica on the UN Security Council over a period of two years (2000-2001) exposed me to all forms of governance systems. I saw first-hand the absence of democratic processes and institutions resulting in proliferation of intra-state conflicts and denial of basic human and civil rights to hundreds of millions of people all over the world. I saw several countries where democracy and the rule of law had no role in governance. I saw corruption of political leaders and governments destroying entire nations where the people had no recourse, except resort to violence, to end impunity of corrupt leaders.

Compared to those countries and many other so-called democracies, Jamaica, despite a few hiccups, has been a stable and peaceful democracy for over 60 years. My experience in the international space has shown me how difficult it is to maintain democracy as a system of government and to satisfy the people’s expectations. But I would not swap Jamaica’s experiment with democracy, albeit imperfect, with any other. Jamaica’s democracy is a work in progress, and patriotic Jamaicans at home and abroad are obligated to advance, improve, and preserve it.

Advocacy for democracy

My international experience heightened my advocacy for democracy, transparency in government, against corruption and an end to impunity, strict adherence to the rule of law, and my frequent warnings about creeping autocracy and other un-democratic practices in Jamaica and the Caribbean. My rights and freedoms are sacrosanct. My advocacy was further galvanized by the four years of Donald Trump’s autocratic-style leadership and his MAGA movement in America. It is enhanced further by the post-Trump presidency and his campaign to return to the White House as a dictator, and to again be the most powerful man in the world – in control of America’s economic and military global superiority, and chief influencer of U.S. geopolitical and international security interests.

Trump’s presidency emboldened autocratic leaders and created and inspired new autocrats to emerge in many places, including the Americas. Some affected populations are fighting back. Caribbean people at home and abroad must do so too.

But Trump was not and will not be the only threat to democracy. The lack of democracy dividends experienced in most societies evidence how democracy has fallen short of expectations. This failure applies to Jamaica, across the Caribbean and in democracies on every continent. We must do better.

Democracy dividends

Democracy dividends include adherence to the rule of law with access to justice that is equitable and non-discriminatory; enjoyment of the basic freedoms such as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and protest of government actions or inaction; freedom from persecution and a system of inclusiveness in the distribution of state benefits; freedom from all forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, social and economic status; guaranteed protection of human and civil rights, including during conditions of national emergencies; and freedom from want – no one should go hungry. It means access to quality education that allows for social and economic upward mobility for all regardless of societal standing. It guarantees access to quality healthcare for all and not just for the rich. It means state guarantee of citizen safety – freedom from fear.

No country has a perfect record on assuring that the population enjoys all these rights and freedoms to the fullest. Jamaica is no exception, and no Caribbean country has gotten it right. It is most important that the government prioritizes these objectives, focusing on the present and future. In this paradigm, government must reject short-term political expediency and focus on lasting gains for all the people.

There is a presumption that because the process of selecting political leaders by the ballot is democratic the elected members of parliament would be representatives of the people’s interests – chosen by the people, for the people, to serve the people, and accountable to the people between elections. There is always a presumption that a so-called representative government acts to advance the interests of the people and not in their own self-interests. The people’s interest is the fundamental basis on which the representatives were chosen in the first place. The legislative body is called the House of Representatives for a reason. We must recognize that free and fair elections, though of significance in the democratic process, are not the essence of democracy. It is only the first step.

Citizens’ empowerment

When expectations are unmet, the people must have peaceful means of redress. Delaying accountability until the next ballot falls far short of a truly democrat process. The constitution and laws should provide options for the people to act against elected officials, including initiating removal from office, prior to the next election. Individual Jamaican citizens or civil society groups should have legal standing to take independent action against a government, its leaders, and officials to force their compliance with their responsibilities. In the context of Jamaica constitutional reform, untethering from our colonial past and claiming full independence is not exclusively the establishing of republican status and removing the UK Privy Council as our court of last resort. It must include changes empowering the people.

Voter apathy poses one of the greatest threats to democracy. While civil society has a significant role in changing voter apathy, the main political parties must lead this process by building the people’s confidence in their elected representatives.

Constitutional reform rings hollow if our leaders continue to promote political tribalism and the general population remains unperturbed with this blight on our democracy. There is a history of garrison politics driving crime and insecurity. Political representatives of these garrisons do not live among the people they represent, and their lived experiences are divorced from this reality. They live in safe and comfortable environments. They ensure constituents loyalty by patronage politics. Whose interests do they represent?

There is growing disenchantment with politics in Jamaica which has reached crisis stage. This lack of confidence in governance is true at home and in the diaspora. The declining number of people voting is a crisis in our democratic process. To preserve our democracy, we, all of us Jamaicans, should be proactively and persuasively defending democracy and promoting the process. Those challenging the status quo are not political agitators, rogues, or fringe elements. They are patriots.

© Curtis A. Ward

[This article was published in the Jamaica Gleaner on June 02, 2024.]

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About the author

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations with Special Responsibility for Security Council Affairs (1999-2002) serving on the UN Security Council for two years. He served three years as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee. He is an Attorney-at-Law and International Consultant with extensive knowledge and experience in national and international legal and policy frameworks for effective implementation of United Nations (UN) and other international anti-terrorism mandates; the legal and administrative requirements to effectively implement and enforce anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); extensive knowledge of the legal and regulatory requirements for effective implementation and enforcement of United Nations multilateral and U.S.-imposed unilateral sanctions; and the imperatives for Rule of Law and governance. He is a geopolitical and international security analyst, and a human rights, democracy, and anticorruption advocate.

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