About the author:
Gulshan Bibi, Ph.D. candidate, School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University, TI Youth Observer
A principal claim of democratic theory is that democracy makes governments responsive to the preferences of the people. Elections are considered the cornerstone of democracy and taking part in decision making is a constitutional right of the people. Moreover, leadership in democracies is generally considered an important means by which collective action problems are overcome by the countries. People are told during every election campaign that their votes matter and casting their ballot could make a real difference. Hence, people believe that their right to vote enables them to participate in decisions that affect their lives and those of people across the country and around the world. People also get convinced that as a result of elections, they will get fresh blood and see new folks coming into power.
However, the leadership change in recent years has become more of musical chairs for those who desire power. The trust that the public put in the politicians eventually diminishes in power and privilege for politicians. It has been observed that once in power, the politicians forget the mass and their problems. As a result, people started believing that their votes were not counted and their voices were ignored. Eventually, it has made citizens lose interest in voting process and challenge the legitimacy of the outcome of elections. For example, the flaws in the American electoral process have become increasingly apparent in recent years and the public trust in both the elections and the federal government has declined. A few years ago, the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) was established as an independent research project based at Harvard and Sydney universities to assess the quality of elections around the world. The results showed that experts rated American elections as the worst among all Western democracies, which further weakened public confidence in political parties, Congress, and the US government, depressed voter turnout, and exacerbated the risk of mass protests.
Globally, the possibility of political engineering crafting the institutional rules of the game to achieve certain political objectives has become an increasingly attractive option for influencing the development of the political system in democracies. Election engineering and political dominance of political entities instead of objectively handling the issues have become a new normal. Some political engineering strategies focus on the creative manipulation of electoral systems to achieve certain aims. Central to any democracy is the notion of aiding by the results of the election and an orderly transition of power. However, some institutions of government can be purposively engineered so as to reward particular types of behavior and thus achieve particular outcomes. Voting, since last decade, has merely become a symbolic practice. For example, Donald Trump’s attempts to subvert the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power illustrate the risks associated with populist leaders, who undermine the norms and institutions on which liberal democracy depends. The elections in the second decade of this century also reflected a stark contrast in political sphere of globalization versus populist and nationalistic leanings. The environment favored populist candidates and at the beginning of 2021, there were 17 populists in power. However, equally important has been the decline of the populists during the last two years. In fact, US institutions were strong and held up against Trump’s attempts to subvert them. But other leaders in countries with weak democracies have already molded electoral institutions to favor them and they might be much more successful than Donald Trump was. It is feared that in the coming years, these leaders will be more able to rig electoral institutions in their favor.
Musical chairs are an apt metaphor for politics acted out in many democratic states where there is a fight to take over after the previous politician has completed his tenure or is removed. In a musical chairs game, the winner is always one single person seated in one chair, and the others are losers. Likewise, somebody is always left out in the political game of elections. After each political contest, there is a little less democracy to save and the ground for political musical chairs is generally prepared with political parties sparing no efforts to claim their due share of power. There are many democracies around the globe where public interests are put on sale for political interests. This ground is not for right and wrong or good and evil. It is only for power and the rotation of power goes on among the elite. The professed public support serves as a buffer to safeguard their government and political future. The shocking thing is that too many voters fall for it.
Lately, there has been a list of general elections and leadership changes around the world in democratic politics. Mr. Rishi Sunak became the PM of the UK, Lula da Silva was elected the next President of Brazil, Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni formed a new government, and Denmark’s center-left coalition won election majority. The 2022 Sri Lankan presidential election was held in July, following the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The 2022 US midterm elections were also held on November 8. The results will determine the 118th Congress. Simultaneously, elections are underway in other parts of the Global South. But, as the democratic election cycles continue, people are more divided than ever, ideologically, politically, economically and socially. In most of these countries, new or previous leaders with small majorities confront the same political, economic and social issues as their predecessors.
For world leaders, the year 2020 was full of challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic, educational and national security issues. Climate change became another more acute crisis with a record number of natural disasters, including fires, hurricanes and droughts. Many of these challenges persisted in 2021 and 2022. Today, the world even faces more challenges than ever. Politically, the world is now more divided than united. Economically, there are clear gaps between the rich and the poor. Ideologically, faiths and beliefs are being manipulated. Additionally, the world’s most urgent challenges are climate change, poverty, migration, chronic diseases, illiteracy, plastic waste in the oceans, and much more. The public and entrepreneurs are looking to their government leaders to help them navigate and emerge stronger from these large-scale, complex problems. Many stakeholders are aware of the fact that things cannot be as normal as they were in 2019. Thinking ahead of 2022, people want a better future. Even though the challenges most of the governments face today are universal, how new leaders go about tackling them or how leadership change facilitates the changes needed might vary significantly. It totally depends on government structures and ideologies.
Do the elections and change in leadership improve a state’s performance to deal better with the emerging domestic and global issues is a million-dollar question. Unfortunately, most of the well-intentioned global partnerships to counter these challenges are expected to quietly fail. The idea of a new generation of leadership is at the center of a challenge to elections in many countries and new folks are expected to be the powerhouses for political change, but they themselves have no hopes of taking on that existing gerontocracy. Some simply do not have the policy expertise to take over a different panel. Most governments do not pivot from traditional operating models to employ the agile, whole-of-government approach required for today’s interconnected, rapidly evolving agenda. Ministries and agencies must work together. The current crisis has also highlighted how a lack of clarity about the roles and responsibilities of national versus subnational governments leaves constituents feeling vulnerable.
So, what is the solution for countries trying to cope with surging domestic and global problems? The first step is to identify specific regions where social or environmental conditions significantly affect people’s lives and a country’s performance. For example, in 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 spotlighted hurdles in almost every element of the healthcare value chain. The second step in this regard is targeted interventions by appointing a team drawn from the leadership of the local units to determine whether the situation is ripe for change by considering the political and economic climate in the region. If the situation seems promising, the team can engage government and private partners to participate in developing a collaborative blueprint for change that defines appropriate roles for each actor to play. The final step is to establish and fund the necessary governance and staffing structure to guide and facilitate the processes. The new leadership in many countries can make the healthcare system more resilient to reduce the impact of future adverse public health events.
The climate crisis also poses a grave challenge. While most of the countries have beat the COVID pandemic, the war against climate change still continues. Though many countries have set ambitious climate agendas, with commitments to creating policies, only a few nations are currently meeting their Paris Agreement targets. For the countries that are not supporting a clean energy agenda, strategies for disaster preparedness and climate adaptation are needed. The new leadership has to show that they are capable of taking bold steps to cut emissions and deliver a sustainable future. For this to happen, leaders need to demonstrate they are serious about raising their levels of ambition and political commitment. Common public also needs to ensure that they are serious about holding their newly elected leaders to account.
Ironically, many world leaders today embrace the doctrines of nationalism and isolationism. They need to acknowledge that effective multilateralism is in their countries’ national interests, regardless of size or power. The internationally agreed mechanisms of dialogue among nations are critical to addressing the complex, multi-faceted challenges the world faces today. The United Nations (UN) has failed to live up to its founding principles because the member states have not lived up to their responsibilities by placing their narrow national interests above common priorities. Despite good intentions by many states, global affairs can be hijacked by domestic politics and perceived national interests can easily trump the larger global good. The UN member states need to recommit to the values and aspirations of the UN Charter, as collective action is the only way to tackle the severe threats facing humanity today like climate change, migration and health crises. These issues demand a collaborative, global approach while other issues like violent extremism, gender and economic inequality, food insecurity and how to adapt to new, disruptive technologies also require a similar approach. The management of millions of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, and meeting the needs of those fleeing conflicts in other parts of the world, need global attention.
Successful collective action is often attributed to effective leadership. Leadership has received increasing attention in evolutionary models of human collective action, but their application to collective action in international politics has been rare. What is profoundly irresponsible for global leaders, however, is that they agree on the challenges facing humanity but do not agree on actions, though they realize that not a single country, however powerful, will be able to meet these global challenges on its own.
Change would not be easy, nor will it happen overnight. But leaders can begin by finding areas of consensus and moving in the direction of progress. Otherwise the public will resist and try to control the politics, as Kofi Annan once rightly said that when leaders fail to lead, the people will lead and make the leaders follow. This may also lead some to argue that other forms of government are more stable and efficient than democracy.
Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.
This article is from the November issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the October issue, please click here:
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