Across the Aisle: Scepter and crown, must tumble down


A woman takes a picture of a mural of US Presidential candidate Joe Biden in Ballina, west of Ireland. Ballina is the ancestral home of Joe Biden (AP photo)A woman takes a picture of a mural of US Presidential candidate Joe Biden in Ballina, west of Ireland. Ballina is the ancestral home of Joe Biden (AP photo)

How many countries, and their people, can say after an election that they have “rounded the corner”? Rounding the corner is the contribution of President Donald Trump to the English language! In a largely free and fair election held on November 3, 2020, the American people rounded the corner by electing (most likely) Mr Joe Biden as the next President of the United States of America. Despite the abuse and lies unleashed by Mr Trump, he was defeated.

I say the election was ‘largely free and fair’ because there were attempts to de-rail the early voting process; cases where launched to declare that certain kinds of early votes (e.g. drive-in voting) ought not to be counted; courts accepted certain plaints to limit counting; and in a final, desperate move, the Trump Campaign filed suits against three states.

Fulfilling an agenda
The US Presidential and Congressional elections are elections in which the whole world is invested. That is because of the combined financial, military and technological power of the US. The US House of Representatives (435 members) is elected de novo every two years and holds the power of the purse. One-third of the Senate (100 members) is elected every two years and it holds the power to ‘advise and consent’ regarding crucial appointments like Federal Ministers and Supreme Court justices. Therefore, every two years and every four years, the US ship can change course dramatically. Hence, the world-wide interest.

There is no guarantee that President-elect Biden will succeed in fulfilling his agenda. Just consider the crucial issues: the raging pandemic, healthcare and the Affordable Care Act, immigration, racial and gender equality, abortion, growing economic disparities, ties with allies, ties with Russia, trade treaties, protectionism vs global trade, and China’s aggressive expansionism. Nearly one half of the US electorate — going by the popular vote — seems to be on one side of the fence and the other half on the opposite side. Since the Republicans control the Senate and the Democrats control the House, there will be more confrontation between the two sides.

No longer two systems
The cause is the political system. It is frightening that whether a country is liberal or shifts to the right depends on the election to one office. Since 2016, more countries have shifted to the right. Examples in our own neighbourhood are India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines.

The powers of a Prime Minister (under a Parliamentary system) and the powers of a President (under a Presidential system) are like chalk and cheese, but the differences are becoming blurred. Many pieces of common chalk aspire to become vintage cheese. They do so by amending the Constitution, as in Sri Lanka, or vastly empowering the Prime Minister’s Office, as in India. A head of government enjoying the powers of a US President is enormously powerful, including the power to borrow, the power to spend, the power to enter into or withdraw from international treaties, the power to appoint justices and the power to wage war. A Prime Minister in a true parliamentary system, however, is hedged by his Cabinet and shares executive power with key Cabinet ministers. He is, under law, accountable every day to Parliament or Parliamentary committees and every expenditure must be approved by Parliament.

Change by stealth
Unsurprisingly, ambitious Prime Ministers want to be de facto President. If a Prime Minister cannot do so by amending the Constitution, he does it by stealth, the democratic system be damned. If he is also the unchallenged leader of his party, the transition to de facto President will be completed without much protest. The only checks are the size of the Prime Minister’s majority and his own democratic instincts. A very large majority and very weak instincts will propel a Prime Minister to act and wield power like a President.

Unfortunately, sections of the population — the rich elite and the ideologically driven voters — seem to prefer an authoritarian leader rather than the complex checks and balances of a true democracy.

All over the world, with honourable exceptions, the push to absolute power by elected leaders is becoming more pronounced. The conventional institutions and the trappings of a democracy are allowed to remain in place, but they will be hollowed out in diverse ways — by appointing subservient persons to offices, passing weak or restrictive laws, denying funds, bureaucratic hurdles or intimidation. In India, examples of hollowed-out institutions are the Election Commission, the Information Commission, the Finance Commission, and the various National Commissions for human rights, women, children, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, minorities and the press. Legally mandated consultations with the Opposition were reduced to a charade.

In a federal system, centralisation of power is accelarated by denying funds to states/provinces or by passing overriding laws in the national Parliament, the distribution of legislative powers be damned.

Few countries of the world have truly democratic governments. I can count the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland, the countries of the European Union with dishonourable exceptions, and may be a handful of countries elsewhere. The overwhelming number of so-called democratic countries is not democratic in the spirit in which the oldest democracy was conceived including, ironically, the oldest democracy itself! However,
before we point a finger at other countries, it is time for the largest democracy to re-examine its own democratic credentials.

Website: pchidambaram.in
Twitter @Pchidambaram_IN

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