The argument, which was most famously advanced by the political scientist Juan Linz, that presidentialism is more prone to executive-legislative deadlocks is by now well established. Deadlocks are bad because they can break down democracy as they did in Latin America.
In fact, when we contemplate on the political events unfolding over the past months, and more dramatically in the past few days, what we see is a textbook diagnosis and explanation of the ‘perils of presidentialism’.
With the parliament delaying crucial legislation such as tax bills which are necessary to ensure distributive social justice (and, of course, urged by the International Monetary Fund); consistently encroaching on the democratic mandate of the president such as messing up the decentralisation policies in president’s manifesto; blocking government administration through unwarranted no-confidence attempts; hampering government’s key policy programme of privatisation and public-private partnerships; and attempting to block a number of state welfare provisions, the country now is in a fierce executive-legislative conflict.
Again, the context for this gridlock is explained in political literature: a minority government, multipartism and poorly disciplined parliamentarians, and dual democratic legitimacy given to the president and the parliament.
Vain actions and reactions
The main recommendations from such comparative politics literature in the face of political impasse – such as shifting to a parliamentary or semi-presidential system and/or changing electoral rules to encourage a two-party system – seem to be difficult if not impossible in the short run.
No person in this country will be more frustrated than President Nasheed when his policy programmes get blocked or hampered. This frustration will be compounded in our competitive political environment, where public expectations are so high, when the country is in an austerity period, and while the imperative for delivery overshoots as the dates when voters can sanction politicians draw close.
As there is no easy mechanism (such as dissolving the parliament) to resolve such conflicts in presidentialism unlike parliamentarianism, the government has resorted to one of the few means left to a president in a deadlock situation.
The president had been resisting calls for arresting culprits responsible for past injustices citing good arguments such as an incompetent judiciary which itself is implicated in sustaining an autocracy. Tuesday’s arrests, however, I believe will only escalate the political rifts.
Gridlocks have often plagued crucial legislation in the US and continue to frustrate even President Obama, who has over 100 job nominations and crucial legislation yet to be even voted in the Congress. What Ted Kennedy called the ‘great unfinished business’ of health care reform – a basic ingredient of social justice – was repeatedly blocked in the US, which had led to thousands of unnecessary deaths in the most opulent nation on earth. In what has been one of the most serious deadlocks, the budget crisis of 1995 forced government agencies to shutdown when Clinton administration was a minority.
The Majlis has no doubt gone against the spirit of the constitution (for instance, delaying or passing legislation with implications for basic social and economic rights while wasting time and public money over petty business), but it is unconvincing to claim they have clearly contravened the letter of it.
It may be true that arresting two opposition MPs is not necessarily unwelcome based on ‘substance’ but was so based on ‘process’. While ‘substance’ does matter, ‘processes’ also matter because they contribute to the hard-won, delicate democratic and liberal legitimacy of the government.
The ‘great game of politics’, therefore, must be by the rules of the game.
Why and way forward?
While well-intended and solid policy programmes of the government are delayed and hampered, the idea I want to float is that a minority government too can mobilise the public sphere, and play the great game of politics within rule of law through deliberative politics.
That is, while deliberative democracy is usually justified on its potential for more just and legitimate policy-making, I want to conjecture that deliberative democracy can also have instrumental benefits for a minority government.
If one looks through all controversial policy changes of the government, one thing is unchanged: there is no effective pre-crisis public communication and deliberations programme.
From decentralisation to the alcohol regulation to Islam/Divehi teaching, and to airport privatisation – which otherwise are all solid and beneficial policies – the government did a miserable public communication and deliberations job, if any. Again, it is a ‘process’ failure that have led to ‘substance’ failures.
The meeting with the business sector stakeholders on airport privatisation, the press conferences, news releases, television programmes, and the photographs of the new airport all came too late and too inadequately. And even when all this came, the government appeared messy and contradictory. There was simply no pre-crisis public communication and deliberation programme in this.
Sceptics would say that this suggestion is utopian and politics is too power-ridden and unalterable to public opinion. I concede to an extent, but, as the most prominent proponent of deliberative democracy, Jürgen Habermas, argues in Popular Sovereignty as Procedure:
“[R]epresentatives normally do not want to expose themselves to the criticism of their voters. After all, voters can sanction their representatives at the next opportunity, but representatives do not have any comparable way of sanctioning voters.”
The wealthy politicians in the parliament can indeed publicly buy parliamentarians, but they too cannot publicly buy public opinion.
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