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  • Mike Lyons

ELECTORAL DEMOCRACY and POLITICAL MERITOCRACY – CAN THEY BE EFFECTIVELY COMBINED?





Democracies” come in many shades of grey, from liberal to illiberal, authoritarian to “managed”, and more. Consider the European Union with its 27 member countries.


Conflicting Political Ideologies

This paper explores the proposition of blending Electoral Democracy with Political Meritocracy. Merely because nations pursue differing political systems cannot justify hostility by any one state against another. Nor can such hostility be justified on the grounds of race, history, language, culture, colour, religion, or geography.


A fundamental requirement for membership of the EU is a guarantee of democracy. However, there is a wide variety of political systems among EU nations, including monarchies and republics. Modern monarchies are parliamentary, but amongst the republics, some presidents are elected by direct popular vote, others by the parliament or by a special body. Some have unicameral systems with only a single chamber and others are bicameral with a lower house and an upper house.


According to a 2019, Freedom House report, Hungary is no longer a democracy and Poland is about to go down the same path. Both are members of the EU. Russia considers itself to be a “managed” democracy whereas China, a one-party State, does not pretend to be a democracy (although it experiments extensively with democratic concepts).


Sovereignty requires that every state has the right to determine its own system of government, and that no outside power has the right to impose its views on, or to interfere with those of another state.


Illiberal Actions

Beijing is constantly reminded of the 1989 Tiananmen Square disaster. However, on the thirty-first anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the Washington Post published an article, From Tiananmen Square to Lafayette Square, reporting on how protests had broken out in 380 cities across 50 US states, and that after demonstrations turned violent in Washington, police and military officers used riot shields, batons, and gas to clear protesters.


Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China is the only one that has not fought any foreign wars, away from its borders since World War II. America, Russia, the UK, and France have done so[i].


In The False Promise of Liberal Order by Patrick Porter[ii], he points to many American achievements brought about by illiberal means, including economic coercion and wars. Madeleine Albright proclaimed “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” America launched 188 military interventions during the period 1992-2017. The US waged war in Korea (killing 1 million Koreans and 400,000 Chinese), and Vietnam (killing about one million combatants and 365,000 civilians), and in the Middle East.


Liberal order has become one of upholding liberal values through armed pacification – permanent war for permanent peace!


Good and Effective Government

Western obsession with ideological differences - liberal democracy versus a one-party state (such as China) distracts from the real issue of providing good and effective government for the people. In his book, The China Model, Daniel A. Bell[iii] analysis the merits and the flaws of both Electoral Democracies and Political Meritocracies and he suggests that democracies can learn from meritocratic practices while meritocracies can learn from democratic practices.


Both Singapore and China are examples of Political Meritocracies


Democracy

In How Democracy Ends, David Runciman[iv] argues that contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy, and frequently ineffectual and he asks, “Why not replace it?” Runciman suggests that pragmatic 21st Century authoritarianism may be an alternative to contemporary democracy. Instead of short-term rewards, it offers long-term benefits. Plato argued that democracy means ruling by the ignorant and putting power in the hands of people who do not know what they are doing.

No rational person would want to be ruled by an incompetent leader lacking a basic understanding of the key issues. It is inconceivable that any society would accept medical treatment from someone with no medical training or take legal advice from a person who knows nothing about the law. Yet, in the most important role of all, the leadership of a nation, most democracies require no qualifications whatever. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of USA, the most advanced, richest, and powerful nation on earth!


Under current US policy, President Trump - like all presidents in the atomic age- has the sole authority to unleash nuclear Armageddon on the world. One might think that the process of running for president of the United States would weed out individuals who are unfit for this awesome responsibility[v]. It does not!


Meritocracy

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since 1965. Its leaders have high levels of education, expertise, and experience. Singapore is not a “true” electoral democracy with free and fair elections. Its rise has been guided by meritocratically selected leaders. Lee Kuan Yew (former Prime Minister and founder of modern-day Singapore) graduated with a double first-class honours degree from Cambridge. His son (the current prime minister) graduated from the same university scoring 12 more alphas than his nearest competitor. Singapore places a high premium on top class education.


China is learning from Singapore. The use of examinations, as a mechanism to search for political talent has deep roots in Chinese culture where aspiring leaders are subject to demanding and competitive examinations. Only a tiny percentage of the very best make it to the top.


The China Model describes the Chinese system as democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle and meritocracy at the top. At village level, committees are elected by the villagers themselves. Some East and South-East Asian nations have opted for a middle way between liberal Western democracy and authoritarian rule, preferring a form of managed democracy.


In his book, When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter, John Keane[vi] reminds the reader that there are approximately 150,000 popular, mostly peaceful protests in China each year. He talks of “post-democracy” in China, freed from the curse of “free and fair” elections and showbiz democracy. He cautions against closed minds, saying that although the Chinese have a one-party political system, they have been experimenting with different forms of democracy “made in China”.


Blending Democracy and Meritocracy

Keane suggests that the China model could turn out to be a better functioning model than those Western democracies which are bogged down in dysfunction, and he asks - “Might this be the future of democracy?”


It is surely possible for Democracy and Meritocracy to be successfully blended. Such a system would require that political leaders must be elected by the people, but that candidates would only be permitted to stand for election if they are suitably qualified and have the necessary expertise and experience to lead. There can be no one size fits all. A diversity of education (which might include history, science, law, economics, agriculture, foreign affairs, diplomacy, or medicine), talent and experience is required.


China has seen the single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in human history. Nevertheless, it is likely that, as wealth increases and Chinese living standards improve, there will be increased demands for greater freedom of speech and voter participation.


If the election of well educated, trained, and experienced leaders can be achieved in the democratic West, the risk of incompetent leadership will be minimised. As China evolves towards greater freedoms and political participation, it is likely to become more democratic.

A convergence of East and the West towards something akin to John Keane’s “post-democracy” might bring a much-improved world order, and a safer planet.

[i] Kishore Mahbubani former Singapore Ambassador to UN. His book- Has China Won? [ii] Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at University of Birmingham, UK [iii] Bell was born in Montreal, educated at McGill and Oxford Universities. Currently Dean of School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University, and Professor at Tsinghua University [iv] Runciman is Professor at Cambridge University, teaching politics and history. [v] The Button 2020, by WJ Perry and TZ Collina [vi] Keane is Professor of Politics at Sydney University

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