Democracy today is in crisis. We need a radical new approach that is truly representative if the developing world is ever to have a proper say in global government, argues Saif Al Islam Al Qadhafi

Government by the people and for the people remains a widely accepted definition of democracy. But it is an ideal all too lacking today. The ancient Athenian ideal of democracy is largely unrealised. It was Cleisthenes who, in the 6th century BC, advanced the idea of a general congress for all citizens of the state. His government, whose objectives are mirrored today in Libya, is still regarded as the best example of direct and comprehensive democracy: all of Athens’ citizens participated in decision-making.

Yet today democracies are in crisis. Most have deviated from Cleisthenes’ teachings. At best, they embody elitist systems where the majority is represented by parliamentarians and where actions are often not representative of the opinions of the people, but those of the few.

We firmly believe that no one can represent people’s interests better than the people themselves. Citizens understand their own concerns and interests best. In a representative democracy, this aspect of “government by the people” can be lost as decisions are reached through so many compromises that the original purpose is generally missed altogether.

By contrast, direct democracy reinforces the idea of “government by the people”. Underlying direct democracy are rules that govern society, and it is sustainable because all members abide by these since it is in their interest to do so and because they are, by and large, rational.

The Middle East and North Africa is a region of great diversity, where many religions and ethnicities are interlaced. Arabs, Persians and Muslims (Sunni and Shiite) often live side by side in one country. But the approach to governance across the region often fails to meet the needs of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. Just look at the Berber uprising in Algeria, or the plight of black Africans in the Sudan, or the Kurds in Iraq.

This problem is often aggravated by hereditary leaderships, which inevitably undermine the fragile political tissue. History is rich with evidence of societies crumbling at the hands of inappropriate (inherited) leadership.

Democracy is about more than just elections. It is also about decision-making and the legitimacy of the ruling government. But if citizens are not fully represented in the ruling body, the government cannot be fully endorsed. This not only jeopardizes society but also undermines it as a viable cooperative venture. In our opinion the current crisis of democracy boils down to the worldwide lack of trust in ruling bodies, and their standards of legitimacy. This is apparent, for example, in low voter turn-out in both developing and developed countries.

Political dissatisfaction is an international phenomenon of surprising proportions. For example, more than half of Europeans are dissatisfied with their national democracy or the European Union democratic system (see chart).

Moreover, there is a strong push for electoral reform in Italy, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. But addressing electoral procedures deals only with the symptoms of political dissatisfaction, not the causes.

In general, the problem is lack of electoral participation. Citizens’ input in traditional representative democracies is limited to a few votes over several years. In contrast, the push for direct democracy seeks to engage citizens in a broader sense in social and political issues.

Global problem, cosmopolitan solution

It is crucial, however, to recognize that democracy now has a global dimension. Because the world is so interdependent, the lives of many people can be affected by the decisions of institutions. So to build a truly global democracy we need to look at factors – as well as institutions – that can properly address this global aspect.

The cosmopolitan approach to democracy is one such approach to dealing with our global interconnectedness. Proposed by David Held of the London School of Economics, it suggests that international organizations, as opposed to sovereign states, should lead the way to a more global form of participatory democracy. The idea is to develop practical solutions to such social problems as racial, religious and ethnic differences. This is the so-called cosmopolitan aspect.

The European Union, North American Free Trade Agreement and the African Union are obvious examples of interdependence between states. As the global economy becomes more interdependent, it also leads to a profusion of mass media, and individuals inevitably begin to look beyond the boundaries of their own states. The fact is that in this world, sovereignty is becoming less important. At the same time, international institutions are becoming more prevalent. This encourages a move away from traditional sovereign democracy and towards a global cosmopolitan democracy.

Cosmopolitan democracy is underpinned by distributive justice. It aims to legitimize global governance and the world order, while de-emphasizing the nation-state.

The cosmopolitan approach means that political life will have a global and a local aspect. In this sense, it becomes “double-democratized,” as Held puts it. Democracy will be enhanced within states and within international organizations because it is extended to the public realm, through civil society and its representatives, between and across states. In this model, transnational democracy and territorial democracy reinforce each other; they are not conflicting principles of political rule.

Radical approach

We need a fresh and radical approach to alleviate some of the pressing problems of global governance. My particular concern is to propose a mechanism that allows for all the relevant players to participate in global governance.

Held advocates collective management, incorporating NGOs in decision-making, alongside states and the private sector. Among other things, this would eradicate the unholy marriage of political and corporate corruption. The cosmopolitan approach is an aspect of global direct democracy. At the global level, cosmopolitan democracy can be applied to states. It promotes democracy at three different levels – democracy inside nations, democracy among states and global democracy, according to Held. The model accommodates different cultures, societies and states. However, for sovereign states, direct democracy is the best approach to promoting democracy in a single sovereign country.

The first step in allowing developing and underdeveloped countries to join this cosmopolitan society is to let civil society institutions participate in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). In this way, democracy would be built from the bottom up. This would also let these countries participate in global democracy.

The role of NGOs and private institutions is crucial: they would allow the people, particularly in the south, to have a voice that balances governmental representation. NGOs would become the voice of the voiceless. This process would start by civil society institutions acquiring a role equal to market and governmental institutions in setting global norms and codes that govern all states. These rules and norms would have a legitimacy recognized not just by the governments but also by their constituents.

The question of legitimacy, however, is at issue – from the point of view of governments themselves, and from that of the people. This is what I call the double-aspect problem. These perspectives are often at odds because of the undemocratic, unrepresentative and sometimes despotic nature of some states. The result is that in some countries of the south, both the people and states disregard IGOs’ claims to legitimacy. On the one hand, although the governments and states of the south are represented in global governance institutions, many of these states (so-called rogue states) defy international law and the rules of the IGOs because – they claim – the IGOs do not represent their interests and are dominated by the north.

Doubts about legitimacy

On the other hand, many in the south do not accept the IGOs’ claims to legitimacy. First, they believe they are not represented in the decision-making processes of the international institutions, even if their states are in some capacity, because their governments are mostly undemocratic and do not represent the people’s real interests. Second, they believe that most IGOs are controlled by the states and multinationals of the north, which serve their own interests to the detriment of the south.

But we must also propose reforms beyond the cosmopolitan approach. We propose a bicameral general assembly (that is, one for governmental representatives and one for people’s representatives), directly elected by the people. Furthermore, the United Nations Security Council should be reformed, to include developing countries such as India, Nigeria and Brazil as permanent members. We also propose a global constitution, rectifiable by referendums, as a necessary part of the solution.

Education is the last, vital ingredient. Global government should use education to implement and spread democracy by providing guidance for the educational systems of participating nations. These sovereign countries, we maintain, should include topics such as public choice and constitutional democracy as part of their curricula as early as the secondary school level.

This year, for the first time in its modern history, Libya held a semi-independent and fair election for the regional government. This process produced a set of highly qualified governors who are able to implement the recently proposed economic master plan. This plan is designed to cover all sectors of the Libyan economy. Its primary objective is to increase the standard of living of all Libyans, not just the few.

In another move to enhance Libya’s current direct democracy, a taskforce was recently set up to develop and implement e-democracy.

All three approaches – the cosmopolitan approach, attention to the double-aspect problem and global democracy – are necessary steps to encouraging democracy and sustainable development in the developing world. They are also crucial in the battle against poverty, terrorism and illegal immigration.

As long as developing and underdeveloped countries fail to push for development and democracy, they will continue to export terrorism and illegal immigrants instead of exporting goods, agricultural products and technology.

Our approach is only a step towards democracy – democracy is an endless journey.

We hope that in the future “government by the people and for the people” will no longer be seen as a description of some ancient and long-forgotten system. Democracy must grow to become a living reality throughout the world if it is to survive.

Saif Al Islam Al Qadhafi
Saif Al Islam Al Qadhafi is president of the Gaddafi International Foundation For Charity Associations, www.gaddaficharity.org.