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Democracy or participation?

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By Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

HOW do you set up a democratic form of government if there has not been any precedent?

What is the starting point if there was no democracy to start with?

There used to be a fake democracy, a regime with all the trimmings of a democracy. There was a Parliament (the parliamentary building of those days still exists, even though a new Parliament is in the process of being built), we had a selection of candidates, we had elections (several times) and finally we had a popular vote (a day when the ballots were cast). Every adult citizen was entitled to vote. He had to prove that he was in fact a bona fide citizen of Zimbabwe.

We had different political parties. It was (and still is) the custom to select the actual candidates for the election from among members of these various parties.

By what criteria were they selected? What qualified them as candidates, and, therefore, as potential members of the future Parliament which would be the legislative arm of the new government?

It is not good enough for some politically-interested citizen to self-appoint as a candidate in the hope that he would be accepted by the majority of the voters. With that hope he puts himself forward as a potential candidate.

He has to belong to a party, and that party has to appoint him as their candidate. If there are different parties, there will be different candidates. These have to be confirmed by a court of law, and then he can be accepted as a candidate by an election for the national Parliament, the presidency, a city council, etc.

This stage of selection of candidates is critical. The voters must not manipulate the selection process at this stage.

Otherwise, just about anybody can have himself appointed candidate for the forthcoming election on whatever level.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, who are ambitious to enter the political arena. Are they qualified?  Are they knowledgeable? What motivation do they have? Are they not just selfish and greedy?

What do we expect of a candidate for public office? What kind of person do we consider trustworthy?

A man (or woman) who wants to get a seat in Parliament, what is the motivation? Is he/she just hoping to find an attractive financial reward or access to an income?

As citizens and members of the voting public, what is our idea of a really good candidate?

Is a relative or a friend or a former colleague, good enough? Maybe we know someone “who is well-connected”, who I am sure, will do me a favour anytime I need a person who knows many people, is financially well equipped, is well-informed about industry, technical progress or is at home in the particular business where he would like to sink roots and earn an easy living?

Would such a person be useful to me and reward me for passing on to him useful information? Would I like a politician who is at home in the murky world of business and making money?

Would such a person benefit our country? Would he benefit me, my family, or our city, village or development of our region or province?

Ideally, we should look for someone who is not just interested in his own progress and prosperity. Not even exclusively in his own party and political and business connections.

Should we look for a person with a vision that would take us out of our own small little corner? Sure, we hope for someone with a wider vision.

Do we have a candidate who has shown us already what he can do? Is our candidate a man or woman who is on the move? Is he or she creative? Do our candidates lead us forward?

Maybe we should observe potential candidates. Are they involved in the life of the community? Do they have new ideas? What do they mean by democracy? Just struggling for a larger part of the cake for themselves and for their friends and colleagues?

Pursuing interests and riding hobbyhorses for their own enjoyment? Or rising to top posts, to become a Member of Parliament, a minister, a Prime Minister or a President?

Just satisfying their own ambition? Is that democracy, always cutting for themselves off the largest slice? We need to observe our politicians: have we only shared with them the sweetest fruitcake? Or do we think of all our fellow citizens?

Democracy may make a few people very rich and selfish.

It is a boring game by now. We have more to do than that. We need to participate and have a part in all our national activities. That is true participation. That is sharing responsibilities, take over initiatives, introducing new inventions.

A leader, who is truly participating in the national life and doing what is needed will not just be shaken up on a bad road and be content with potholes. Such citizens who are wide alert will be aware of such potholed roads that ruin their cars. She will not take potholes for granted and write her car off as irreparable.

That is participating in nation-building, always developing new ideas. It is not enough wanting to build schools and colleges. Participating in the life of the nation, getting engaged in its growth and seeing new ideas bearing fresh fruit — that is something else.

Building new schools and introducing novel ideas, that is giving leadership to a new generation. There are generations of parents and students who have no such ambition. They are content with what they did yesterday and will be doing for a long time to come, always the same and in the same rut. Participation asks more from parents, teachers and students. They take part in building a new country on new foundations.

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