Electorates are losing faith in representative democracy

CURRENT versions of democracy are a bit like the computer system DOS in the mid-1980s, when only experts were allowed to operate these machines through cryptic codes. Back then, it felt as if only technocrats could get software to work.

In a few countries, such as Switzerland, democracies look a bit like the early version of Windows: users could navigate through the system, but with limited functionality. Nowadays, open source software is everywhere, with users operating highly complex systems with the click of a mouse. No need for hefty instruction manuals anymore. Software itself is being continuously redesigned by common people around the world, in the most creative collaborative economy of all times.

Yet our democratic systems have not evolved. In many respects, contemporary constitutional democracies are more archaic than democratic governance was in ancient Greece and Rome.

At that time, political systems were mixed: representative institutions operated side-by-side with public deliberation processes. Citizens would gather locally to approve policies or reject laws.

Modern republics, too, allowed direct citizen participation at different levels, at least in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions. Traditional forms of authority across Africa also regarded collective consultations and deliberations as key to good governance. Interestingly, the research I conducted in SA after the first decade of democracy showed invariably that citizens in rural areas consider traditional chiefs more accountable than local councillors. My sense is that this feeling is still widespread today.

Representative democracy seems to have run out steam. Invented to simplify governance and achieve efficiency in policy making, it has become a major hurdle for innovation, at a time in which we desperately need adaptable and flexible political systems. Corruption is rampant, not only in SA. Brazil’s government, led by the African National Congress’s traditional ally, the Workers Party, suffered a blow this month, when the lower house voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.

Across the globe, the Panama Papers have been sending shock waves through political elites, with allegations that leaders in many countries, from Iceland to Britain and Argentina, have set up offshore accounts and companies to dodge their own country’s tax system. In a rising number of nations, “revolving door” effects routinely result in politicians being captured by powerful businesses to promote their interests and skew the market playing field. Rather than being seen as an aberration and a violation of democratic accountability, it is considered perfectly normal for individuals to occupy key positions in government while having connections to private companies.

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