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On Democracy (I)

By Guenther Baechler
Wednesday, June 13
Today, The Messenger begins a series of essays written by members of the international community and diplomatic corps.They aim to provide unique and informed perspectives on contemporary political issues relevant to Georgia.

Dr. Guenther Baechler, PhD in political science and Swiss Ambassador to Georgia, begins our series with a discussion of the concept of democracy.

In 2012, Switzerland - and in particular the Republic and Canton of Geneva - celebrate the 300th anniversary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Since he became famous worldwide for his views on “equality”, “freedom” and the “social contract” in a democratic society, I take this as a good opportunity to share with you my own thoughts about democracy. To be clear: I neither talk about a particular model of democracy nor about any particular country. Rather, my series of short essays will discuss democracy as an idea that is to be realized by every citizen each day and all the time.

Wikipedia tells you that “Democracy is an egalitarian form of government in which all the citizens of a nation together determine public policy, the laws and the actions of their state, requiring that all citizens (meeting certain qualifications) have an equal opportunity to express their opinion. In practice, ‘democracy’ is the extent to which a given system approximates this ideal, and a given political system is referred to as 'a democracy' if it allows a certain approximation to ideal democracy.”

Although I agree with the first part of the quote, I am not satisfied with the “approximation approach” that tends to become an endless story in which you never reach the final goal; it is like dying a hundred times of thirst in the desert just before reaching the green and lifesaving oasis. A nightmare! In fact, democracy is not the (wrong) choice between a real and an ideal world. Who would be legitimized to tell you how much democracy is enough for today and that only tomorrow there will be more – maybe?

Important elements of a democracy like freedom of political expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, equality before the law, and free and fair elections cannot be granted, let’s say, up to 50%. There is no such thing like a bit of freedom of expression, a little bit of fairness but not too much, please. Of course, the ensemble of the citizen of a country may change the view about certain elements of democracy. Citizens may decide to deepen the structures and to strengthen the institutions of the democratic state. And they may add a new dimension to democracy – depend¬ing on the social and cultural changes over time.

However, if all the citizens of a state aim to live in a democracy, then democracy starts in the hearts and minds of the citizens themselves. The famous “social contract” of Rousseau is first and foremost a contract of a citizen with him or herself. What does this mean? My explanation is that a citizen in any democracy – that deserves this name – is a “constitutional subject”. As such, he or she participates in a constitutional order which the ensemble of the citizens donated to themselves in order to live and cooperate together in a democratic way. Concretely: such citizen does not use physical (armed) violence against any other citizen; he or she views other citizens as autonomous subjects with individual opinions, values, and rights. Citizens do cooperate and compete with each other in the framework of the constitution and the law. Different opinions, a plurality of viewpoints, freedom of expression may lead to situations where citizens oppose each other – creating different organizations or political parties. However, they don’t see each other as enemies or as hostile animals. Rather, political and moral differences are grounded in the fundamental consent about the democratic constitution of the society; as such, differences, plurality, and alternatives are very much part of a lively, dynamic, and progressing society.

Guenther Baechler, Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi, holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.