Bad Democracy!

Tom Burgis
24 October 2005

Shame is a powerful thing. The mighty, a breed often given to vanity, denounce the conduct of their opponents as shameful, conferring on themselves an aura of righteousness. Shame is the battering ram of adversarial politics. Indeed, shame is that most ruinous of political weapons: the double-edged battering ram. One look at the current pickle in which Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva finds himself shows us how campaigns for probity can descend into ignominious retreat.

Deploying shame is an effective tactic of those who seek to check the excesses of the mighty. During his spell as UN special representative for children and armed conflict, Olara Otunnu drew up a “list of shame”, a catalogue of the leaders, governments and factions that were enlisting child soldiers or whose military adventures visited suffering upon the unprotected heads of children. Within weeks, Otunnu was fielding calls from some of the planet’s most bloodthirsty warlords begging to be removed from the list.

click here to view opendemocracy's inaugural list of bad democrats and cast your vote today

Thus it is that openDemocracy humbly presents the Bad Democracy Awards. The system – composed by a gaggle of constitutional experts working to exacting deadlines, and not to be revised without the express whim of our editorial staff – works like this:

  • each month, you – as a reader of openDemocracy and (we hope) a supporter of democracy – email your nominations for the month’s worst democrat
  • the nomination can be from any country or institution in the world, as far away or as close to home as you like (our editorial staff are already quaking – why did we publish that Sasha Abramsky article…?)
  • the candidate you propose might be a politician who has abused his mandate, pilfered from the public purse or betrayed public trust; a tyrant who has feasted while his people starve; a corporation, committee, party, army, sect, vicar, imam or mandarin who has undermined democratic governance
  • a shortlist of the six most heinous candidates will then be put to the vote – your vote, that is
  • each monthly victor will be informed of their success and sent an appropriate garland of shame
  • after a year, readers will be invited to crown one of our twelve reprobates Bad Democrat of the Year
  • the possibilities don’t end there: we may even invite the year’s nominees to pick their own choice for Bad Democrats’ Bad Democrat; and if all goes to plan, the whole project will culminate in an annual shindig of staggering gluttony during which the planet’s despots, fiddlers, riggers, rogues, bungsters, grafters and gerrymanderers will be presented with statuettes by – who else? – Imelda Marcos and Henry Kissinger

A declaration of intent

openDemocracy itself, of course, will have to watch its back. We have learned that the National Endowment for Democracy is channelling obscene amounts of cash into the accounts of assorted thugs in the hope of triggering an editorial coup in Clerkenwell, home of lost causes. If it comes to sanctions, we shall be forced to rely on food parcels from readers, for which you will be reimbursed with six postal ballots to the election of your choice.

Happily, we are not at that stage yet. For now, you are asked to do no more than nominate bad democrats over the coming month and vote on the first month’s candidates. (In the interests of transparency, we should declare that this month’s list is the result of a straw poll of openDemocracy’s staff and friends. Allegations of bias or nepotism will be vigorously denied and, if necessary, silenced.)

A parcel of rogues

Before we come to our first haul, a moment’s pause to consider the august company our bad democrats will be keeping.

One of the great conundrums of power is that, generally, the people who want it should be denied it at all costs. The century past saw democracy spread its wings, and saw those wings brutally clipped. There was Idi Amin, who despatched death squads while anointing himself King of Scotland; Augusto Pinochet, who announced that he would save Chilean democracy by bathing it in blood; Richard Nixon and his paranoid bugging of opponents; Hirohito and Hitler, self-styled messiahs and incomparable butchers; Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, enforcers of an incarnadine brand of communism; and the shameless Forbes Burnham of Guyana, who clung to power even after it emerged his support had included thousands of fabricated expatriate voters in England.

More recently, democracy has been violated by those wielding titanic power who never pretended to be elected. The governing family of Wal-Mart has appointed itself keeper of the values of America; the chief executive of Exxon Mobil is referred to in some quarters as “The Emperor”.

2005 has given us a number of spectacular perversions of democracy. On 1 February, King Gyanendra of Nepal declared a state of emergency, afforded himself summary powers of arrest and rounded up 3,000 suspected dissidents. The country’s Maoist insurgency – not a shy bunch themselves – would be crushed, along with almost anyone else not wearing a crown. The gloriously named Royal Commission for Corruption Control would do the dirty work.

Got a suggestion for next month's shortlist? Email [email protected]

Far from the Himalayas, leaders of venerable western democracies have succumbed to similar urges and sat on the rule of law. Tony Blair has rubbished the judiciary and seems prepared to junk habeas corpus at a stroke if it would stop young people wearing hoods.

George Bush, meanwhile, is busy domestically seeking to pack the Supreme Court with ideological and personal soulmates. Abroad, his policy is governed not by the swelling pacifism of the US public but by that most vengeful of national security advisors, God. In July, both were present when the G8 again flexed what must be the least accountable muscles in global politics.

Democrats everywhere were appalled at the arm-twisting and naked fraud that marred elections in Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, and Egypt.

Vote them down!

And so we turn to our inaugural nominees: an ungracious mogul, a diplomatic wrecking ball, a hungry monarch, a bespectacled authoritarian, an eccentric egomaniac, and a megalomaniac bank. If there are two things that Silvio Berlusconi, John Bolton, King Mswati III, Alvaro Uribe, Saparmurat Niyazov and the World Bank have in common, it is an unshakable belief that power is theirs to dispense by right and that pipsqueaks who dare to differ should be steamrollered (literally or otherwise).

We cordially invite you, openDemocracy reader and democracy supporter, to vote for one of them – if they have their way, it may be the only chance you get.

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