While exploring what democracy might eventually look like for the people of the Middle East, I was surprised to discover that we have significant democratic deficits right here in Quebec and Canada.
Recent commentary on the Middle East has focused on the more obvious aspects of democracy — the need to include all parties in fair elections, and so on. However, a wider range of democratic concepts need to be considered.
Rick Salutin of the Toronto Star raised a good point recently when he discussed how elections aren’t sufficient in terms of guaranteeing democratic legitimacy. He noted how pro-coup forces in Egypt charged that the democratically elected Morsi government lacked real democratic legitimacy — while pointing out at the same time that “Canada hasn’t had a federal government elected by a majority of voters since 1984 but they all assume the right to enact anything.”
David Suzuki has also expressed concern about democratic legitimacy, noting that even with elections “we’re witnessing an erosion of democratic principles” in Canada — as with evidence that voters have been misdirected by robocalls to the wrong polling stations.
Here in Quebec, the Parti Québécois government’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values is a threat to core democratic principles. The party only won with 32 per cent of the popular vote in September 2012 — not even one in three voters. Winning a majority in a snap fall election seems to be the PQ’s primary motivation for the charter, even if it will trample on individual rights and economic equality by putting a Quebecer’s job security in a public-sector job at risk if he or she wears a religious symbol such as a crucifix, kippah, turban or head scarf.
To ensure true democratic legitimacy, governments need to respect seven “mediating values” outlined by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance: participation, authorization through free and fair electoral choice, representation, accountability, transparency, responsiveness to public needs and solidarity. In terms of local solidarity, the challenge is to engage with people who differ from members of one’s own group in a spirit of respect in order to reach consensus and unity. Supporting democracy abroad is the international aspect of solidarity.
In Quebec and Canada, I think we need to ask ourselves whether the first-past-the post, winner-take-all electoral system is serving us well. It might not, in fact, be a good model for other societies, such as some in the Middle East, where internal divisions are deeply ingrained. Accountability and transparency have declined with our first-past-the-post system. We need more responsiveness to the broader public’s needs, and less to a party’s ideological whims.
As Quebecers, we need to express much more solidarity with those who differ from ourselves, or hold different views on major issues. Stoking social tensions for potential political gain is the wrong way to go for Quebec.
And on a national level, the federal government needs to demonstrate more consistency in expressing Canadians’ solidarity with popular struggles for democracy abroad. All Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, could benefit from a more thoughtful application of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s “mediating values.”
By enhancing our own democracy here in Quebec and Canada, we can become stronger role models for the peoples of the Middle East who have embarked on their own renewed quests for democracy.
Published in the Montreal Gazette on October 9, 2013. Opinions expressed by Rula Odeh are his own.