Democracy has never been an easy thing. That most British of statesmen Winston Churchill famously called it “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
In its ideal form — with regularly scheduled elections, peaceful transfers of powers, constitutions that are upheld, checks and balances respected — democracy can work quite well. Certainly there are examples still in today’s world. But as shown by events taking place right now in Venezuela, Turkey and even on Churchill’s turf, it can also be a deeply messy affair.
In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro is clinging to power against a groundswell of popular discontent over the country’s imploding economy, high crime rate and what many claim are abuses of power by his “Chavista” government. Perhaps the most glaring example came two weeks ago, when the country’s Supreme Court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, stripped the opposition-controlled legislature of its powers. Opponents accused the government of executing a “self-coup.”
The move was a mistake, and Maduro tried to quickly reverse course. But as Colombia’s El Espectador reports, the damage — to his credibility, and as a major momentum boost for the opposition — was already done. Opponents want Maduro out, and have stepped up their calls for early elections. Massive street demonstrations are set to take place today in the capital, Caracas.
Venezuela has plenty of company around the world in grappling with a democratic dilemma at the moment.
But Maduro — who won the presidency fair and square after his popular predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, died in 2013 — says there’s no reason he should step down prematurely. Indeed it would be undemocratic! From his perspective, it is the opposition trying to orchestrate a coup. And to protect Venezuela’s democracy, he suggested Tuesday night that the speaker of the legislature, Julio Borges, be prosecuted.
He also announced plans to expand the country’s 100,000-strong civilian militia force — armed civilians loyal to the government — by an additional 400,000, and give each person a gun. “Now is not the time to hesitate,” he said.
Venezuela has plenty of company around the world in grappling with a democratic dilemma at the moment. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who faced his own attempted coup last July — has taken advantage of the chaos to rule in large part by decree. Not very democratic. But then, in a bid to expand his powers further, he organized a popular referendum. On Sunday, the Turkish people had their say, voting in favor of Erdogan’s plans to modify the constitution, but only narrowly: 51.4% versus 48.6%. A mandate, perhaps, albeit not a very convincing one.
And then there’s Britain, which had its own game-changing experience last year with a referendum, the famous “Brexit” vote to pull out of the European Union. Now Prime Minister Theresa May has stunned everyone by calling for snap elections in June. Like Erdogan, and unlike Maduro, she believes that popular sentiment is on her side, and is betting that an election can ultimately increase her position of authority. It is a bold but uncertain wager on the will of the people. Winston Churchill would be proud.