Democracy’s difficult days
Democracy for a long time, I feel, did not have to make an argument for why it held legitimacy over other forms of government.
By default, it was adjudged the best form of government. It appeared to enjoy moral superiority over the others. The names used to describe other forms of governments were a clear demonstration that they were not the best or appropriate ways to govern citizens.
However, it appears that over the last few years democracy is being called to task. Democracy is now being asked to defend its legitimacy and moral superiority over others. Democracy is being asked to show a balance sheet wherever it is practised. This is something Giovanni M.
Carbone foresaw back in 2009 when he authored his brilliant piece titled "The Consequences of Democratisation" in the Journal of Democracy. Among the many things he said was this – “A few years down the road, people living in recently-reformed states are likely to begin asking questions about what their new regimes have been able to deliver.”
The case of Ghana
Afrobarometer Round 9, 2022, recorded the lowest level of satisfaction with the way democracy works in Ghana. When asked “Overall, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in [Ghana]? “ only19 per cent said “very satisfied” with another 31 per cent saying “fairly satisfied.” Combined, a total of 51 per cent said they were fairly satisfied or very satisfied with the way democracy works in Ghana. This is how satisfaction with the way democracy works in Ghana has looked over the years of the survey – 63 per cent (1999); 72 per cent (2002); 82 per cent (2005); 83 per cent (2008); 75 per cent (2012); 68 per cent (2014); 80 per cent (2017); and 68 per cent (2019).
The current state of dissatisfaction is a curious one because it is occurring at a time when Ghanaians hold very positive attitudes towards democracy and democratic norms.
Why the high & low periods of satisfaction?
I recently worked on a yet-to-be-delivered presentation titled “Why Are We So Dissatisfied with the Way Democracy Works?” again using data from the Afrobarometer Survey. I divided our satisfaction with the way democracy works into three distinct periods – a) year of highest satisfaction (2008); b) year of double-digit decline compared to the previous survey year (2014 and 2019); and c) year of lowest satisfaction (2022). I explored the following factors to see the extent to which they help explain these three distinct periods – trust in institutions, perceptions of institutional corruption, citizens evaluation of central government performance, the overall governance environment, and evaluation of the fight against corruption.
In the statistical analysis of the data, and I am certain this comes as no surprise, each of these factors had an effect on citizens’ satisfaction with the way democracy works. For example, the more trust citizens express in elected officials, the more satisfied they are with the way democracy works. Another example, the more citizens evaluate central government positively in addressing their needs in education, health, crime, infrastructure, water and sanitation, etc. the more satisfied they are with the way democracy works.
Democracy’s promise to Ghanaians
But even as these factors were shown to chip away at the extent to which citizens feel satisfied with the way democracy works, I asked myself a number of questions earlier this week. What is the promise of democracy? In particular, what does democracy promise Ghanaians? Are we judging democracy on things that democracy does not promise? Should we first agree on what democracy promises?
The reflection was prompted by a public lecture I attended on September 18, 2023. The main speaker was my friend and colleague (he is also a CDD-Ghana Democracy and Development Fellow), Dr Kwame Sarpong Asiedu, who provided answers to the question “1993 to present – has this democracy delivered a health dividend to Ghanaians?” The answer was a categorical no based on a selected number of health outcomes which were quite sobering.
But that is when I began to ask myself all sorts of questions including whether democracy promises the health outcomes against which my friend and colleague was evaluating the performance of our thirty-year-old democracy.
What does democracy promise Ghanaians? It finally occurred to me that our answer can be found in one of the parts of the constitution I find critically important. That is Chapter 6- The Directive Principles of State Policy. The chapter spells out the many things that the framers of our constitution expected The Ghanaian Democratic State to deliver to its citizens.
That is what our democracy promises. And that must regularly be our point of reflection. We must regularly go back to Chapter 6 and ask, "is our democracy living up to its promises?" If not, how can it be made to do so, especially as I regularly argue that we have made our peace with democracy?
The writer is a Democracy and Development Fellow at the Ghana Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD-Ghana).