In the Honduran crisis all three sides – the democratic institutions, the deposed president, and the so-called resistance movement – have claimed to be the true defenders of democracy. This text is intended as a common platform for debates on this blog.
Democracy is about taking decisions so that the will of the majority is respected, without disrespecting the rights of the minority. It assumes that an exchange of information can be made in which all relevant arguments may be advanced, so that the most desirable decision can be taken in consideration of all relevant facts.
The basic unit of democracy is the meeting in an organization. It’s pretty self-evident if you think about it. Since democracy is about people deciding things in a group rather than individually, there has to be a meeting in which the decisions are taken. Note, though, that the meeting does not have to be physical. It could also be a virtual meeting, such as in cyberspace. There are, however, some rules that have to be satisfied.
Requirements of a meeting
1. Only one shall talk at a time, and all must be able to hear (or write/read in a chat).
2. There must be a method of delegating the word and calling to order (e.g., chairman).
3. There must be a method of recording decisions (e.g., meeting secretary).
4. It must be defined who are allowed to participate in the meeting (e.g., membership)
5. The minimum number of participants who are required for taking a decision must be defined (e.g., quorum).
6. All members must have a reasonable possibility to attend (the call to meeting should be sent out in time).
7. All must have a chance to know the issues to vote on (an agenda and supporting documents should be available in advance)
Elections are a part of a meeting. It is a form of decision, in which the members decide to confer a special responsibility on a person or persons. It could be to elect the board of the organization, or to elect the president of a country.
The latter is called a national election, which can conceptually be seen as a part of a virtual meeting that also includes the election campaign. Thus, the 7 points listed above apply also to an election process.
The Life of a Democratic Organization
Type of Organization
There are many types of organizations, for instance:
Organization Rules Members 1 Vote per Idealistic org. Statutes Some persons Member Country Constitution All citizens Citizen Corporation Bylaws Shareholders Share
It is easiest to see the principles if looking at an organization created by a limited group of persons for a specific, idealistic purpose. This ‘idealistic organization’ works for a common good of its members. The same applies for a state and a corporation, but they have different purposes; the purpose of a corporation, for instance, being to make a profit on an investment.
The minority rights vary with the organization. In a corporation it is certain rights in relation to the invested capital, while in a country it is human rights.
Certain rules must be defined initially, such as purpose, membership, kinds of meetings, rules of meetings, elected officials, and what responsibility the organization delegates to each of them. The rules should also define if and how the rules can be changed, and if and how the organization can be abolished.
The rules are established in a Constituting Assembly, in which the people organize themselves into an organization, and from the organization’s point of view, it gets constituted.
In practice a group of people decide to create the organization and for that purpose call to a constituting assembly. In an idealistic organization only those present are the original members, but a country is a bit different; the founders will actually enforce their will on the rest of the population, whether the population agrees or not. To overcome this the representatives could be democratically elected, but that, in turn, requires some pre-existing rules. Furthermore, every democracy already have such an elected body, i.e., the parliament, the congress. A constituting assembly is therefore only an emergency measure, a last resort for re-establishing democracy after some crisis.
Changing the Rules
Once the organization has been created, the rules can only be changed by the method(s) given in the rules themselves. Typically they will dictate that they can only be changed by a prescribed process.
Some argue that one could hold a new constituting assembly to change the rules, even if not explicitly allowed. However, if doing that, one would not be changing the rules of an existing organization. One would instead be creating (constitute) an entirely new organization. If the purpose and reach of the new one is the same as the old, one would have to abolish the old one at the same time.
To protect the rule of law, constitutions typically make it forbidden to abolish the constitution, and hard to change it. Furthermore, the punishment for trying to overthrow the constitution, the form of government, will be very high; the crime may be called high treason.
A good constitution will protect itself against being changed by force, e.g. by stating that any change to it made during occupation is invalid.
Idealistic organizations and corporations can be closed and the assets split up, but not countries.
However, the state may go under if defeated in war, occupied, and the legal government ceases to exist; or if subject to an overthrow of the form of government by force (revolution) or surprise (coup); or if society falls apart due to a natural disaster or changing natural conditions. Only if the continuity is broken in one of these ways is a new constituting assembly in order.
Threats to Democracy
Democracy is not without enemies. For instance, it is not democratically acceptable to try to prevent an open and honest debate, or to prevent a vote by sabotaging the debate.
List of threats
1. Overthrowing the form of government (coup, revolution)
2. Disrupting the democratic process
2.1. Preventing the meeting (e.g., terrorism)
2.2. Disturbing the meeting (e.g., shouts and threats)
2.3. Preventing a decision (any decision) by perpetuating the debate
3. Distorting facts (e.g., media propaganda)
4. Distorting logic (i.e., using irrelevant arguments)
All of these threaten the purpose of democracy as stated earlier, but not all are illegal in all cases. Point 2.3 is for instance legal in the U.S. Senate, where it is called a “filibuster”.
Points 3 and 4 are always legal, and there is no acceptable way of making them illegal. Thus, it is up to the participants in democracy to evaluate facts and logic, and only to accept relevant arguments.
To change the constitution in a way not allowed by the constitution would be a violation of point 1. Attempting that is what got Manuel Zelaya deposed in Honduras.
Of course people, like the resistance movement, are free to argue for the overthrowing of the form of government, but they cannot call that to defend democracy without me calling them out on it.