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FORUM OF DEMOCRATIC LEADERS IN THE ASIA PACIFIC
"Democracy in the 21st Century"
3 November 1996
New Zealand National Party
It is a special pleasure and honour to be participating in this Conference
with so many distinguished politicians and scholars. The topic is a great
challenge because politicians often have difficulty forecasting what will
happen next week let alone political conditions in the next century.
This point has a special poignancy for me because we have just held a
General Election in New Zealand and while my party has won the largest
numbers of seats, we now have to negotiate with other parties to form a
coalition. The outcome is quite uncertain.
I will speak from my New Zealand perspective and this will include the
universal truths about democracy and its development.
Meeting in Manila is especially meaningful as it was here on the 25th
February 1986 that the people moved the Philippines from dictatorship onto
the road to democracy. The long darkness since martial law was declared in
1972 was over. The Philippines has demonstrated one of the universal truths
about democracy - that it is a natural state aspired to by all people
regardless of their geography. Whether America, Europe or Asia, the
fundamentals are the same. People seek a freedom from oppression, the
protection of basic human rights and the opportunity to improve their
positions in life. Democracy allows people participation, for these
fundamentals to operate.
But democracy is also a fragile state and depends on a number of conitions
being maintained. The stability of democracy depends upon:
- an acceptable level of economic activity delivering benefits for most people;
- on the maintainance of a fair electoral system, preferably one that
provides for universal franchise of the people;
- an effective opposition and a free press so that there is open debate
about competing ideas amongst an informed public;
- most of all it needs respect for and application of the Rule of Law -- with
Constitutional safeguards about the roles of leaders and the armed forces.
Constant striving for these conditions is the goal of all democrats.
The 20th century has witnessed the great combat between totalitarianism and
democracy. It would be easy, at the end of this century to applaud a
democratic victory. It would be easy to go about the progress for democracy
in South Korea, Taiwan, Eastern Europe, in South and Central America - but
in my view, democrats need to be cautious because threats to democracy,
especially in traditional western examples are growing stronger.
Even New Zealand, which is one of only six or seven nations with a cotinuous
democratic tradition longer than 100 years, and was the first country in the
world to extend the vote to all women, is xperiencing threats. These
threats come in many forms.
(a) There is voter cynicism about politicians and what they do and are
capable of doing. This opens the door to populist demagigues. Also cynicism
creates indifference, which leads to low voter participation. I am alarmed
at the low voter turnout in the USA for instance. In New Zealand it is
compulsary to enroll, but voting is voluntary. Even so, we had an 85%
turnout at the election three weeks ago.
(b) Money politics and the corruption that develops is a widespread
worry. In Japan it was one of the stated reasons for changing their
electoral system last year. In the USA they are being warned about foreign
businesses seeking influence in contract decisions. There is a large
challenge world-wide to keep corruption out of democracy.
The temptation for businesses and politicians is enormous,
insidious and potentially destructive. It can be another reason for
demagogues to secure power and destroy democracy. This is an issue
requiring constant vigilance.
(c) A feature of the 20th century which is unlikely to diminish in the 21st
century is the power of zeolotry whether for nationalistic, religious or
other reasons. The religious influences are currently very strong and the
force of certain beliefs and the urge to impose them on others, is a
continuing concern. (Extreemists - like Islamic Fundamentalists and racial
reasons behind the Fiji coup)
(d) Because democracy is linked to human rights and economic freedom,
a poorly performing economy can be used as a reason to over-ride democracy.
Again as this century ends the success of market led economies is now more
obvious and hopefully this will launch us all into a sound economic
foundation for the 21st century.
I do not intend in outlining these threats to be pessimistic about the
future. If we are aware of threats, we should be able to do something about
For instance public disillusionment with politicians can be countered by
restoring trust between the governi-nent and the governed. In particular
this requires public recognition of the practical limitations under which
governments operate. Politicians must be prepared to tell the voters the
truth even if it is unpalatable. In New Zealand as a response to public
concern about representation we changed our election system from the British
First Past the Post to the German Mixed Member Proportional. This gives
voice to small parties, and most votes count, but we are now going through a
difficult settling-in period.
Democracies have to be constantly vigilant about the adequacy of their
systems, about voting, about the extent of public participation and about
the amount of information available to the public on political issues. This
does seem to be happening. For instance Italy recently altered its
propotional voting system, Taiwan is currently reviewing its voting system
and considering the two vote German model.
Another important feature that protects democracy is a free press. The
ability of media to fearlessly report the proceedings of politics and
question the issues and practices of a government is an essential part of a
healthy democracy. With this exposure there is great sense of participation
and accountability to the people. It seems to me that increasing media
sophistication and technological advances will ensure that this role will
improve rather than diminish.
Improved technology may develop another feature in democracy and improve
citizens' ability to influence political decision making. Political
referenda are used in many democracies, perhaps to the greatest degree in
Switzerland and in the USA and now in New Zealand, We can have Citizen
Initiated Referendums on any subject so long as the proponents secure
signatures of 10% of the electorate demanding that referendum be held. This
is a form of direct democracy.
Another factor that will increasingly influence Governments in the 21st
century is globalization of economies. there is increasing interdependence
now as trade growth is recognized as a pathway to greater prosperity. The
acceptance of free trade as an objective is a maior breakthrough late in the
20th century. I believe the impetus to implement the WTO proposals and to
improve them, will open up countries and make them responsive to world
trends, which include democratization for the benefit of citizens. The
forthcoming Manila APEC meeting is an important regional exercise which
emphasizes interdependence and the opening up of economies.
I am optimistic about the prospects for expanding and strengthening
democracy in the next century. It is important to be aware of the
challenges, to face them and overcome them.
Democracy will continue to expand because it represents a universal
expression, of individual freedom, of an ability to state a point of view.
Democracy can be seen as a natural state with examples from earliest
recorded history. As a natural state, an increasingly educated and
competent world will require democracy to be practiced throughout the world.
Democracy has been operating, tested and suppressed throughout history - It
is the great survivor and it continues and is strengthening. That should
give us confidence for Its success in the 21st century. It is the
commitment of people represented here - the sacrifices, the understanding,
the sheer doggedness that will ensure democracy succeeds. I extend my best
wishe ceedings and for positive outcomes and resolutions from these days