Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is Canada Really a Paragon of Democracy?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

One of the courses I've been teaching this term deals with the politics of post-Communist central and eastern Europe.

These countries emerged from 40 years of totalitarian rule after 1989 and had to craft new democratic constitutions from scratch.

They examined various models, including the American separation-of-powers presidential system; the British "Westminster" parliamentary variant; and the semi-presidential hybrid of Fifth Republic France, among others.

In the end, most adopted variations of either the parliamentary or semi-presidential version of government.

As for their electoral systems, most put into place either some type of proportional representation system, where the number of votes won by a party more or less equals the number of members they elect to an assembly; or a mixed-member-proportional system, one where some candidates are elected from geographic constituencies but where parties are also allocated seats based on their percentage of the overall total vote cast in the country.

Canadians often consider our country a paragon of democracy, a template that others might be wise to follow. But needless to say, none of these new democracies showed any interest in the following aspects of our system:

- A hereditary monarch who resides in a distant country (where she is a genuine head of state) and who only periodically visits one of her other realms, Canada.

- A 'stand-in' representative of this head of state, called a governor general, who is selected by the head of government of the day in a partisan manner, with little transparency or input by either the citizenry, the elected parliament, or even other members of the prime minister's ruling party.

- An upper house which, though technically mandated to represent the constituent parts of the federation, does no such thing, since its members are appointed by the central government along partisan lines, with little regard for the wishes of the citizenry or the elected assemblies of the provinces where vacancies occur.

As well, the numerical composition of this Senate makes no sense; some smaller entities (say, New Brunswick or Nova Scotia) have more members than far larger ones (like Alberta and British Columbia), based simply on their time of entry into Confederation.

- A lower house, though popularly elected, whose members need gain only a plurality of votes in their individual ridings, so that many who become members of this House of Commons, in our first-past-the-post system, win with as little as 30-35 per cent of the total vote.

Thus a party gaining about 40 per cent of the national vote may, in this winner-take-all system, capture a comfortable majority of the seats.

(The Liberals did so three times, in 1993, 1997, and 2000.)

By the same token, parties that may have polled as much as 10 per cent of the national vote may fail to gain even a single seat, leaving all of their supporters without any representation.

And given our strict party discipline and the adversarial style of politics which pits government against opposition, the party that wins a majority of seats then rules as though it has won a mandate from the entire country.

Of course all constitutions, no matter how perfectly written at the time they are promulgated, eventually need to reflect changes in the political culture of a country as the years go by.

So, as Nobel laureate Douglass North has observed, it is essential to have a way to modify political structures. The society that is willing to revise its rules through trial and error, he writes, "will be most likely to solve problems through time."

The new European democracies have taken this advice to heart; in the past two decades they have 'fine-tuned' their charters and constitutions. As political scientist Ray Taras has observed, none of them "is guilty of institutional ossification."

Yet Canada since 1982 has been saddled with a constitution that, in order to be amended, requires, when it involves the most fundamental issues of governance, unanimity on the part of Parliament and all of the provinces. (And, to make things even more complicated, a major jurisdiction, Quebec, has never even accepted the document.)

The two attempts made to amend the Constitution, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, both ended in disaster. So since 1992, no one has dared to "open up the Constitution," lest the country head into a downward spiral of no return.

But can such a state of affairs last forever? Can a country adhere to a foundational document that is completely 'frozen'?

After all, as the eminent historian Michael Bliss remarked recently, Canada's political evolution "probably cannot be contained or controlled by old constitutional forms. The difficulties now swirling around the role of Canadian head of state are almost certain to increase until we summon the resolve to give the office the legitimacy that only comes with election."

Due to the H1N1 'swine flu' pandemic, we have all become familiar with the term 'underlying health condition'. People already weakened by other ailments may fall prey to a disease more readily than those in good health.

The same holds true for countries: those with 'underlying political conditions' may find it harder to surmount future crises than those whose institutions more adequately reflect the democratic will of the citizenry.

Wisely, none of the new democracies in Europe showed the slightest interest in following in our footsteps.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Fall of East Germany: A Retrospective

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

For those of us of a certain age, the events of Nov. 9-10, 1989, in Germany had an air of unreality about them. People on the eastern side of the infamous Berlin Wall, dividing Communist East Berlin from the political ‘island’ of West Berlin, were simply walking through now open gates to freedom, 160 kilometres inside Communist territory.

The 45-kilometre wall, built in August 1961 and probably the most iconic symbol of the Cold War, included guard towers lining large concrete walls containing anti-vehicle trenches and other defences. Many East Germans who tried to escape were shot to death during those 28 years.

But on this day, no border guards prevented people from leaving East Berlin. What was going on?

Knowing their days in power were numbered, because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had indicated he would not support repression in the Soviet bloc countries, East Germany’s Communist rulers had given permission for gates along the Wall to be opened after hundreds of people converged on crossing points.

They were met by jubilant West Berliners on the other side. Soon enough the wall would itself be torn down.

These events were part of a larger crisis that overwhelmed the Soviet bloc that year. Throughout Communist eastern Europe, regimes began to disintegrate, one after another, falling like dominoes.

A year later, East Germany — officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — would disappear. Germany, the country that began the Second World War and then reaped the consequences of its crimes by being split between the Communist East and the democratic West, would again be united.

Following free elections in East Germany in March 1990, a unification treaty between the larger Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the GDR was negotiated and approved by large majorities in the legislative chambers of both countries.

On Oct. 3, 1990, East Germany joined the existing 11 federal states that comprised West Germany as five more states. Berlin was reunited as a city.

Today, the old Soviet experiment in the east is little more than a memory, recalled mainly outside Germany when films such as the 2003 comedy Good Bye, Lenin, or the more serious 2006 movie The Lives of Others, appear on our cinema screens.

When U.S. President Ronald Reagan, on a visit to West Berlin in June 1987, had called on the Communists to “tear down this wall,” few realized it would happen that quickly. But perhaps people should have been less surprised.

Let’s face it: the GDR was really a non-starter. The Soviets had imposed their brand of Communism on many nations in eastern Europe after 1945, but none of them were merely artificial entities, fragments of a larger country.

East Germany, though, was simply the part of Germany that had been allocated to the Russians as a Soviet Zone in 1945 by the Allied powers that defeated Hitler.

Speaking the same language as their fellow Germans and, in many cases, watching television from across the border, East Germans were aware of how hollow Communist propaganda was. And, as time went on, they became increasingly less prosperous than their fellow Germans on the other side.

This was a country whose population of 16 million was only kept in line through force. The dreaded secret police, known as the Stasi, kept such close watch on the citizenry that even husbands and wives spied on each other, and children informed on their parents.

Between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi employed a total of 274,000 persons. It was an Orwellian nightmare. Today, the former Stasi offices house the Stasi Museum.

But too much information about the world beyond its borders kept leaking in: the Iron Curtain had no roof and, as far as East Germany was concerned, the writing was indeed on the wall.

Its demise was indeed, to use a phrase coined by French philosopher Louis Althusser, “over-determined.”