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Formal Democracy, Popular Will And Military Coups

In its 2023 Index of the countries of the world Transparency International rated Aotearoa New Zealand the third best nation on transparency. However, as credible as this was, there was a drop in its score.

The fall was in how common it was for businesses to make undocumented extra payments or bribes connected with trade, public utilities, tax payments or awarding of public contracts. It also included how common it was for public funds to be diverted to companies, individuals or groups due to corruption. A sniff of corruption perhaps.

Transparency International’s framework is interesting and insightful. However, it is somewhat limited by not sufficiently factoring in the impact on democratic rights in smaller countries when more powerful nations work hard to undermine them. This includes through the use of economic embargoes (for example, by the United States).

The Index nevertheless provides a lead-in to discussing the relationship between formal democracy, popular will and military coups.

Formal democracy  

Few words are used more, particularly in politically related discussions, than democracy. Although a single word, it is a combination of two Greek words – ‘demos’ referring to a citizen of a city-state, and ‘kratos’  meaning power or rule.

Greece, particularly Athens, is often regarded as the birthplace of democracy. Athenian democracy has been described as a direct democratic form of government where the people or ‘demos’ had real political power.

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But, from its inception, this formal democracy was flawed at its core. Only male citizens could vote to begin with. Worse, ‘citizens’ excluded slaves. Slavery significantly underpinned the Greek economy.

Popular will and consent systems 

Fast forward to today and democracy can be described a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a country, typically through elected parliamentary representatives. But is it based on popular will.

Popular will is often perceived to be an outcome of democracy (or the other way around). A common plain language definition is the perception and choice of the majority of a country’s or state’s people. At first glance it appears synonymous with formal democracy. Not so!

Historically previous ‘undemocratic’ countries became ‘democratic’ only reluctantly and incrementally. Further, this was only due to the pressure of popular will. Anti-colonialism, women’s suffrage, anti-apartheid, and Black American struggles are examples of this pressure.

Overwhelmingly, in formal democratic structures, the power of business calls the shots; somewhere between disproportionately and completely. It is hard to go past the United States to witness the exercise of this power.

The US is the only economically developed nation that doesn’t have a universal public health system because it would reduce the profitability of large private health businesses. This business power controls both the Republican and Democrat parties.  

In contrast, New Zealand is one of the most democratic countries in the world. Proportional representation and being a small country helps. Nevertheless, it can’t be convincingly argued that formal democracy and popular will are aligned here.

Although there is competition such as union, indigenous Māori, environmental and social movements, the greatest political influence rests with business power.

Popular will would suggest that New Zealand should address untaxed earnings (tax avoidance) through wealth and speculative capital gains taxation.

But the dominant National Party is primarily the party of business and the opposition Labour Party is frightened of business.

The reality is that much of what is called democracy are called are instead consent systems reinforced through rituals and rhetoric.

It is a form of hegemony. Italian Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci observed that the success of those who rule is their ability to ensure their values are accepted by those they rul.

Three military coups

Military coups are usually considered to be sudden, illegal, often taking of government power by the military or part of it. They are seen to be both anti-democratic and contrary to popular will. Generally this is the case; but not always, as recent developments in West Africa suggest.

Some West African states have taken steps toward greater economic and security sovereignty. Primarily this has been in opposition to the designs of Western powers including the former colonial power of France.

These reforms have been undertaken by unelected military governments which have had greater public support than the supposedly overthrown democratic governments, specifically Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Backed by the West (actively by France), these formally democratic governments were not actually that democratic. To put it another way, these were democracies of rituals and rhetoric.

Consequently many of their people considered them to be anti-democratic, corrupt and puppets of French neo-colonialism.  Further, they had proven to be ineffectual against the threat of jihadist insurgency. This made the coups popular.

In August 2020, a military coup in Mali led to the formation of a governing junta has asserted its sovereignty in numerous ways.

This  included by leaving the European-funded G5 Sahel regional institution (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mari, Mauritania and Niger) and evicting unpopular French forces military forces which had been previously accepted by the former ‘democratic’ government.

France had also previously been criticised for interfering in G5 Sahel. With the subsequent Burkina Faso and Niger coups the organisation collapsed,

In Burkina Faso a military coup overthrew the unpopular discredited banker-led government in January 2022. However, this junta was replaced by another following a second coup nine months later.

On this occasion the junta was headed by the 35-year-old captain Ibrahim Traoré. He then appointed as his prime minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla, a Marxist and pan-Africanist who supported Thomas Sankara’s efforts to build socialism and economic self-sufficiency in the 1980s.

The third military coup, in Niger, occurred in July 2023, when the Nigerien military overthrew its American-backed president, who had offered Niger as a base for the American and European troops after the anti-Western coups in Mali and Burkina Faso.

One initial decision was nationalising Niger’s drinking water supply which had been controlled by a French private company.

The Mali and Burkina Faso coups were severely criticised by the US and European (particularly French-backed) Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

This escalated to the threat of invading of Niger following the third coup. Economic sanctions were imposed on all three countries.

In response, in September 2023, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger announced the creation of the Alliance of Sahel States, a signed mutual defence pact.

In essence, any attack by ECOWAS on one of the countries would be seen as an attack on all three. Federation is also apparently being discussed.

All three countries have also withdrawn from ECOWAS. There is a strong popular movement not only in these countries but throughout West Africa that ECOWAS is simply a tool of French imperialism. Interestingly ECOWAS has just announced removing most of its sanctions.

Thomas Sankara legacy

Although only leading Burkina Faso for four years, Thomas Sankara left a powerful legacy in West Africa. He became known by many as Africa’s Che Guevara. Over 30 years after his murder this legacy still provides useful insights into these contemporary coup leaders.

Sankara’s domestic policies included famine prevention; agrarian self-sufficiency; land reform; a nationwide literacy campaign; tree planting in deserts; outlawing female genital mutilation; a vaccinating programme against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, and building schools, health centres and water reservoirs.

Interestingly, taking the lead from Cuba, he established ‘Committees for the Defence of the Revolution’ rather like community-based defence militias. Sankara also set up ‘Popular Revolutionary Tribunals’ to prosecute public officials charged with political crimes and corruption.

What characterised Sankara was that he came to power through popular will which was strengthened during his four years. It was this growing popular will, and the vested interests this threatened, that led to his assassination in the French supported counter-coup.

Militaries, particularly in less developed economies, are generally regarded as right-wing, even far-right. There is much evidence to support this view; not just the Chilean military’s murderous overthrow of the elected Salvador Allende in 1973.

But these militaries are proportionately large and recruit in big numbers from poorer communities. Many continue to identity with these communities and are receptive to progressive and left-wing thinking.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is a case in point. He led an unsuccessful coup but had much popular support and was subsequently elected president.               

Unlike Chavez, Sankara came from a middle class family. But, despite parental pressure to enter the Catholic priesthood, he joined the military eventually reaching the rank of captain.

He read and discussed politics extensively, including Marxism. Like Chavez and so many others, he was radicalised in the military. Such is his legacy that his country’s new prime minister is a Sankara admirer.

Failure of formal democracy

Capitalism dominates the planet. Inherently it is both creative and destructive. Driven by its ceaseless expansion of wealth accumulation, capitalism is fertile ground for profound economic inequality, discrimination and oppression.

Inevitably political systems, no matter how formally democratic, will reflect this drive to one degree or another. The counterfoil is the strength of popular will.

In his famous Gettysburg address in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln affirmed that with the end in sight of its Civil War, the United States:

…shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

As noble as Lincoln’s declaration was, it was never achieved. It will only be achieved when political decision-making is fully aligned with popular will.

This does not mean that all paths lead to West African military coups. They were the consequences of ‘street democracy’ and the failure of consent systems to continue to deliver hegemony.

However, it remains to been seen whether the popular will supporting these coups was just, because of opposition to what was overthrown or whether it  translates to continuing support for the new regimes.

But the fact that military coups arose out of popular will demonstrates the failure of formal democracy to be aligned with it. Many lessons to be learnt.

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