Surely, democracy is a good thing. Humans tend to believe that if the masses make a decision, then it must be the right one — it must be a decision that improves society. However, we are often wrong.
John Stuart Mill is recognized as one of the main philosophical promoters of democracy. However, in “Considerations On Republican Government,” he reminds us that democracy can be very dangerous when the majority of the population makes poor decisions. He terms this problem the “tyranny of the majority,” a situation in which democracy allows populism, demagoguery and mass ignorance to flourish.
Centuries after Mill’s time, problems associated with his diagnosis persist in democracy. Ecuador’s current political climate vividly mirrors them. Ecuadorians democratically elected President Rafael Correa in 2006. Recently, the Ecuadorian National Assembly, the majority of which is held by faithful members of Correa’s political party, Patria Altiva y Soberana, translated to Proud and Sovereign Fatherland, passed a series of constitutional amendments that further centralize power in the government’s hands. Among other things, the amendments legalize indefinite re-election for all political positions. Additionally, they allow the government to use the army in situations where integral security of the state requires support — with no indication as to who defines the matter of integral security. More importantly, the assembly did this after blatantly ignoring the population’s demands that the amendments be ratified through a popular referendum. Protesters took to the streets, violence erupted and the already fragile democratic political framework of the state was further weakened — if not proven nonexistent altogether.
Ecuador is a case of a democracy’s ironic self-destruction. This is how the process goes: Ecuador’s 2006 elections created what was perceived to be a democracy. Next, along comes the tyranny of the majority: since the candidate with the most votes will win, candidates appealed to the masses with populist programs and promises to marginalized indigenous peoples to gain the support of the majority. For example, transfer payments were made to the poor, who, in Ecuador, like most of the developing world, are the majority. Thus, preventing the election of a president who will best allow every member in society to individually flourish, they chose the president who benefited their interests for as long as it took him to get elected. Thus, Correa, a self-proclaimed socialist of the 21st century, wins the election.
Nine years later, the country became undemocratic as a direct result of the people’s decision to put Correa in power. The democratically elected president is now held accountable only to himself, and democracy in Ecuador is severely threatened, if not destroyed.
Democracy is not a bad thing. But democracy can be self-destructive when the populace is tricked into hijacking the system for its personal interests, which ultimately conflict with those of the population as a whole. This situation is not unique to Ecuador. We can look at Putin in Russia or Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, and argue the same thing — that a country’s initially democratic decision can eventually destroy its democracy when policies, initially understood as the representation of people’s interests, instill an autocratic or dictatorial regime.
The failure to understand the virtue of democracy has led many developing countries to fail as liberal democracies. Since populist leaders like Correa constantly change and revise the existing democratic institutions for their own benefit, they cannot focus on strengthening democratic institutions that maintain their sovereignty regardless of presidential action.
It seems as though the developing world understands this idea. However, even the most robust democracies have demagogue-like candidates such as Donald Trump who clearly don’t offer a long-term sustainable form of democracy. If you truly believe that democracy can lead to beneficial outcomes, then make sure that next time you vote, you are not voting for populism. Make sure you are voting for the perpetuation of existing democratic institutions that will allow your interests to be represented at all times. And if those do not exist in your country, then think twice before you call it a democracy.
David Alzate Proaño is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.