The Straits Times says

The threat to modern democracies

It is generally accepted that while democracies are not perfect systems, no better model has yet been designed to replace it. That said, several developments in recent months have made for trying times for even democracy's most enthusiastic backers. The British vote to exit the European Union was a shock both because of the outcome and the bid to hold a second poll. In Colombia, a referendum's narrow rejection of a peace deal with rebels was a blow because it denied people the chance to make history by ending Latin America's longest conflict. Many blame the leadership for putting the peace plan to a popular vote although all the pieces had fallen into place to implement it. Former British prime minister David Cameron also made a disastrous political misjudgment when he recklessly promised a referendum on Brexit.

Polls are described as festivals of democracy for a reason. They offer an opportunity to air differences openly at ground level, rather than within restricted circles. They put social and economic models to the test. The public as jury get to give their verdict directly and it is the will of the people - rather than that of strongmen or powerful groups - which prevails.

In a recent case, it was the will of regional legislatures in Belgium that had for weeks thwarted the hopes of the European Union's plans for a landmark free trade pact with Canada. Meanwhile, in America, a good many would rather not exercise their will at all during the presidential election because the democratic process threw up poor choices and exposed shameful conduct on the part of contenders. Mud slinging, name calling, dirty tricks on opponents, and elites who seem out of touch with the common man have shone an unfavourable light on the political process.

This has been received with much glee in countries with non-democratic political systems - places where the openness of America is viewed as a living threat to the continuation of their power structures. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a vulgar dig at the race to the White House, and China's Global Times declared that Republican Donald Trump has been compared with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. It added that both men "came to power through elections - a heavy lesson for Western democracy".

Purists say the antidote to the ills of democracy is more democracy. But that is not very helpful unless one understands democracy as both a form of government and a way of life. It's not just about being given a choice but also how a society goes about making choices. Outcomes matter too; a well-functioning democratic system should deliver policies that address key societal challenges collectively. If the process throws up only bad choices of leaders, or gives rise to policy gridlock, the system breaks down, and fails to serve the people whose interests should lie at its very heart.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline 'The threat to modern democracies'. Print Edition | Subscribe