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What dialogue does to democracy

Former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as a government of the people for the people by the people.

This is the definition that scholars have used for many years to explain what democracy entails.

What has been the challenge, however, is for those elected into leadership positions to make this definition reflected into their actions one elected into power.

This is not limited to political leadership but other leaderships as well that are assumed through a democratic framework. For the sake of this article we will focus on political leadership in democratic government.

According to political scientist, Larry Diamond, for a democratic government to be called as such it should consist of four key elements.

The key elements are, a political system for choosing and replacing the government through periodic free and fair elections, the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life, the protection of the human rights of all citizens, and rule of law , in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. Democratic governance emphasises on citizenry participation in the public affairs. This participation should include the minority groups.

What has been challenging in most democracies is the political will to create space for the citizenry to really participate in public affairs. This creates high levels of intolerance and has been a common source of dictatorships within democracies.

Parliaments are strategically established in democratic governments to create space for elected representation for the governed. However, this space should not only be limited to parliament but other groups as well such as the civil society and other interest groups.

Democratic life is both the right to differ as well as the acceptance of such difference by all.

Democracy entails respect for diversity of views and virtues of dialogue as a means of resolving conflict.

A culture of tolerance must be inherent in society. It should involve vibrant, honest and healthy debates and dynamic exchanges of opinions.

Developing a culture of tolerance is not a one day process. It is a long term undertaking that removes the roots of intolerance and is necessary for a democratic process.

President Peter Mutharika recently appointed a technical team to dialogue with the Public Affairs Committee (Pac). The five member technical committee chaired by Minister of Justice comprises cabinet ministers and the president’s advisors.

This was as a result of a meeting that Pac had with the president recently.

The meeting with the head of state and government was a sequel to a stakeholders’ consultative meeting organised by Pac which came up with some resolutions for government to address.

There were mixed reactions when the meeting took place recently but perhaps that is a subject for another day.

What is more important is the fact that that was the beginning of a dialogue process as an important ingredient of a democracy.

For starters, Pac was founded in 1992 by the religious community and other pressure groups in Malaŵi to enter into a dialogue with the late Kamuzu Banda’s Presidential Committee on Dialogue during the transition period from the one-party to the multiparty system of government in Malaŵi.

Pac’s mission statement has been, to mobilise the general public through the religious community and other stakeholders in promoting democracy, development, peace and unity through civic education, mediation and advocacy”. I have doubts if the mission statement has changed.

The mission statement can be used to gauge Pac’s achievements and failures.

It goes without saying therefore that government cannot ignore an organisation like Pac in furthering its governance and development agenda especially where dialogue plays a critical role.

The appointment of the technical committee for dialogue is therefore timely and very important. It has the potential to deal with issues of mistrust that have been perceived between the two sides in recent times. It mirrors a leadership that is committed to dialogue.

However, both sides have a duty to make sure that the fruits of this dialogue are enjoyed by all the citizens.

This arrangement is also an opportunity for Pac to clear itself from the perceptions and prejudices that some sections of the society hold that it is an affront of some opposition elements within our society.

It also creates an opportunity for government to demonstrate through action that it is a government that is tolerant and accommodates alternative views for the betterment of our democracy and development.

On both sides, people’s perception will matter throughout the dialogue process.

This arrangement is not a new phenomenon like indicated above. It has been tested before and it worked.

As citizens, we should all give it support so that it works again. It is important that the terms of reference for such an arrangement should be well spelt out because they are critical to the process.

If it works, the citizenry becomes the winner because government is elected on trust. Lastly for this dialogue to give meaningful results, both sides should approach it with the highest degree of objectivity and sobriety without prejudices.

They must adopt a flexible approach of a give and take. Dialogue is the essence of participatory democracy.

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