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  Number 396 | Julio 2014
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An expert speaks on political ethics

On his death on June 25, we pay homage to the author’s contribution by sharing some of the ideas he presented at a 1999 conference in Guatemala on “Democracy, citizen participation and education.” They bear witness to the humanist and ethical professional spirit of Nicaragua’s first Supreme Electoral Council president and bring home the electoral tragedy our country is submerged in today.

Mariano Fiallos Oyanguren

Jorge Luis Borges used to say: “I think that in time we will deserve not to have governments.” This phrase
engraved itself on my memory the first time I read it more than 25 years ago, because it reflects an ideal constantly with us from its inception, in human thought, in myths and legends, first oral and then written and in diverse poetry and prose, by Homer onwards, by literati, philosophers and politicians: the existence of the Golden Age Don Quixote so wittily presented to the goatherds sitting opposite him in the fields of La Mancha. It’s about hypothesizing a state of perfection that perchance existed once, in times long gone, and to which, in a better world, in moments of enlightened optimism some, maybe many of us, preserve the hope of arriving, one day, sine die...

Brutal reality throughout history, and with increasing theoretical clarity since the industrial revolution, has shown that expectations of achieving this Ideal Society, in capital letters, will not be satisfied in this world under the moon. We have made progress, although some would deny it, in improving social systems and the forms and practice of government through the application of highly diverse ideas and paradoxical methods, partially, little by little and with colossal effort, between successes and failures, between hope and disappointment.

Political ethics is an imperative for all

In the case of political action, this disappointment is masterfully expressed in Bolívar’s phrase—which García Marquez quoted or put in his mouth, one never knows—in “I’ve become lost in a dream, searching for something that doesn’t exist.” Proust generalized this disappointment across all human activity when he concluded that “the only true paradises are the paradises we have lost.” In order to retain intellectual and practical equilibrium, we have to bear in mind that Proust was no politician and far from a man of action and Bolívar only spoke like this in his last days, having already done and achieved all that he did and achieved.

So, it seems to me that in the case of political thought and action we should first start with the realistic recognition that it is impossible to achieve social perfection. Secondly, we should cleave to the premise, also founded on experience, that it is possible to move towards social perfection.

I accept that when examined with the rigor of pure reason, this premise turns out to be paradoxical and accepting it requires, in the last instance, an act of faith in order to affirm, on this basis, the existence of a need for political ethics compulsory for all. It demands we rid ourselves of defeatism and inertia and act to perfect our national, regional and global society one way or another, to a greater or lesser extent, even if only the tiniest bit, according to the circumstances of each person with the aim of systematically improving human beings’ quality of life.

Direct democracy is unviable
and perhaps even dangerous

Greece’s direct democracy managed to improve the quality of life for its citizens, but its practice and benefits were never extended to all its inhabitants. Slaves, foreigners and women, who together made up more than two-thirds of the population during the years of this government system’s greatest splendor, were excluded...
Although the idea of “everyone’s government” persisted, Greek democratic practices had no direct influence on the democratic practices of modern times, because they disappeared after flourishing for sometimes little more than two centuries...

The system of direct democracy in the Greek style was not reborn in modern democracy and modern contemporary concepts of representative democracy were developed as a result of a complex process that began centuries ago.

Representative democracy is the result of historical evolution and the fact that the States in which it started were far bigger than the city states of ancient Greece and had a very different economic structure. It was not considered viable or perhaps even safe to bring people together in deliberative assemblies to take decisions. Approximately 30,000 citizens had the right to attend the assembly in Athens and the quorum, even for decisions such as the one condemning Socrates to death, consisted of 6,000...

Today’s States have millions of citizens, with thousands of square kilometers and a system of production and distribution of goods and services that would make Greek style assemblies unfeasible.

When representative
democracy makes no sense

Representative democracy, in order to be so, implies selecting representatives of the people through elections. The quality of representative democracy and therefore democratic government is dependent on the quality of elections.

Representative democracy has no meaning if it is not based on an electoral system that arrives at results truly corresponding to the will of the people, enabling citizens to choose freely from among various options those who will be responsible for government and the programs they should use to govern.

The fundamental political human right

Universal suffrage and observance of its results, which are inseparable, should be understood as one of the most important human rights, the fundamental political human right.
This affirmation may be challenged by some who are more interested in social and economic rights, which should not be minimized in any way. Nonetheless, the right to vote and thus to decide acts as the foundation for respecting all remaining rights, including freedom of expression.

Respect for human rights in general and political rights in particular is, in practice, the result of good government, which cannot be fully achieved if it is not within a democratic system understood in its widest sense.

In turn, achieving good government and democracy in a society has as one of its necessary pre-conditions precisely the effective and efficacious exercise of universal and equal suffrage that is fair, free, regular, transparent and capable of reflecting the people’s will, in which lies sovereignty and is the basis of legitimacy of the exercise of power and authority.

It is necessary to stress, however, that although a necessary pre-condition, elections, no matter how clean they might be, are not in themselves enough of a pre-condition for the effective and sustainable exercise of good government and full democracy. For this, other conditions, also necessary, must be met.

Electoral bodies and their responsibility

In the matter of a country’s political and electoral culture, electoral bodies have a great responsibility as the image of impartiality, honesty and efficiency they project as a result of their own actions is one of the factors that most frequently influences national political culture.

A body that doesn’t merit the citizenry’s credibility will have a negative influence. Constant efforts to improve the electoral body as a whole are unquestionably essential. Since at times it is not enough just to be honest, but needs to be made obvious, some electoral bodies have included image-improving programs in their education campaigns, which have turned out to be effective for the credibility of both the body and the democratic system in general.

The integrity of the electoral body is extraordinarily important. From the highest officials to those responsible for receiving ballots at the polling stations, all should be chosen as carefully as possible for their honesty, impartiality, professionalism, technical education and capacity to act, leaving their personal or party preferences to one side.

Electoral authorities “without
partisan contamination”

While a country’s general education is not the direct responsibility of the electoral bodies, electoral and civic education campaigns are and the electoral bodies should take a leadership role in them.
One of the important functions of any electoral body is to influence citizen participation in elections. These campaigns have three main purposes: to call on citizens to exercise their vote as a right and a civic duty, to instruct them about the legal requirements and procedures of going to the polls and to educate them about the need at all times to maintain a peaceful and respectful attitude towards other participants.

It is indispensable to the success of these campaigns that the electoral bodies have the effective capacity to distribute clear and accessible information to the entire population. Specialized permanent personnel are required for this purpose and auxiliary personnel for more or less long periods.

These campaigns require special attention from the electoral authorities. One the one hand they should be free of any partisan contamination or any bias towards one or another candidate or option. The smallest failure in this area can bring serious consequences to the electoral body and national democratic system.

How credibility is won

At the risk of repeating myself, I don’t want to close my talk without emphasizing two points. Firstly, that the credibility of an electoral body is not achieved with a single electoral contest, no matter how successful it is. Nor is it won by two or even three successful contests. Credibility is the result of constant work, attention to detail in all matters concerning honesty, impartiality and transparency in daily actions. This credibility can be lost through a single act that is or even appears to be contrary to honesty, impartiality and transparency.

The second point is that holding elections, an indispensable and constituent part of democracy, does not guarantee, no matter how excellent and well-attended they might be, an improved quality of life for all strata of society. It doesn’t guarantee that the extreme contrast between opulence and misery characterizing our societies will disappear. Nor does it guarantee that the population will enjoy enough food and basic health and education services, which they should receive through a fundamental human rights principle.

Mariano Fiallos Oyanguren resigned as president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council in 1996 in disagreement with the 1995 Electoral Law reforms. The above are excerpts from his speech inaugurating the fourth seminar for technicians overseeing electoral training in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, organized by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, on whose board he served, and held in Antigua, Guatemala, in February 1999.

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