While I was in Jordan seven years ago, I spoke with Adab Al-Saoud, a social worker turned Member of Parliament, about the struggle for freedom in repressive nations. She hesitated during our conversation and regarded me coolly. “Is it possible,” she asked, “that you are fetishising democracy? Elected leaders can ravage their people as much as unelected ones, you know.”
All these years later, her question still gives me pause. Every free society is a democracy, but Adab was certainly correct: not every democracy is free. To be worthy of its name, a free democracy must be more than just a system of electing governments; it must be a means of holding elected governments to account. Ultimately, election to office is not a licence to rule, but a contract to serve. Since the collapse of communism, everyone claims to be a democrat, and no one more so than those corrupt autocrats who pervert elections to legitimise the exploitation of their electors. Today, the greatest threat to democracy is no longer the explicit ideology of political tyranny, but the far more insidious tyranny of political corruption.
Corruption robs citizens of our own resources, our fundamental rights, and our very identities as members of a free and equal society. It makes the weak prey on the strong, and delivers control of society into the hands of the unjust. It debilitates the nation, undermines the rule of law, and rots public confidence in democracy. Across the Middle East, in states newly liberated from old despots, where bloodied but unbowed peoples have sacrificed so much for the sake of democracy, corruption is a crime against hope. Because of all this, the fight against corruption is the mandate of our age. I am, therefore, passionate about my work with the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC). GOPAC is a non-partisan, worldwide alliance of serving and retired democratically elected parliamentarians, who have come together as an international fellowship of conscience to combat corruption. Its members assist fellow parliamentarians in their efforts to impose effective democratic oversight on executive authority, to sustain public transparency and accountability across government, and to foster a culture of integrity in public life.
Perhaps most importantly, GOPAC serves as a peer-support network for parliamentarians who are prepared to stand up for their citizens and speak truth to power in countries where doing so is an isolating or dangerous choice. In both new and emerging democracies, one of the surest guarantees of freedom is a vigilant, relentless, and fearless community of parliamentarians standing between our leaders and the levers of power. Parliamentarians are the watchdogs of democracy, and it is tragic that so many citizens of so many nations perceive our watchdogs as having muted their bark, muzzled their bite, and been neutered by the very powers they were meant to hold at bay. It is a perception that is too often justified, but it is a perception that is just as often desperately unfair. There are parliamentarians around the world who risk their lives every day to speak for those who would otherwise have no voice, to stare down those who know no restraint, and to make democratic nations free. There are parliamentarians who tilt at the powerful for no better reason than to shield others. There are still parliamentarians who hear the noble call of public service.
Akaash Maharaj is chief operating officer and head of the GOPAC Global Secretariat in Ottawa, Canada.