The Judiciary’s Role in Building or Breaking Democracy

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In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, “In civilised life, law floats in a sea of ethics.” Let our judiciary be the beacon guiding our nations through the storms of democracy, ensuring that the waters remain calm and just.


As a student of democracy, I invite you on a journey to explore the pivotal role of the judiciary in safeguarding democracy. However, this journey comes with a stern warning: the need to expedite election dispute resolutions within the courts and election tribunals and to guard against unnecessary delays, unclear judgements, and partial verdicts that harm the public interest. We shall explore how the judiciary makes or mars democracy across the world.

Before we talk about the urgency of timely justice, let’s first understand the foundational principles of democracy. Democracy, as it thrives in diverse corners of the world, is built on three pillars: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Each pillar plays a distinct yet interconnected role, with the judiciary serving as the guardian of democratic values and principles.


Using the above words as a foundation for our discussion, it is crystal clear that in the intricateness of a democratic society, the role of the judiciary stands as a critical pillar, ensuring that the fabric of democracy remains intact. The judiciary serves as the guardian of justice, interpreting laws, resolving disputes, and upholding the rights of citizens. One crucial aspect of its duty is swiftly and fairly resolving election disputes, thereby preserving the integrity of the electoral process and preventing potential chaos. This article underscores the pressing need to avoid delays in election dispute resolutions, cautioning against unclear and partial judgements that do not align with the public interest. Drawing insights from African, Asian, American, and European nations, it becomes evident that a robust and efficient judiciary plays a pivotal role in safeguarding democracy.


Elections form the cornerstone of democratic nations, allowing citizens to exercise their right to choose their leaders and determine the trajectory of their country. However, when disputes arise, the timeline for resolution becomes paramount. Delays in settling election-related cases can lead to uncertainty, erode public trust, and even incite civil unrest. The judiciary’s role in promptly addressing these disputes cannot be overstated. Inaction can fuel speculation and conspiracy theories, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the electoral process itself.


Clarity in judgements is essential to maintaining faith in the judiciary. When rulings are unclear, citizens are left bewildered, unable to comprehend the reasoning behind decisions that shape their nation’s destiny. Such ambiguity can create avenues for misinterpretation and manipulation, contributing to a breakdown of public confidence. To illustrate, the controversial 2000 United States presidential election and its contentious Supreme Court decision highlighted the potential perils of unclear judgements. The judiciary must strive to elucidate its reasoning to ensure its actions are consistent with democratic principles.


Partiality within the judiciary is a grave concern that strikes at the heart of democracy. The judiciary’s independence and impartiality are foundational to its legitimacy. When judgments appear to be influenced by political bias, public trust is eroded, and the credibility of the electoral process is undermined. The example of Kenya’s 2017 presidential election provides a stark illustration. The Supreme Court’s decision to annul the results due to irregularities demonstrated the judiciary’s commitment to fairness, proving that impartial judgements can avert potential crises.


As former Chief Justice of India, P.N. Bhagwati, eloquently stated, “The judiciary is the guardian of the Constitution and fundamental rights, and it is the duty of the judiciary to protect the rights of the citizens.”


Now, let’s shine a light on the ominous shadow cast by delayed justice in election disputes. When election results are contested and disputes arise, timely resolution is paramount. Delayed justice not only erodes public trust but also creates an environment ripe for unrest and instability. Citizens need swift closure to maintain faith in the democratic process.


Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, aptly noted, “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.”


Lessons from Africa

Several African nations have grappled with election-related tensions, highlighting the need for effective judicial intervention. Africa has witnessed both the perils of delayed justice and the triumphs of timely resolution. In Kenya, the 2017 presidential election results were challenged, leading to a protracted legal battle. Months of uncertainty left the nation on edge, and the public’s trust in the judiciary waned. Conversely, in Ghana’s 2012 election dispute, the judiciary swiftly addressed the issue, reaffirming the nation’s commitment to democratic principles.


However, Kenya’s judiciary later set a precedent by annulling the presidential election results in 2017, demonstrating its willingness to ensure electoral integrity. The 2017 presidential election judicial review was a major turning point in Kenya’s history. It showed that the Supreme Court is willing to intervene in electoral matters, and it set a precedent for other African countries. The decision also highlighted the importance of transparency and accountability in elections. Similarly, South Africa’s Constitutional Court has consistently upheld democratic ideals, ensuring that the rule of law remains paramount. These examples underscore the significance of a robust judiciary in safeguarding democracy.


Insights from the United States of America

The United States, often regarded as a democratic beacon, has faced its share of election disputes. Former Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, stressed, “The role of the court is to protect the rights of individuals, particularly when they’re in the minority, against the government.”


Insights from India and Asia

In India, the judiciary has time and again played a crucial role in upholding democratic values. Former Chief Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah stated, “The judiciary is the sentinel qui vive—eternal vigilance—to guard and protect the rights and freedoms of the people.” This sentiment echoes throughout Asia, where judiciaries have been instrumental in maintaining democratic integrity.


Case Studies: Europe

Turning our gaze to Europe, we find similar tales of judicial influence on democracy. In the United Kingdom, the judiciary played a pivotal role in ensuring the legality of the Brexit process by swiftly addressing legal challenges and upholding the rule of law. This showcased the judiciary’s responsibility to uphold the rule of law even in times of political turmoil. Furthermore, Germany’s Constitutional Court has played a pivotal role in preserving democratic values, reinforcing the principle that all branches of government are subject to the Constitution. In contrast, Spain faced turmoil in Catalonia due to delayed justice regarding the independence referendum, highlighting the dangers of procrastination.


While the timing of justice is vital, the clarity and impartiality of judgements are equally essential. Unclear judgements can lead to confusion and disputes that persist beyond the initial ruling, threatening democratic stability. Partial judgements that do not serve the public interest undermine faith in the judiciary.


The role of the judiciary in safeguarding democracy is undeniable, but it comes with immense responsibility. Delayed justice, unclear judgements, and partial verdicts pose grave threats to the democratic fabric. To ensure the continued health of our democracies, we must heed this warning: expedite election dispute resolutions, provide clear and impartial judgements, and protect the public interest at all costs.


As citizens of democratic nations, it is our duty to remain vigilant and demand accountability from our judicial systems. The judiciary, as the guardian of democracy, must rise to the occasion, ensuring that justice is not only served but is served swiftly and fairly.


Let us re-echo the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren: “In civilised life, law floats in a sea of ethics.” Let our judiciary be the beacon guiding our nations through the storms of democracy, ensuring that the waters remain calm and just.


In a world where the foundations of democracy are often tested, the role of the judiciary as a sentinel of justice becomes pivotal. Swift resolution of election disputes, clear and transparent judgements, and impartial decision-making are essential to maintaining public trust and preventing potential democratic crises. The lessons gleaned from both African and European experiences underscore the gravity of these principles. As citizens, we must demand accountability, transparency, and efficiency from our judicial institutions, ensuring that they remain steadfast in their mission to safeguard democracy.

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