What this debate has overlooked is the rapidly changing nature of democracy as it spreads to regions that have no previous experience of western-style democracy and is embraced by groups who see it, essentially, as a ballot-box exercise — a means to acquire democratic legitimacy. Increasingly, the western notion of liberal democracy as the embodiment of the values of Enlightenment — equality, justice, rule of law, free speech, and individual freedoms — is being supplanted by newer forms. And it can no longer be assumed that a democratically elected government is ipso facto enlightened as well. The good news is that democracy is spreading but mostly as an instrument of political power sans liberalism.
Commentators are warning of a creeping “democratic trap” whereby mass-based, and often sectarian, parties are using elections to gain political respectability. Take Northern Ireland where the governing coalition is made up of two extremist parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. Yet they fancy themselves, and are seen, as democratic parties because they have electoral sanction. Then there is Hamas, a political force with huge popular support as shown by its impressive triumph in last year’s polls. But progressive? Notwithstanding the west’s rank hypocrisy in not recognising its democratic mandate, Hamas’ brand of politics is closer to revolutionary militancy than liberal democracy. Similarly, the reformist mood in Turkey’s governing AKP (Justice and Development Party), which just pulled off a massive election victory, is inspired less by a conversion to a secular and liberal ethos and owes more to political compulsions arising out of its ambition to join the European Union. Iran has a version of democracy but it remains a theocratic state with severe restrictions on individual freedoms, especially for non-Muslims. Even in India where democracy is alive and well, the ballot box has been used by thinly disguised reactionary groups to claim a democratic mandate for their policies. At the non-democratic end of the spectrum, on the other hand, there is someone like Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, in love with his uniform and shy of direct elections. But his social instincts are liberal. He is also secular and has gone some way to open up Pakistani society. The Pakistani media have enjoyed unprecedented freedom under his government and women are breathing more easily than they did even under the democratically elected and supposedly liberal Benazir Bhutto.
It is far from my intention to bat for a military dictatorship, however benign. For all its imperfections, democracy remains the best option but there are good democracies grounded in democratic principles and there are dodgy power-grabs dressed up as democracies. It is important to recognise this distinction and consider whether progressive politics can sometimes also be found outside the ballot-box framework. Under many democratic governments today people, effectively, have as little say in what is done in their name, once they have voted a party to power, as a Christmas turkey. They bear no resemblance to Lincoln’s idea of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Over time, democracy has become essentially an instrument of winning power and there is a danger of falling deeper into a “democratic trap” if we continue to confuse a democratic mandate with democratic values. The latter require a democratic worldview and, more importantly, the political will to put it into practice. The assumption that democracy in any form, even if it fails to uphold democratic principles, is preferable to all other systems of governance is slightly flawed. The ultimate test of a system is whether people, especially the more vulnerable, feel secure under it. And the view that elections by themselves are enough to create conditions for such a society is not supported by historical experience.
There are Iranians who hated the Shah’s authoritarian rule but acknowledge that Iran was a much freer society in many ways than it is today under a popularly elected government. Ditto Iraqis. Ask minority groups — women, religious or linguistic minorities, gays, the disabled — and they would tell you that they are more concerned about their rights than the complexion of the government.
During a discussion on the relative merits of political systems, an Asian woman journalist said she would prefer to live in a country where her rights both as a journalist and as a woman were protected. “If you ask me to choose between Iran and Pakistan I will choose Pakistan,” she said.
This doesn’t detract from the fact that everyone loves democracy and aspires to live in a democratic country. The very idea of people themselves electing a government to serve them has a magic ring about it and remains irresistible despite the poor record of governance of many democratic countries around the world. (History is littered with examples of corrupt and badly governed democracies.) The reason, of course, why democracy has such a hold over people’s imagination is that it gives them a sense of power, however illusory. More so in poorer countries where the vast majority of people are excluded from decision-making processes and the ballot-box is the only means through which they can have their voices heard and let off steam. And just how keen they are to do that is reflected in the high voter turnout in these countries in contrast to the declining voting percentages in the more developed nations.
In the end, it is in the Third World that the battle for democracy will be fought in the coming years and as more countries experiment with it newer forms of democracy will emerge. But it is important to be wary of changes that, instead of strengthening democracy, have the effect of diluting it. What we need is more — not less — democracy. In what form it is delivered is not important so long as the core democratic values are not lost. Indeed, the question whether it makes sense to insist on a one-size-fits-all model has become one of the most hotly debated issues in the wake of attempts to impose the Westminster model on other countries.
The Socialist world had a similar debate when countries like China opposed Soviet-style communism and won the right to choose their own models of socialism. In Deng Xiaoping’s famous words, it was not the colour of the cat that mattered but that it should be able to catch mice. There is no doubt that the current debate on what is the “appropriate” model of democracy will also be resolved in the same way as the Socialism debate was — with people choosing their own road to democracy. The concept of democracy has moved on since the time when the right to vote was a restricted privilege, determined by wealth, education, and gender. Today, theoretically every adult with a fixed address has the right to vote in a democracy. But the interpretation of democracy remains a problematic area. There is an apocryphal story about an African leader who, exasperated by the constant barrage of western criticism of his “undemocratic” ways, buttonholed a European diplomat at a conference and asked him why the west continued to attack him despite the fact that his party came to power through free and fair elections monitored by European observers. “I’m the democratically elected leader of my country and my people have full faith in me. What on earth is the problem then?” The diplomat mumbled something about democracy not being just about winning elections and told him that he must allow opposition parties to operate more freely and withdraw the restrictions he had placed on the media. Upon which the African leader retorted: “Look mate, that might be your idea of democracy. Here we do things differently.” And flounced off.
His alleged outburst underlines two things. At one level, there is a genuine gulf between the west and the emerging democracies over the meaning of democracy and our African leader might have been right in claiming that “here we do things differently.” But there are also leaders — and their number is growing — who cynically hide behind social and cultural factors to cherry-pick democracy, choosing only the bits that serve their purpose.
So, what does the future hold? Democracy is still very much a work in progress and while there is no doubt about its growing popularity the need to guard against trends that might leave us with only ‘democracy-lite’ cannot be over-emphasised.