Is democracy dying? – Syed Ali Zafar


At a time in history when democracy is the creed and prevailing system of the majority of states in the United Nations, it is surprising to read the book ‘How democracies die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, who claim that democracy is dying in its very cradle – the United States of America.

They conclude that “today America is no longer a democratic world”, with Trump emphasizing “white supremacy” and fuelling division. Even the EU, in countries like France and Austria, is grappling with the rising following and influence of right-wing politicians.

I may add that we do not have to go far but only look at what is happening in India, which can be considered to be a prime example where democracy has in fact failed. Prime Minister Modi and his government are using the Nazi ideology of racism with impunity to their advantage and, heady with venom, are continuously committing the grossest violations of human rights against Muslims and other minorities while turning the country’s legal structure in favour of a Hindu state and disregarding international law by illegally occupying Kashmir and carrying out systematic ethnic cleansing of Kashmiris on a massive scale.

Modi has followed Hitler by silencing his rivals and gagging Indian civil society by force or threat of violence, creating such irreparable division in Indian society that even its Supreme Court (otherwise posing to be the champion of rights), is quiet and ineffective. Democracy in India has been damaged to an extent that the country has lost respect internationally and lies buried under the slogan of ‘Hindutva’.

The saying that “democracies end at the hands of men with guns and that too in third world countries” is not the whole truth. Today it seems more true to say that Western democracies are also likely to suffer due to internal fault lines and at the hands of populist leaders. One is reminded of Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom were democratically elected, yet created fascist regimes which could be brought down after a devastating World War II.

If one were to witness the ‘demise of democracy’ in the West, as is being increasingly felt by many experts, there will be a domino effect worldwide and so I am hopeful that civil society in America and Europe will reverse the tide. Democracy’s revival in India, on the other hand, gathering from what has happened so far, may not be possible and one can expect more divisions and chaos there.

We in Pakistan are at the earlier stages of democratic government and have not yet fully crossed what is called ‘strategic democracy’, meaning thereby that our elections are generally viewed with suspicion by the losing side. If there is a serious threat to democracy in countries where one could not imagine such threats, then what are our fault lines which we must correct?

One of the ways to understand what needs to be done is to study why democracy has survived in the US so long despite such sharp divisions and disparity in their society between whites and blacks. Not surprisingly, the reason for this is not because of the constitution but due to what is not written there, which are the ‘norms and traditions’ of what to do and what not to do in order to maintain peoples’ faith in democracy. These ‘norms and traditions’ which were developed by America’s earlier politicians, were of ‘mutual tolerance’ and ‘institutional forbearance’ which means that for the resolution of differences reliance must be placed by all stakeholders on consensus in parliament and eventually on elections.

Change of government must be sought via democratic steps and not by employing force; nor should a government use its institutional force to hound rivals. These principles were by and large adhered to, come what may, by the Republicans and Democrats. It appears that democracy is in danger in the US now precisely because these norms and traditions are being flouted.

But in spite of what we see in the world today, I am not pessimistic enough to prophesize the end of democracy. I see that in the US itself the Black Lives Matter movement has caused an awareness not seen since the 1950-60 era. The people are demanding to be heard. What is happening is not the demise of democracy but a new face of evolution in which public opinion through elections is going to be triumphant and successfully resist populist leaders.

We in Pakistan too need to take lessons from this. Military interventions are over. Our destiny and future lies with democracy and for this we need tolerance, harmony and pluralism. It may not be out of place to say that democracies end due to the lack of interest by the electorate in the governance. Which is why what is needed is to educate our electorate, both through formal education and information. Parliamentarians in Pakistan are a mix of experienced and young. The public now expects them to act as examples and do their bit in strengthening the institution of parliament.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel as Pakistan has been able to successfully control the trend of terrorism in the country. This gives me hope that extremism and intolerance is on the decline. The younger population of Pakistan, which is the largest in ratio than any other country in the world, is ready to embrace enlightenment – provided they are given a curriculum of tolerance and pluralism in the education system.

Suddenly the realization against corruption is another beacon light which if pursued can galvanize the true spirit of Islamic culture in which the gap between the rich and the poor is eliminated. The good thing about what is happening in the US and elsewhere is that the world may be experiencing a democratic evolution where people’s lives will really matter. Pakistan’s democracy may gain strength from it.

The writer is a Supreme Court advocate, former federal minister for law and former president of the SCBA.

Email: ali@mandviwallaandzafar. com