Popular democracy, unpopular leader | Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi


There is a widely shared consensus at the global level that democracy is the best available political system. However, its details vary from country to country and one has to examine both the theoretical basis of the democratic system as well as its performance at the operational level to judge the quality of democracy.

Democracy is viewed as a process rather than an end product. It is wrong to assume that anything less than the ideal democracy means that there is no democracy at all. It is a process and you strengthen it and improve its quality as you implement it and make mid-course correction in it. Therefore, what matters most is its direction. Democracy needs to move from “less” to “more” democracy. It is a continuous process and requires regular review of its performance in terms of the principles of democracy and their operationalisation and how the spirit of democracy is reflected in the institutions and process of governance and political management.

The most damaging situation for democracy is the gap between theory and practice or when it becomes a tool at the disposal of the economically dominant and ruling classes which they use for strengthening their clout in the political system. It becomes what is described as the elitist democracy which provides ample opportunities to the dominant elite to manipulate the system and turn it into an authoritarian rule.

The most serious weakness in democracy is that its “democratic” ways can be used to destroy the spirit of democracy. The “tyranny of majority” is a technique to undermine democracy by democratic means. The popularity of democracy as a system of governance does not necessary mean that the ruler, even if elected through democratic means, will be equally popular.

The dichotomy of popular democracy and unpopular ruler represents the difference between theory and practice. The competing political leaders often play up the self-cultivated fears and anxieties of some ethnic, regional or religious group to build support for getting votes in the elections; while certain communities are projected as adversaries or threats to the welfare of others. A candidate projects itself as the protector and saviour of the people. In this way, the ethnic, linguistic, religion, sectarian and caste or regional differences are consciously played up to secure popular vote. Such a strategy helped Donald Trump in the United States and Narendra Modi in India to secure the support of a section of population at the expense of others; accentuating internal divisions and splits in the society which become a challenge when it comes to running the policies of a democratic government. Any attempt to divide the people for political gains is counter-productive to the goal of strengthening the roots of democracy because the vote gets divided on parochial and narrow considerations rather than political affiliations and election agenda. Greater the divisions and splits in the society the more difficult it is to run a democratic system.

The leaders who secure their electoral success by polarising the society have a tendency to become authoritarian in governance and political management. History provides numerous examples of how an elected leader turned into a dictatorial or authoritarian ruler. Many elected rulers have used their support in the parliament to opt for concentration of power in their hands, especially when they find it difficult to pull the society together after it had been fragmented in the course of the election campaign.

A democratic ruler cannot sustain popular support without delivering basic services and facilities to the common people. The major areas of service delivery are education, health care, eradication of poverty and underdevelopment, employment opportunities, personal security against the threats from state agencies and societal groups, civic amenities and check against environmental degradation. Some rulers spend large sums of money on big and glamorous projects like motorways, public transport, and use state resources on partisan political considerations. Such projects benefit a small number of people but the socio-economic conditions of the mass of humanity either remain unchanged or decline. A leader or government cannot sustain popular support without delivering basic services to people with the objective of improving the quality of their life.

The success of democracy also depends on institutional checks and balance among the state institutions. Different state institutions need to work in their respective domains and respect the domain of authority of other institutions. No single institution can be allowed to dominate other institutions and processes of the state.

Such dilemmas are quite common in the states that have experienced the ascendancy of the military to political power. Rather than creating a credible civilian alternative to the military’s domination, the civilian governments often engage in open or quiet struggle for power with the military. The PML-N government under Nawaz Sharif is involved in power struggle with the assertive Pakistan military. The negative statements against the military by the federal ministers and the media wing of the Prime Minister House and the publication of the news item about national security affairs are the major examples of the troubled civil-military relations in Pakistan. Similarly, the appointment of the new Army Chief is another bone of contention between the federal government and the Army top command.

Democracies are also threatened by the rise of religious and cultural extremism and violence by non-state groups that are transnational in character. The state is unable or unwilling to protect people against such extremist groups. These trends negate the spirit of democracy. Several African states collapsed or became dysfunctional due to internal conflict and violence.

Democracy is a challenging political system that calls for implementation of its principles in letter and spirit. It is more responsive to the aspirations of the common people. There are ample examples in history to show that the popularity of democracy does not mean that the elected ruler will be equally popular or those criticising such a ruler are against democracy. Donald Trump of the US needs to remember this.