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The US example

November 24, 2016

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DONALD Trump’s presidency — one that some political thinkers had argued would herald the beginning of the end of liberal democracy as we know it — will soon be upon us. America’s president-elect bucks political norms and rules, revels in a strongman image, has shown disdain for political dissent, and for the core democratic values of free speech and basic rights of minorities. In the last couple of weeks, the sense of emboldened right-wing nationalism and dark times for certain minorities is real; but Mr. Trump is unpredictable (and ultimately pragmatic), and we will have to wait and see whether or not he follows through on some of his dangerous campaign rhetoric.

So hold off on the alarm bells for now. In fact, with its 2016 election and its aftermath, America offers important lessons on liberal democracy for developing democracies such as Pakistan’s.

First, respect for the vote. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 1.7 million votes (and counting) but lost the electoral college vote. Through this system, on Dec 19, a number of electors from each state will cast all their votes for the candidate who won their state. That is when the president is ‘officially’ elected. Clinton lost the electoral college by a large margin, but only because she lost key states (by very small margins). While many in the US dislike the electoral college, it is the system under which the election was held, and the result under this system is respected.

The outcome of the election is something the Democratic establishment, the sitting president, and even prominent Republicans argued was dangerous. Yet their respect for the vote and the process is exemplary. The PTI and Imran Khan should learn.


Pakistani democracy can learn from the American election.


As I wrote in my recent long-form essay for the Cairo Review on the state of Pakistan’s democracy: any democracy has its ups and downs, and can sometimes be a slog (this may be one of those times for America). But in the long run, it is always better than dictatorship. Too many in Pakistan do not understand that, preferring a military saviour every time things begin to go wrong. To them, I have one rejoinder: Gen Zia. One man, not bound by elections. Consider the harm he single-handedly did to Pakistan’s legal system, its education system, and to society in the 1980s. If Trump does a bad job, he’ll be voted out in four years. Even before that, the Republican Party will suffer in the midterm elections in 2018, crippling his ability to govern.

Which brings me to the second point: institutions matter. A strong and efficient legislature, ministries and implementing bureaucracy are more important than any single leader in a true democracy. These institutions provide checks and balances, and keep the wheels of government running smoothly even in the face of a less-than-competent leader.

In Pakistan, parliament is weak. And Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has undermined it by calling multiparty conferences, a forum with no legal basis, at key junctures. Pakistan’s bureaucracy is also weakened by political interference and shuffling with changing political regimes.

A powerful and independent judiciary also matters. It offers respite in the face of abuses by the state. America’s will be a bulwark for it. Pakistan’s judiciary is sometimes brilliant, but also erratic. For Pakistan’s democracy to progress, it will need to strengthen its legislature, judiciary, and bureaucracy.

Third, voters’ education matters. In the US election, votes for Clinton or Trump were split by education; 52pc of college graduates voted for Clinton, while 43pc voted for Trump. Non-college educated voters preferred Trump to Clinton (52pc-44pc). This gap is new; non-college educated Americans in many ways decided this election. Less educated voters were more gullible to fake news, false pronouncements and conspiracy theories, the vast majority of which were anti-Clinton or pro-Trump.

Equipping citizens with critical and logical thinking and the ability to ‘fact-check’ political statements has implications for how ‘rational’ their vote will be. This is a teachable moment for America, and it is also relevant for Pakistan. We know that there is zero critical thinking in Pakistani public education. Conspiracy theories abound. How, then, can we expect Pakistanis to make a sound decision about voting?

We’ll see how a Trump administration shakes out, but US democracy will be fine – it is far stronger than one man, even if he is a strongman. America’s saving grace for the next four years may be the limits to the power of its presidency recently explained by President Obama.

The writer is assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Twitter: @MadihaAfzal

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2016