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VIEW FROM ABROAD: Waiting for a messiah

February 12, 2018


DEMOCRACY, particularly the American brand, is no longer flavour of the month. Not that long ago, it was supposed to be the universal cure for the world’s ills. And with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of newly independent states embraced democratic structures, if not its ethos. From Kazakhstan to Ukraine, states that were once forced into the Soviet straitjacket held elections that propelled ex-Communist strongmen into high office. Mostly, these polls were rigged, and have continued to keep the same dictators in power.

But countries like Pakistan and the Philippines in Asia, and several Latin American and African states, also joined the democratic club, causing much rejoicing in Western capitals at the victory of their system over Moscow’s dysfunctional model of dictatorship and state capitalism. So much so that Francis Fukuyama, an American academic, even proclaimed that the triumph of Western liberal democracy signalled an end to human ideological evolution. In a controversial and influential article, he wrote:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

A quarter century later, this bit of arrogant punditry lies in ruins as uncertainty, warfare and autocracy dominate the global agenda. American-led attacks and invasions of Muslim countries have tarnished the democratic model, exposing the contradiction between words and deeds. But another factor that has eroded the allure of this system is the rise of right-wing nationalism that has become a feature of our times. Examples abound in the shape of Donald Trump’s election in America, and the victory of the Leave camp in UK’s Brexit referendum. Across much of Europe, reactionary forces opposed to migration are gaining strength.

Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all witnessing the growing power of authoritarian figures like Putin, Sisi, Prince Salman and Erdogan. For many, these leaders seem far more effective than conventional politicians. But it is China that is providing the most powerful alternative narrative to liberal democracy. Although it has moved far from Mao’s vision of socialism, the country has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, and has made amazingly rapid strides in virtually every field. So much so that its economy is poised to overtake America’s as the biggest in the world.

By contrast, Trump’s accession to power has made American democracy a virtual laughing stock in much of the world. The recent deadlock in Congress that saw federal employees stay at home because of the refusal of both major parties to reach a budgetary compromise is a case in point. In fact, there is a strong possibility of a recurrence of similar congressional logjams in the near future.

This kind of legislative dysfunction makes democracy hard to sell. And Trump’s victory when he gained three million fewer votes than his rival, Hillary Clinton, in last year’s presidential election, is difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with the American electoral system. But it is Trump’s bizarre personality, words and actions that make many question the attractions of democracy. The sight of a buffoon leading the world’s most powerful nation does not give us much confidence in the system that propelled him to power.

However, the fault lines in American democracy were visible long before Trump moved into the White House. The Tea Party movement grew from a fringe Republican faction into a powerful reactionary force that pushed conservative candidates either out of the mainstream, or into adopting extremist positions. Barack Obama felt the sting of this reactionary movement when he was president as much of his legislative agenda was blocked. Partly, he was thwarted because of his colour as closet racist Republicans wanted the country’s first black president to fail. But Obama’s frustration was also caused by the increasing polarisation that now characterises American politics.

Both sides are increasingly reluctant to compromise as they do not wish to antagonise their respective constituencies, and thereby lose votes. The ‘red states’ where the Republicans hold sway have a visceral dislike for the liberal positions adopted by Democratic ‘blue states’. It is almost as though they were parts of two different countries.

A liberal democratic system is based on compromise, and a willingness to see the other point of view. Even in the UK, a bastion of tolerance, Brexit has divided the nation as few things have in recent history. Families are split on the issue, and nearly two years after the divisive referendum, there is still no sign of reconciliation.

In many countries with far less experience of democracy, the system is seen as chaotic and dysfunctional. Elected politicians are viewed as corrupt and inefficient, and governments seldom address the many problems ordinary people face. More and more citizens long for a strong leader who will improve their lot.

In Pakistan, at least, this is an expression of hope over experience. Those clamouring for a return to military rule forget what a disaster it has been each time it has been imposed. But the search for Salahuddin Ayubi goes on as we tire quickly of venal and ineffective politicians, and dream of a strong leader who will clean out the system and deliver good governance overnight.

But democracy needs more than periodic elections and parliaments: it requires tolerance, an acceptance of election results, and the willingness to play a cooperative role in the opposition. These values take time for a society to adopt, but in our impatience, we seek shortcuts in the shape of a powerful messiah.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2018