OVER the past half century, when the hold of liberal democracy over at least the world’s rich and Western nations was strong, a level of predictability reigned. It could be assumed that elections would be held on time, that political opponents would not be imprisoned or tried for sham crimes, that minorities would not be persecuted. For those lucky enough to live in these countries, a semblance of a social contract existed between them and the state.
That status quo is no more. Even the US, not simply an old democracy but also the greatest democracy propagator, was recently moved to the category of ‘backsliding democracies’ — a category where the necessary precepts of democracy are not quite guaranteed. The recent list of indictments of former president Donald Trump have done away with the tradition of not slapping charges, technical or substantive, on political opponents. The fact that a good percentage of voting Americans do not believe that the 2020 election was fair and have even less faith in the possibility of free and fair elections in 2024 has been another blow.
Finally, the neutrality of the court and its ability to adjudicate on poll-related (the 2024 elections) lawsuits have been questioned following the political lobbying of the spouse of supreme court justice Clarence Thomas and the political leanings of various other judges in America, thus eroding further safeguards.
Things are worse in Europe. In countries like Hungary, the cult of personality has led to the ascendance of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party. His dominance is so complete that only members of the inner elite can get government posts and contracts, even though Hungary is part of the EU and subject to all the checks and balances that come with the membership. In fact, Hungary is able to capitalise through the EU forum to get plum economic deals while paying no heed to democratic safeguards — with other EU nations such as Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse that outsources its car manufacturing to Hungary, looking the other way.
It is the people who suffer when democracy is eroded.
This web of interrelations and autocratic rule is expanding. Consensus-building, which is at the heart of democratic rule, takes time and energy (and chaos) to achieve. Autocratic rule, as the example of India — another backsliding democracy — shows, is far more centralised and capable of fast action and producing intoxicating nationalism to satiate millions. Media censorship and bans on foreign funding for CSOs further enables a singular narrative that defeats any possibility of democracy’s resurgence.
Pakistan’s situation must be evaluated against such international realities. Until now, the health of democracy in developing countries had been more a matter of Western concern. Democratic indices during the height of the West’s democracy-propagation decades were used to celebrate or lament a nascent democracy’s ascent or descent. While meddling in Pakistan’s affairs may still be strategically valuable to Western nations, America chief among them, there could be a level of indifference to Pakistan’s continuing foibles that didn’t exist before.
When you walk into a courtroom, or even watch a legal drama, you can see there are certain procedures to be followed. Evidence must be presented in a certain way, witnesses are questioned according to a certain procedure, and lawyers make arguments based on certain conventions. These procedures are followed because they ensure that all defendants are treated the same. The close following of these procedures means that the result or verdict is considered just and legitimate. The more strictly the conventions are followed, the more legitimate the result will be.
Democracy is no different. When courts are seen to issue verdicts not based on law or evidence, or cave in to political pressure the verdicts they produce lack legitimacy. The more times this happens, the less legitimate court justice becomes. Similarly, when political figures are routinely imprisoned and indicted when they are not in power, elections become suspect, as do the charges against various politicians. The lack of accurate information concerning different varieties of corrupt rulers and their children means that the public is kept in a constant state of confusion and disbelief.
It is also the public that has the most to lose as democracy, or at least the institutions and conventions that make it possible, are eroded. Every time power is transferred in a violent manner, or when political rivals try to get the other disqualified or imprisoned, each time the civil rights of political workers and activists are trampled on, it is the ordinary citizens who lose. In all the uncertainty that accompanies democratic backsliding, this one thing is guaranteed.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2023