In Pakistan, the word ‘democracy’ is used in a most idealistic manner — just as it was in the West, till it began to be seriously scrutinised during the global rise of populism in the 2010s. In the early period of this rise, most political scientists rushed to describe populism as an alien entity that had breached democracy and was eating it from the inside.
But as populism continued to expand its electoral appeal, the claim that it was something outside of democracy started to lose traction. Some scholars and academics studying the rise of populism turned to the writings of the British political theorist Margaret Canovan and the sociologist Micheal Mann. In 1999, Canovan wrote that there were two sides of democracy. One is idealistic and the other is pragmatic. Populism arises due to the tensions between the two sides.
In 2005, Mann published The Dark Side of Democracy, in which he argued that democracy (when flexed in the context of majoritarianism) has sometimes produced actions that one often expects from authoritarian regimes.
Mann wrote, “Democracy carries the possibility that the majority might tyrannise minorities.” Two examples come to mind: the 1974 ouster of a supposedly ‘heretical’ community from the fold of Islam in Pakistan through an act of an elected parliament, and the recent demonisation of India’s Muslim citizens by a popularly elected Hindu nationalist government. Populists elected to power in various countries in the 2010s looked to actively marginalise minority groups in a bid to create a more homogeneous nationalist whole.
Populist or illiberal forces that come to power through a democratic process are the result of a contradiction in democracy
To Canovan, populism is not something that exists outside the boundaries of democracy — it emerges from within. In their 2013 book Political Religion Beyond Totalitarianism, the historians J Aigusteijin, P Dassen and M Maartje argue that political scholars were slow to grasp ‘the duality of democracy’ because, after the Second World War, democracy was thoroughly romanticised as the opposite of the totalitarianism that had emerged in Russia (Stalinism), Germany (Nazism), Italy (Fascism) and, later, China (Maoism).
Political scientists in the West saw these as ‘political religions’ that were imposed upon the people. Democracy, on the other hand, was posited as a rational, sober and secular idea. However, according to Aigusteijin, Dassen and Maartje, if secular ideas such as nationalism and communism in the mentioned countries were deified and/or ‘sacralised’ to become totalitarian political religions, democracy too was deified and sacralised.
As long as there was a ‘totalitarian’ Soviet Union, the idea of democracy continued to gain traction as an ideal system that guaranteed inclusive and free societies — despite the fact that, during the Cold War, powerful democracies in the West were aiding right-wing dictatorships in Africa, Asia and South America. This was explained away as a necessary step to protect ‘unstable’ countries from the dangers of communism and prepare them for democracy.
The romanticised perception of democracy reached its peak soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and when numerous countries began to adopt democracy. But within the next 10 years, the new democracies had turned into ‘hybrid regimes’ or ‘illiberal democracies.’ Meanwhile, without the existence of ‘totalitarian’ communist regimes as the ‘other’, the veil over what Mann called the ‘dark side of democracy’ lifted and showed that democracy, like authoritarianism, too had the potential of causing social and political destruction.
The post-Cold War military interventions in the Middle East by European democracies and the US — which almost completely destroyed countries such as Iraq, Syria and Libya — and the unabashed support provided by the US and most European governments to Israel during its genocidal violence against Palestinians, further eroded the idealistic sheen of democracy.
In the 2010s, Hindu nationalists came to power in India and radical right-wing Zionists were elected to power in Israel. During the same period, right-wing populists were elected in various European countries, and in the US. Those elected did not invade democracy from outside to establish ‘electoral authoritarianism’ or ‘illiberal democracy.’ They were part and parcel of a side of democracy that was ignored.
Aigusteijin, Dassen and Maartje remind us that the Nazis too were elected and supported by a vast number of Germans. Although this was later explained as an act of temporary madness — just as the recent electoral victories of demagogic populists in Argentina and the Netherlands is being viewed — the truth is, this ‘madness’ doesn’t come from outside democracy but from within it.
What the world has been witnessing for well over a decade now is the shrivelling of the idealistic perception of democracy. It is democracy’s other less pleasant side that has become more prominent. This is what political scholars are grappling with. What is to be done?
Indeed, there are many ‘democrats’ in countries such as Pakistan who are still viewing democracy in an entirely idealistic manner. But the discourse in established democracies is now moving towards introducing certain mechanisms that would regulate democracy’s ’dark side.’
Paradoxically, this may entail using illiberal tendencies of democracy to safeguard its liberal sides. One of the questions being explored is, should democratic values such as free speech, inclusiveness, etc, be strictly regulated to mitigate the possibility of illiberal forces entering mainstream politics? Wouldn’t such acts contradict the whole idea of liberal democracy?
According to the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, populist or illiberal forces that come to power through a democratic process are the result of a contradiction in democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy celebrates the protection of various civil rights, but it also encourages the rule of the majority. The problem arises when this majority consents to undo the rights that democracy provides. It’s a catch-22.
Times are now demanding a deeper, sharper and a lot less idealistic analysis of democracy. It needs to be regulated in ways that may raise eyebrows among the purists and the idealists, but isn’t democracy already eating its own tail? It is naive to continue idealising democracy without critiquing it from some awkward angles.
Political theorists need to tacitly reinvigorate democracy’s rational and sober sides that have been overshadowed by its more problematic sides, which produce populism or an unabashed majoritarianism. On many occasions, these have caused some serious political and social ruptures.
Sometimes, democracy’s biggest enemy can be democracy itself. Rational regulations will need to be shaped to stop it from eating itself, as it did in Germany in the 1930s, or as it is doing today in various European regions, and in the US, India, and Israel.
Therefore, in my view, the fledgling Pakistani democracy still requires certain stable state institutions to regulate it — but only if the larger aim is to gradually help democracy evolve in a manner in which it flexes its rational muscle more than its populist or Islamist ones.
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 3rd, 2023