Why liberal democracy loves its strongmen

From Turkey to Russia to the Philippines, democratic structures world over are crumbling.

 |  6-minute read |   29-06-2018
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Liberal democracy is ill. This illness has manifested itself in regularity and persistence with which it has rewarded victory to men of the most authoritarian tendencies, who upon their victory proclaim the virtues of democracy. They then proceed to dismantle every single institution that had quite often precariously maintained the equipoise of democracy in many countries since the Second World War.

After the end of the Cold War, the wisdom of political scientists like Francis Fukuyama informed us that liberal democracy was poised to perpetuate itself over the whole world.

In much less than a decade, we have seen democracy’s ballot boxes transform themselves into a veritable pandora’s box out of which after each successive electoral verdict, we witness horrors worse than the one preceding it. The latest in the series of pandora’s box electoral verdicts are from Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the elections held on Sunday, June 24, reinforce the colossus like dominance that he has created for himself at the expense of a viable Opposition, a free press, and the articulation of meaningful dissent.

erdogan-inside_062918072312.jpgTurkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters from the balcony of his ruling AK Party headquarters in Ankara. [Credit: Reuters photo]

This electoral victory for Sultan Erdogan, as many have taken to calling the president, comes just a little over a year after the referendum in April 2017, which he narrowly won, giving him sweeping executive powers, including the ability to select a considerable number of members of the judiciary and the possibility of continuing to rule the country until 2028.

Only a month prior to this in March 2017, back in India, Yogi Adityanath, to the great horror of many, became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh after the BJP won a massive majority of 325 seats in the Assembly elections.

Step back a few months to November 2016, when the whole world watched almost dumbstruck as the US elections brought in the foul-mouthed Donald Trump to the presidency. In June 2016, the referendum in the UK, was accompanied by abysmally low levels of electoral discourse, not just in terms of sheer falsehood when it was claimed that exiting the European Union would save the hard-pressed Brits £350 million pounds a week, but also in terms of the rancour and hatred that cost the life of the Labour MP Jo Cox, who was stabbed to death by a man shouting "Britain First".

trump11-copy_0627171_062918072601.jpgIn November 2016, the whole world watched almost dumbstruck as the US elections brought in the foul-mouthed Donald Trump to the presidency. [Credit: Reuters file photo]

Ominously, Trump in his inaugural address in January 2017 vowed to put America first. (As an aside we can observe that the more each nation puts itself first, the greater is the likelihood of relegating humanity last). Brexit sent ructions across the world and continues to tear “Great” Britain apart before it can even begin tearing itself away from Europe.

To add to the list of the democratic pandora’s box we can include the victory in 2016 of another strong man, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, notorious for his abrasive words that are followed up by perhaps even worse actions. In March 2018 Vladimir Putin continued his electoral victories in Russia, quite often at the expense of any possible opposition.

In Hungary, the elections in April 2018 reinforced the dominance of strong man Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party giving them 133 seats in the 199 seat Hungarian Parliament. Orban is known for his polarising speeches that express animus at immigrants. He has even proclaimed the end of liberal democracy, which he believes will be replaced by Christian democracy.

The Italian election in March 2018 resulted in the coming to power of Giuseppe Conte, the elevation being facilitated by an alliance between the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League Party, paving the way for more instability in Europe.

Of course, there have been elections that have returned results not as bombastic as the ones discussed. The examples would be the centre holding ground and thereby preventing the far-right from coming to power in the French and the Dutch elections early last year in 2017, bringing to power Emmanuel Macron and Mark Rutte respectively. The British elections of May 2017 would also be an example that went against the electoral trend discussed here, especially in the failure of Theresa May when, far from consolidating her majority, she actually lost it.

ang_062918072720.jpg Aung San Suu Kyi doggedly refused to speak out and unequivocally condemn the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. [Credit: Reuters file photo]

If one thought that the democratic pandora’s box was only about men with their filthy locker room talk polluting the public sphere, one would have to think again. Myanmar’s much hailed return to democracy with the dominance of the National League for Democracy and the elevation of Aung San Suu Kyi to state counsellor, was an instance of another offering from the pandora’s box. This time it came in the silence of a woman as she doggedly refused to speak out and unequivocally condemn the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Underlining the conniving complicity of democracy with massacres, this is what French historian and political scientist Jacques Semelin in his book, Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide, has to say on the basis of insights he draws from the English sociologist Michael Mann: "Authoritarian or totalitarian regimes cannot be said to have a monopoly on massacres. Ethnic cleansing is a modern phenomenon closely bound up with the formation of democracies."

In India, there are currently two completely opposed views on the health of Indian democracy. One section of opinion believes that under the current regime, democracy has never been in greater danger than the time of the Emergency. The other opinion believes that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it and that it is alive and kicking.

The many successes of Indian democracy have been marvelled at in the years since independence. In the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary elections, one can't help but wonder what contribution India will make in the life of liberal democracy.

Also read: How BJP is repeating the same mistakes that eroded Congress' vote bank

Writer

Amir Ali Amir Ali

Amir Ali is with the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Earlier he taught at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, and was a visiting fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford.

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