Interrogating Democracy

By Anjum Altaf

Brexit has triggered two arguments about democracy: (1) Voters are ignorant, and (2) Representatives are selfish. In either case the implications for governance are grave. It is significant that the questions are being asked in the West. They have always been on the table in countries like Pakistan but dismissed as reflecting the limitations of people rather than of democracy.

The answers in Pakistan are clear. The wisdom of voters is extolled in theory but undermined by contempt for their intelligence in practise. Citizens are never asked how the revenue they contribute ought to be allocated – they cannot be trusted to determine what is good for them or the nation. As for the representatives, voters are convinced of their dishonesty, their task limited to selecting the least crooked. The rulers themselves leave no doubt accusing each other of egregious malfeasance.

In the West the questions are more nuanced and therefore of greater intellectual interest. What is the limit to the knowledge of voters? They are considered independent and capable enough to choose local representatives based on their preferences but can they disentangle the pros and cons of multi-layered questions of economic policy? Should they be expected to do so? If they are, does that leave them vulnerable to being misled by those with vested interests?

Vested interests are at the heart of the second question. Have financial considerations now so dominated social ones that rulers prioritize the interests of capital over those of people? And have the interests of ruling elites become so enmeshed with the protection of capital that they have reneged on their promise to advance the welfare of citizens?

After all the ink that has been spent on Brexit, the conclusions appear quite sobering: Many voters acted seemingly against their economic interests to kick back at rulers whom they considered uncaring; Both factions of the rulers lied, one just more effectively than the other – incredibly, the winners admitted immediately after the surprise outcome that they had done so.

These conclusions are a sad commentary on the present state of democracy and a troubling sign of its future trajectory. As problems faced by nation-states become more complex in a globalized economy the stresses of the market will transfer to politics. Strains will increase and the side that lies more effectively will continue to gain ground till there is a break.

Some of the consequences are already quite obvious. Both in England and the USA, the plight of the population hurt by the workings of global capital is being blamed on migrants leading to a politics of fear, resentment, and racism. The rise of Trump leaves little doubt in this regard.

What then is to be done? The key is to realize that the system of democratic governance is comprised of rules some of which need to be re-examined, fine-tuned, or changed, if necessary. To take an obvious example: Is the system based on plebiscitary or representative democracy? If the latter, as is the case in Britain, was a Yes-No referendum on staying in the EU not an act of great irresponsibility taken only for self-interested political reasons? How can such reckless gambles be forestalled in the future?     

Consider a less obvious but equally consequential rule. Two Nobel laureates, Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, have argued that Trump would not have emerged as the Republican presidential candidate if the primaries had followed a rule other than the first-past-the-post (FPTP), winner-take-all one. And David Runciman, a leading British academic, has claimed that “the primary cause of the referendum result is the first-past-the-post system, albeit through its secondary effects.” Referring to the fact that the UK and USA are among the few developed countries to follow the FPTP, he goes on to say that  “it also isn’t a coincidence that the two places where truly destabilizing populist politics have been let off the leash are Britain and the United States.”

This is a salutary reminder that electoral rules matter to the extent that they can break countries apart. The fact that South Asia has inherited the FPTP from Britain without any serious exploration of its appropriateness or implications does not bode well for our future.

It is not that we have been immune to rule changes – recall those that barred more than two turns as prime minister or required a graduate degree to be elected to parliament. Both were accepted as part of politics without serious intellectual attention to the importance of rules to good governance. Unless we pay attention to these details we will continue to suffer from the vagaries of democracy till popular pressure builds up for the only binary alternative we can imagine – never mind that the cure has always been worse than the disease. Thinking on constitutional arrangements has to advance to avoid a fate that thrives on ignorance.

This opinion was published in Dawn on August 7, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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