The Varieties of Democracy Project (V-Dem), the world’s largest database on democratic indicators, in its annual report for 2017, talks about democracy sliding back in many countries. The US, a revisionist state and a staunch supporter of liberal democracy, has gone back on its commitment to democratic standards. India, world’s largest democracy after the US, has compromised its democratic trajectory to accommodate the religious-ethnic parties. These developments have put into question the wisdom regarding the sustainability of democratic dispensation. For long research has shown that, once a country attains a certain level of GDP to transform into a wealthy democracy, it becomes immune to break down. This no longer seems to be the case, as many illiberal states have easily adapted to policies that provided their citizens economic and social goods. Since the opening up of its economic system in 1978, China has lifted hundreds and millions out of poverty. Other moderately successful countries making economic progress under authoritarian rule have been Vietnam, Singapore, and Ethiopia. The moral of the story is that to reap the benefits of global economy a country does not need to be a democracy.
The world is witnessing the emergence of a new geopolitical era where democracy is being recalibrated. The rise of nationalist and populist movements, on both sides of the ideological spectrum – left and right – has retrenched liberal democracy in key states and regions. The Third-wave of democracy that began in the 1970s and came full circle with the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to have run its course. Elections throughout 2017 and in 2018 brought in right-wing populist parties into the parliament in France, the Netherland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, and Hungary. Turkey, a NATO ally, has adopted near-authoritarian political mettle under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Throughout history, coups and insurgencies were considered spoilers of democracy, but today the inability of the democratic system to deliver good governance is blamed for the waning trust in democracy. According to the data collected in most recent World Values Survey, the younger generation in many developed countries are wary of democracy and are more open to an authoritarian alternative such as the military rule or strongman leaders without legislative or judicial oversight. Ivan Krastev, a European Intellectual, observes, “A populist leader attracts those who view the separation of power not as a way to keep those in power accountable but as a way for elites to evade their electoral promises.”
This shows that corruption has also contributed in making people dissatisfied with democracy in many countries. Politicians align democracy with economic progress but when citizens instead of good governance find their system ripe with inequalities, rising unemployment and entranced political corruption they turn toward alternative governance model, which explains the rise of popular leaders in many countries and the potential for a military rule in countries like Pakistan.
Research has shown that in fragile states, elites often take control of institutions without any regard for the social contract or the rule of law. When marginalised and aggrieved groups find themselves unable to fix their problems because of dysfunctional institutions they become violent. This explains why Pakistani society has become intolerant and prone to violence. Often absence of justice and a weak punishment and retribution system are considered the cause of people taking the law into their hands. This could be the reason for the reinforcement of violence, but the seed of violent behaviour is laid when institutions fail in dispensing swift and timely services.
Social and political upheaval emerges despite democratic progress when governments fail to eradicate corruption among elite class and provide equal access to services to all its citizens. Democracy can be counterproductive if it fails to establish what it has been made to deliver in the first place: the rule of law and obedience of the leadership to the social contract with the citizens.
In the outer world, countries like China have been successful in defining their style of governance. An economically powerful China has increased its sphere of influence using the model of authoritarian rule. This has made a case for the leaders to think about economic growth and opportunities without the confines of restrains on their political power.
The new geopolitical era is about redefining governance. It is unfortunate that in Pakistan leaders behave more like poster-boys than the providers of good governance. Image building through doctrines cannot give Pakistan a sense of economic rejuvenation. Practical steps are required, lest, in a crazy race between the military and the civilian leadership to prove their mettle, we lose Pakistan on the platter of CPEC. We have a jewel; let’s not squander it because of wrong planning and the inability to calibrate its worth.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.