The ascension to power of populist strongmen like Donald Trump in the U.S., Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India demonstrates the limits of electoral democracy as a system of truly representing the political will of the people. In all three cases, the numbers suggest that most voters wanted these individuals and the political parties that they respectively lead — the Republican Party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — to form the government, but the reality in each country veers away from these purely numerical electoral outcomes.
The logic of democracy proposes that the choice of the majority will stand in for the choice of the whole electorate; but in fact, those who did not choose these leaders or their parties find not only that their will is not being communicated, but that it is being thwarted, undermined, or worse, directly opposed. This is how a supposedly democratic process ends up undermining ‘the people’ for very large numbers of voters.
Judging from Mr. Trump’s statements during his bruising election campaign, his administration will work against racial, religious and sexual minorities, coming down hardest on immigrant communities in America. He has nevertheless won the electoral college votes necessary to be named President-elect. But it is the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, who has won the popular vote by well over 2 million votes, and counting. Protests against Mr. Trump have swept across American cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Austin, Boston and Miami, with hundreds or sometimes thousands of people asserting that he is “not my President”. The immediate aftermath of his election shows the U.S. to be a country utterly divided, calling into question the foundational “union” implied in its very name.
Mr. Erdogan and his AKP got elected with a decisive mandate of just below 50 per cent of the votes in the Turkish general elections of November 2015. But after the failed coup against him on July 15, 2016, he has come down hard on members of the Gülen Movement (followers of the shadowy cleric Fethullah Gülen) that engineered the coup attempt, and his political opponents loyal to the Kurdish nationalist party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). His government has arrested, jailed and fired tens of thousands of suspected Gülenists and Kurdish sympathisers, picking out individuals from civil society, the army, the judiciary, universities, the press and political outfits. Mr. Erdogan’s purges are pushing what is technically a multi-party democracy towards what looks increasingly like a one-party state.
Democracies everywhere appear to be in danger. Many electoral democracies are becoming outright illiberal; some are deteriorating into forms of competitive authoritarianism.Violence against Muslims, Dalits and tribals, curbs on dissent and criticism, attacks on secularism and tolerance, and a sharp decline in the freedom of the media and academia have become vandalised in the name of a new “nationalism”. Since this summer, Kashmiris have endured the worst crackdowns against civilians and the longest curfews of the past 30 years under the BJP-Peoples Democratic Party coalition government.
The system of representational democracy — whether based on an electoral college or first-past-the-post — is also opaque about why citizens vote for this or that party.
The challenge is not only for citizens to reconcile their own opinions and aspirations with those of their compatriots who have different political preferences. The onus is on the government of the day to acknowledge that just because it won the election does not mean it represents the actual plurality of voters, their views and their interests. The sitting government has to rise above the ideology of its particular party in order to take the totality of the electorate and citizenry along with it.
Progressive, liberal, secular, egalitarian citizens of all three big electoral democracies — India, Turkey and the U.S. — have to find ways to protect the diverse and inclusive character of their nations, to strengthen their constitutional foundations, and keep in check the illiberal, populist strongmen who have ascended to power with mandates that are numerically partial and morally compromised.
To quote President Lincoln, “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Is it really FOR THE PEOPLE?!