Two sides of the reversible popular choice
Thirty years after his death in Hawaii, ousted Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos got a hero's burial in Manila last Friday. Russian president Vladimir Putin is said to be pushing an ambition to restore the bygone glories of the Soviet era. Turkish president Recep Tayyep Erdogan wishes in his subconscious mind that the Ottoman Empire had returned. And Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States, is showing the streaks of an autocrat, as he keeps thumbing his nose at democratic traditions. The common thread running through this medley of examples is a matter of concern. There is a growing fascination worldwide for the lust for absolute power.
Marcos' rehabilitation must have been a rude awakening for those Filipino families whose sons and daughters had died in the People Power Revolution that toppled him. A popularly elected president of that country has now defied the people's wish expressed three decades ago. Democracy is a double-edged knife cutting both ways.
As it is, democracy still has a long way to go. The Democracy Index 2015 claims that only 20 out of 167 countries are full democracies, where civil liberties and basic political freedoms are respected and reinforced by thriving democratic principles. Fifty-nine countries are flawed democracies, where elections are fair and free and basic civil liberties are honoured, but political culture is underdeveloped, participation in politics is low, and the functioning of governance is dubious.
The index also shows that hybrid regimes exist in 37 countries where elections aren't free and fair. These nations have non-independent judiciaries, widespread corruption, harassment and pressure placed on the media, and anemic rule of law; their governments also apply pressure on political opponents. The remaining 51 countries are authoritarian regimes where infringements and abuses of civil liberties are common, elections are not free and fair, the media is controlled, and the judiciary is not independent.
In total, only 8.9 percent of the world population is living in truly democratic conditions, which is also getting squeezed. The Olympus has fallen since the rise of a demagogue in the United States on November 8, belying that country's image as the seedbed of dignity and freedom. Donald Trump's victory has left the world shell-shocked as it struggles to reconcile how the liberal-minded American people, nourished by the world's largest democracy, could choose a whimsical man as their president.
The answer to that paradox is embedded in the German example. In the 19th century, this country was supposed to have the best education system in the world. After World War I, German university enrollment soared. By 1931, it reached 120,000 versus a maximum of 73,000 before the war. Yet, this highly educated nation embraced a madman like Adolf Hitler in 1933.
That means the educated people make good democracies up to a point. If bad policies cause economic, military and political hardships, it's open house for tyrants. When things get worse,even the learned amongst us become angry and antsy. They support lunatics who would never attract a crowd in normal circumstances.
And that's exactly what has happened in the United States 83 years later. Even after Donald Trump agreed to pay USD25 million to settle the civil fraud lawsuit against Trump University, a clear admission of guilt, there's little to no reaction to this shameful episode. Trump wants to hand over his business empire to his children instead of a blind trust. His wife wants to live in New York instead of the White House. He's packing his administration with people from unsavoury backgrounds.
The Americans are bending to his wishes like fawning parents giving indulgence to whiz kids. They're willing to overlook Trump's many indiscretions, because they're right now a very nervous nation. Worried about the economy, immigration, the extremist menace, and shrinking power of white nationalism, the Americans look the other way. Many years ago, the holy men of Afghanistan had made a similar mistake. Frustrated with the king, they welcomed a bandit named Habibullah Kalakani to the throne.
When people have their back against the wall, they have the reflex of a cornered cat. In that reflex, even the most sophisticated voters give way to crude judgment. Countless future autocrats waiting in the wings of political stages around the world must feel animated.
The government by the people backfires when the people are divided by the government. Deceitful politicians play one side against another and nationalist leaders behave like colonial rulers, dividing to rule and ruling to divide. Democracy and dictatorship are two sides of a reversible jacket. Which side is out depends, at times, on people's choice.
The writer is the Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.
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