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The discourse on democracy

Democracy is undoubtedly the most popular system of governance. Most states want to subscribe to democracy, at least in theory, if not fully in practice. Even authoritarian and dictatorial or military regimes adopt democratic appearance in a bid to gain popular legitimacy. Consequently, democracy exists in various shapes and forms. The divergent visions of democracy emerged when, in the post-World War Two period, the newly independent states of Asia and Africa adopted democracy as their political system but they ran into difficulties in sustaining the European and North American notions of democracy.

The rulers in many countries associate democracy with political status quo; any challenge to their rule is described as an anti-democracy behaviour of the opposition. Any political and constitutional system does not become democratic only by labeling it democratic. What matters most is the “spirit” and “essence” of democratic norms and values. How far the political and societal leaders have imbibed the values of democracy and to what extent they manifest these values in management of the affairs of the political system? To what extent the main players in politics show restraint, moderation and mutual accommodation through consultation? Any display of physical power or use of violence or exchange of blows in the elected parliament is the negation of and insult to democracy.

The most pertinent issue is how to comprehend the origins and genesis of democracy and how to judge its quality. What are the major obstacles to translating its principles and norms into viable institutions and processes? The post-Cold War era has witnessed greater emphasis on civil and political rights, individual freedoms, the rule of law, participatory governance and greater economic interaction and connectivity across the territorial boundaries of the states. All this has added to the value of democracy as a system of government.

However, the post-Cold War era has also posed serious challenges to the sustainability of democracy. A ruler that has come to power through democratic electoral victory may adopt authoritarian disposition to manage the state affairs. At times, the ruling party uses its majority in parliament to impose what is described as the “tyranny of majority” over the opposition groups by denying them their due role or passes laws that undermine the spirit of democracy. It is such a delicate system of governance that, despite the holding of fair and free elections, it may not show progress towards democratisation in a sustained manner. It can experience reverses, slow down or falter altogether.

A recently published monograph entitled “Issues, Literature and Actors in the Area of Democratic Governance” (Lahore: 2017) by Professor Sajjad Naseer of Lahore School of Economics addresses these issues in a succinct and easy to read manner in order to highlight the intricacies of the notion of democracy and what impinges on the operationalisation of its principles and values.

The study by Professor Sajjad Naseer acknowledges that democracy is the most cherished system of governance in the contemporary world. This interest has increased since the end of the Cold War (1990-91) when civil and political freedoms, human rights, participatory governance and free economy became a common political currency. The author traces the roots and conditions of democracy and other political systems to Greek thinkers and takes a fleeting view of several other scholars of the pre-1945 period who addressed the issues of governance and political management. The major focus is on the writings in the 1960s and the subsequent years that had profound impact on the study of divergent experiments of democracy, political development, modernisation, political culture and what helps or hinders democracy with a focus not only on Asian and African states but also on how democracy evolved gradually in parts of Europe, North America and Australia. The most authoritative work in this respect was done under the sponsorship of the Committee on Comparative Politics of Social Sciences Research Council based in Chicago. This Chicago school influenced a host of writers elsewhere and dominated the discourse on democratic governance, political development and other elements of state and political system. Some of the well-known writers who contributed to this debate include Gabriel Almond, James Coleman, Robert Dhal, Karl Deutsch, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Lerner, Seymour Martin Lipset, Stein Rokkan, Lucian Pye, Guillermo O’Donnell, and Larry Diamond.

These and other writers came out with the narrative of conditions and circumstances that facilitate or hinder democratic consolidation. Why do some countries falter on road to viable democracy and sustained political development?

The author outlines the minimalist notion of democracy or electoral democracy that is subscribed to by a large number of states. The notion of Liberal Democracy sets out tough criteria of liberal constitutionalism, the rule of law, civil and political freedoms and multiple opportunities for political participation and a nonpartisan operationalisation of the principles of democracy. It ought to be saved from degenerating into Illiberal Democracy, as articulated by Fareed Zakaria and others.

What makes the study by Sajjad Naseer fascinating is the identification of external and internal challenges and pressures on the contemporary efforts to create viable democratic institutions and processes. The global and external factors impinging on democracy in the present day internal system include globalisation and economic imperatives, global organisations and transnational non-state players, organised crime and terrorism and the global media. The internal factors include leadership, ideology, historical and colonial legacy, decentralisation and local government, political culture, civil-military relations and parochial divides, internal conflict and violence.

If we take into account these external and internal factors impinging on the working of democracy in a state, it is really a challenging task to move from minimal democracy to liberal and participatory democracy. It is not surprising that most democracies in Asia and Africa falter in quality and are often deficient in delivering basic services to its citizens. The solution of these problems is not setting aside democracy but working towards improving its effectiveness and quality.

Askari, Hassan. The discourse on democracy. The Express Tribune, January 30, 2017.

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