We are seeing the disjunction between a majority electoral mandate and the warrant for a majoritarian politics that governments of the day think they have
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.
Popular vote vs electoral mandate
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; others are seeing erosion in the rule of law; and yet others are becoming police states. Even older liberal democracies in Europe, the traditional bastions of the very idea of democracy, are under threat from the far-right and so-called “alt-right” parties emerging across the Continent as a result of economic recession, Islamophobia, and a massive refugee influx triggered by the wars in Syria, Iraq
The democratic upheavals in the U.S. and Turkey are roiling both nations in ways that have captured global headlines, but here in India a crisis of democracy has become the new normal ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The Sangh Parivar, of which Mr. Modi’s BJP is a part, has systematically threatened minorities, especially Muslims, in its campaigns of “ghar wapsi”, “love jihad”, beef bans and cow protection, and students, especially at campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Hyderabad Central University. It has targeted institutions of higher education and fundamental research such as the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, as well as NGOs and international aid organisations.
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 routinised 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.
As American and Turkish citizens grapple with the grim reality of heads of state who are demagogues rather than democrats, strongmen rather than statesmen, and impose their own will upon the people even as they ride to power on huge electoral mandates, we in India have much to ponder and protest before it becomes too late. At what point does systemic dysfunction tip over into democratic failure?
In the 2014 general election, the BJP captured 31.34 per cent of votes, less than a third of votes polled. A little over 66 per cent of about 815 million eligible voters actually turned out to cast their ballot. This means that about 168 million Indians voted BJP, but about 647 million of their voting compatriots did not. As in the U.S., this is the outcome of a free and fair election. There is no appeal against the system if all rules have been followed.
But these numbers are staggering in what they tell us about the mathematics of democratic representation. They reveal a clear divergence between the bulk of voters and the balance of opinion; they show the utter disjunction between a majority electoral mandate that the public may have delivered and the warrant for a majoritarian politics that the government of the day thinks it has.
The citizen’s challenge
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.
Such non-partisanship is nowhere in evidence fromMr. Erdogan and his AKP, nor from Mr. Modi and the BJP, and it is certainly not on the cards from Mr. Trump and the Republican Party. If anything, President Barack Obama’s doggedly bipartisan approach to most matters has inevitably cost him in terms of his personal popularity ratings and repeatedly created a false perception of weakness throughout his two terms.
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.
Ananya Vajpeyi is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi