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The strongman season

For decades, it seemed that instability was the curse of the world’s wanting. In the democratic and industrialised West, elections were held regularly, people voted, leaders changed, and everyone agreed with the outcome. There was a peaceful transfer of power, the loser commended the winner and the winner commended the loser. Upheavals and coups, one side accusing the other of tampering with votes, were largely unheard of in Europe and the United States. Their citizens remained smug and placid, each generation improving their standard of living over the one before and all of them proud of their ability to give the other side a turn, to be civilised, to be an example for the rest of the world.

The rest of the world, so used to watching these purveyors of liberal democracy, was stunned, therefore, when all of it suddenly seemed to fall apart. As scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in their new book How Democracies Die: What History Tells Us About Our Future, the beginning of the end was not on the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Instead, they locate the first signs of the affliction at the moment of an actual death. In the last year of president Obama’s tenure, justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly while on a hunting trip at a secluded lodge. In the days that followed, president Obama nominated judge Merrick Garland as Scalia’s replacement. But Garland was never confirmed by the United States Senate, where Republican senators refused to hold confirmation hearings. For the first time in US history, a nominated Supreme Court justice was unable to take his seat because of politically motivated delays.


This moment was important, in Ziblatt and Levitsky’s view, because it represented an erosion of norms, a refusal to do what had always been done, for political benefit. Refusing to adhere to the norms is not against the law, but it represents growing disagreement over the unsaid but crucial rules of the game. When politicians start to disagree on the rules of the game, it is the beginning of greater instability, of less faith in the belief that either side will have their turn at holding power. When the norms underlying the conventions of democracy begin to erode, democracy itself flails. Those who grab power do not want to let go.

Ziblatt and Levitsky are not the only ones forecasting the death of democracy. YaschaMounk, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says just about the same thing. For Mounk, the change of certain ground conditions, economic stagnation and the social revolution caused by social media have led to a situation in which democracy is morphing into stunted forms of the original.

There are illiberal democracies where leaders are elected via elections but institutions cannot maintain the separation of power or guarantee the rights of minorities. On the other side there are liberal un-democracies, where elections happen but a small group of elites continue to dominate them. Minority rights and rule of law may exist, but decision-making rarely reflects the will of the people.

In simple terms, we are living in a moment when some Western countries are liberal but undemocratic or democratic but illiberal. Democracy as the West has known it is no longer what it used to be, and fascism delivered by strongman leaders threatens to rock the boat and drown everyone.

All of this seems quite ominous from the perspective of a ‘new’ democracy like Pakistan. Adhering to democratic norms and the law has never come easy to us, with coups and court cases and allegations of corruption and vote tampering as usual being players during every election season (if elections are held at all). There are no impartial institutions and everyone gets down and dirty at every opportunity. Judges meddle in politics and politicians in judicial affairs; the military watches from a distance, its pervasive shadow always looming. There has never been a promise of economic improvement and norms are always in a state of flux. Peaceful transition has been a recent development and its future is in some doubt.

If Western democracies are unable to sustain themselves against eroding norms and changing economic and social conditions, the prognosis seems rather bleak for new democracies.

The political landscape in Pakistan had always been partial to nationalist strongmen who give rousing speeches and command large rallies. Strongmen like to win the popular vote but they like power too much to let it go. As the Trump fiasco in America reveals, they will blame everyone and everything, the media, law enforcement, other politicians, foreign powers, foreigners. Everyone, of course, except themselves.

In a moment like this, where the world seems unsure about liberal democracy, with some supporting only elections (illiberal democracies) and others supporting only undemocratic liberalism (protection of rights and institutions instituted by unelected leaders or unelected bureaucrats), democracy’s future in countries like Pakistan seems particularly doubtful.

Indeed, if any country is vulnerable to fascism, to strongman leaders who talk up a good game and revel in the cult of personality, it would be Pakistan. This country’s democratic institutions, which have seen just a couple of peaceful transitions of power, would not be able to stand up to a strongman contender who enjoys popular support. Minority groups, women, and similarly situated would get the short end of the stick and lose even the minimal rights they have now.

As the election comes closer and political rallies are held all over the country, it is important to consider the prognosis for democracy. Pakistanis watching promises pour out of the mouths of every politician must ask: would this leader respect democratic norms, would they let the other side have a turn; if they got the power to rule, would they ever give it up?