Democracy's pains

Disillusionment with political leaders is spreading across the globe. In the United States, the approval ratings of the President and the Congress are at all-time lows, and probably for good reason. There is general dissatisfaction with the ruling class across much of Europe, particularly in the South. But this is much broader than a Western world phenomenon.

Protests and alternatives to the Congress Party’s domination of Indian politics are growing, fueling support for fringe activists such as Anna Hazare, the new anticorruption Am Aadmi (common man) party, and the prime ministerial ambitions of Narendra Modi.

In Turkey, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in the summer to protest Prime Minister Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, and the discontent is now spreading more broadly with the unfolding corruption scandals in which many of the leaders of Erdoğan’s ruling party appear to be implicated.

Discontent with the rule of establishment politicians is also growing in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia.

So what’s going on?

Two factors seem to be at work, one healthy, one unhealthy.

First, citizens seem to be increasingly unwilling to put up with the antics of unaccountable political elites, often all too willing to pursue policies that their voters do not approve of.

Protests against the ruling parties have the potential of bringing greater accountability in imperfect electoral democracies such as India or Turkey. Where the ballot box offers few attractive alternatives, non-electoral constraints on politicians have an important role to play.

The role of such protests is much greater in places like Cambodia where elections are fraud-ridden and Prime Minister Hun Sen rules in the manner of an autocrat.

The situation isn’t too dissimilar in the United States and Europe, even if some of the discontent, such as the Tea Party’s anti-government spending fervor or the anti-Europe backlash fanned by the UK Independence Party or other parties with anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant rhetoric in continental Europe, is fueled as much by confusion as by a viable alternative to policies that governments embattled by the financial and fiscal crisis have had to adopt.

All in all, even if the details vary across countries and even if some of the discontent is driven by confused notions and sometimes even by unsavory characters and ideas, a greater unwillingness by the masses to let their political elites run amok is broadly welcome. Democracy will function better, and has a better chance of approximating our ideal “inclusive political institutions,” when complemented by non-electoral constraints, which includes not just the media but also the willingness of ordinary people to get up and protest in the streets.

The second sort is quite different, however. In several countries, vocal and well-organized minorities are proving unwilling to accept elected governments that have brought to power previously disempowered groups.

In Egypt, the unwillingness of many urban, relatively well-educated Egyptians as well as parts of the elite to give time for the incompetent government of Mohammed Morsi to depart as it had arrived, through the ballot box, brought back the anti-democratic, repressive military back in full force, most likely destroying the prospect of democracy in this country for the next decade.

In Thailand, however many times Thaksin Shinawatra, or his sister Yingluck Shinawatra acting as his proxy, receives electoral support from the majority, many urban Thais, the military and parts of the state bureaucracy appear unwilling to accept such election results. Just as in Egypt, they seem to have a case when they complain of Thaksin Shinawatra’s patronage-based populism, corruption and authoritarian tendencies. But is the solution to dispense with electoral democracy?

The situation in Turkey is not entirely different. Though Erdoğan’s critics have a strong case, the current polarization owes as much to the unwillingness of parts of the Turkish elite, state bureaucracy and military to accept a government representing the underclass and the pious provincial businessmen as to Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

Though the conundrum of patronage-based elections under imperfect institutions has no simple solution, a good case can be made that the way to increase the inclusivity of political institutions is not to ignore the ballot box, but to utilize it, together with protests when necessary. But so long as elites and a vocal minority refuse to accept electoral results they don’t like, the path to a healthy democracy and truly inclusive institutions will be long, arduous and perhaps blocked for a long time.

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