By Irfan Husain
April 25, 2015
One of the abiding myths of the last half of the 20th century was that democracy, combined with free trade, would lead to liberal societies and peace between nations.
The leading example of this notion was the United States. And indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, it did seem to be the Promised Land. To the rest of us, Hollywood films depicted a nation where large cars and suburban homes were every American’s birthright.
During the Vietnam War, some of this image lost its gloss, but the American Dream continued to draw millions to the United States. The rest of the world was told that if we attained democracy and applied the capitalist model, we, too, could aspire to a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot.
And when the Soviet Union went into meltdown a quarter century ago, this was taken as the final victory of the American model over communism. History, as Francis Fukuyama famously announced, was dead. For a brief, euphoric moment, we thought the end of the Cold War would usher in an era of peace and prosperity.
Welcome, then, to the bloody new world of resurgent nationalism and religious extremism. Once suppressed by autocratic rulers allied to either of the two superpowers, these forces are now threatening to tear the world apart.
And yet there are more functioning democracies than ever before, and all of them are part of the global economy.
Take Russia as an example. Here we have a very popular, iron-fisted leader who has presided over a freewheeling capitalist system that has brought Russians an unprecedented level of prosperity. Granted, much of this was due to rising oil prices, and the Russian standard of living is now dropping with falling prices of oil. However, Putin remains personally popular, despite being as autocratic as ever.
Leaders with dictatorial tendencies continue to win elections.
Turkey provides us with another example of a democracy with a flourishing capitalist economy that is being increasingly run like an autocracy by its president, Recep Erdogan. Despite his growing despotic tendencies, Erdogan remains hugely popular, and continues to win elections with healthy majorities.
Finally, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa is yet another example of an authoritarian ruler who spurns democratic values, and yet remains personally popular. Although he lost the last presidential election in January, this was due more to miscalculation and misplaced faith in his stars than a fall in his appeal.
A call for early polls encouraged the formation of a rare opposition alliance — allegedly backed by India — that defeated the president. But Rajapaksa remains popular with the majority Sinhalese voters, and managed to win 47pc of the popular vote despite the hatred he aroused among the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Now there is a real possibility of the ex-president bouncing back to power in the next general elections.
So how do we explain this popularity of leaders with dictatorial tendencies? Despite trampling over human rights and personal freedoms, they continue to win elections, and enjoy wide public approval. Could it be that their supporters want strong men to maintain order, even by using unconstitutional means? Another reason could be that the majority distrusts the educated, liberal elites who clamour for human rights.
John Grey, in an article published in Harper’s Magazine titled ‘Under Western Eyes’ writes: “That democracy can be a vehicle for tyranny was well understood by earlier generations of liberal thinkers. From Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill through to Isaiah Berlin, it was recognised that democracy does not necessarily protect individual freedoms…
“Legal and constitutional protections have little force when majorities are indifferent or hostile to liberal values… Most human beings, most of the time, care about other things more than they care about being free. Many will vote for an illiberal government if it promises security against hardship, protects a way of life to which they are attached, and denies freedom to people they hate.”
Now, of course, few liberals concede that in certain circumstances, democracy can be used as an instrument of oppression against certain sections of the population. In the United States, that flag bearer of democracy, we have seen individual rights steadily circumscribed by the Patriot Act. The fear of Islamic terrorism has been used since 9/11 to curtail liberties, and to impose draconian laws that would not be out of place in a police state.
In Turkey, a conservative Anatolian majority supports Erdogan as he chips away at secular laws, marginalising the Westernised elites who ruled Turkey for decades. If some heads have to be broken, and secular newspapers have to be shut down, so be it.
But secularism by itself is no guarantee of human rights, either. The worst atrocities of the last century occurred under Nazi and communist rule, both entirely secular ideologies. So clearly, there are no certainties, no magic wand to ensure our freedom. What is needed is constant vigilance and a strong resolve.