Democracy: to what ends?

By Qile Sara Loo

Before I begin, this is not an anti-liberal article to exalt authoritarian tendencies because I come from a country which arguably exhibits good governance despite having an authoritarian-styled democracy, nor do I seek to tear down arguments for democracy simply because we see its failure in practice. Rather, I hope that we think about the pursuit of democracy in a less idealised way in the cultural context of countries, and realise how dangerously accustomed we have become to this ideology.

Of the twelve political institutions lectures the English Track 1As have had, ten focused on concepts and types of democracy, the remaining two a gross generalisation of countries under the category ‘authoritarian tendencies.’ Yet, according to the 2016 Democracy Index by the Economist, less than one-half of the world’s countries can be considered to be democracies of some sort, and there were only 19 “full democracies” as of 2016. This distortion and by extension implicit exaltation of democracy is nothing new. For sure, it was not the case of our teachers blindly lauding the benefits of democracy, or us students riding our high horses by criticising countries which have yet to do enough to ‘please the white man,’ as some of us may know it, thanks to our diverse backgrounds and opinions brought to the table. Indeed, authoritarianism may not be as varied a structure and thus only deserving of a few hours of class. Yet, that so much of the world’s population still resides under regimes of such tendencies accords much importance to it.

The pursuit for democracy in countries with weak democratic structures is marked by the general trend of the rise of active citizenry seeking to reform political structures, usually starting from fighting for free(r) and fair(er) elections and henceforth the inclusion of plural political parties. The waves of protests and revolutions since December 2010 starting from Tunisia which rapidly spread to much of the Arab world will remain a significant event for years to come. The recurring pro-democratic Umbrella movement in Hong Kong since 2014 led by student protestors against Beijing’s reluctance to devolve more power to Hong Kong are undeniably momentous episodes in Hong Kong’s history. However, in the end, similar outcomes emerge— repression or superficial concessions. In Hong Kong, the very first elections (where a nomination committee of 1,200 people could vote for the Chief Executive) in March this year saw a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, coming to power, but brought about no real change to the existing order, given that she was Beijing’s preferred candidate. Even in cases of despotic leaders being successfully overthrown (through far from a successful revolution), what results is a power vacuum or the rise of yet another authoritarian leader: in 2013, the military in Egypt ousted the short-lived return to power of the Muslim brotherhood; in Syria, the civil war between Al-Assad and his people is still ongoing. As observed by Safwan Masri in his book Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, the factors that allowed Tunisia to be the only country to successfully replace a long ruling despot with a more or less functioning democracy of all the countries caught in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, were the tradition of a strong civil society in the form of labour union organisations, education reforms by former president Habib Bourguiba, the limited and moderate role of religion and the emancipation of women since 1956— all of which predate the protests of the 2010s. Barring anomalies with fertile conditions even before the final straw of violent uprisings, similar outcomes are cycles that repeat within and across countries. In the end, efforts pumped into channeling a democratic revolution are crushed by tendencies of authoritarianisation that quickly follows experimentations with democracy.

I will not go into long exposition of authoritarianisation; what is more interesting is how that almost instantaneous taste of the sweetness of democracy, which corrodes with the rise of yet another authoritarian leader is almost a trigger of dopamine release; one that causes an insatiable longing for a revival and perpetuation of that moment of imagined utopia.

This blind pursuit of democracy is a luxury that countries in economic turmoil cannot afford, yet actively encouraged by international media and transnational pro-democratic organisations.

While these countries try to advance democratically without curing their economic woes, they end up in a state of limbo— unable to advance without a strong foundation, but also unable to mend their structural loopholes without sufficient resources as the international community becomes too distracted by and focused on encouraging their democratic endeavours.

On the other hand, the rest of the world forgets about democratic uprisings and movements— not in the sense that we do not remember the existence of these events, but that we neglect the long-term implications of them. More often than not, the media and its consumers focus on newest developments, leading to attention and aid channeled towards countries with the most recent political turmoil. Whereas older movements become but part of a larger trend, well etched in our memories as ‘Colour Revolutions’ or ‘the Arab Spring’. We perceive them to be nothing more than receding tides in waves of democratic protests, despite the aftermath often being harder than the events themselves; at least when executing the protests, hope was in the air. Not only so, we end up omitting or being desensitised to the costs involved— usually numerous deaths— because we believe that their cause is justified. But what do we get in the end? Martyrs of democracy? Or, as paradoxical as this may sound, sacrifices for status quo; for no change at all.

An overly idealised notion of democracy is dangerous precisely because we believe that it has intrinsic values worth fighting for. We neglect the fact that this belief places countries in precarious positions vulnerable to sanctions from larger neighbouring states which they heavily rely on for economic growth and stability. For the most of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, democratic movements or the development of democratic structures inevitably invites sanctions from Kremlin. Similarly, Hong Kong’s businesses care much less about the prospect of democracy when it comes at the cost of losing investments from the mainland. As far as the inter-state system in a world of an interconnected economy is concerned, maintaining economic stability is often the primary interest of states. Certainly, this alludes to the idea that might is right and coming from a small state, I am well aware that a world order defined by big power geopolitics is never favourable. Nevertheless, consider this: why is it that the US’ promotion of democracy abroad is not portrayed in a negative light of the same magnitude? Why is the world so quick to criticise China and Russia for their promotion of anti-democratic movements but laud advanced democracies funding democratic movements in countries that are deeply rooted in autocratic tradition? It is not always the case where democracy is the general will of the people; both internally and externally, giving up some autonomy in exchange for security and prosperity are well accepted norms in some countries. Why, then, should we celebrate the export of democracy while condemn the maintenance of status quo, something desired by the majority of the people? This inconsistency is but another expression of Western imperialism, ironically promoted by activists and further blown out of proportion by the media as headlines proclaim ‘X country demands democracy’ when the activists that stage protests, even if they were to number tens of thousands, are still only a small proportion of any country’s population.

Make no mistake, I am no supporter of blatant violations of human rights— a common feature in many authoritarian regimes— nor do I think a system incorporating authoritarian tendencies is necessarily the best form of governance. However, I think it is important to realise how we have become so accustomed to democracy that we rarely stop to consider the long-term implications of promoting it to non-democratic countries.

Even when we do recognise its drawbacks, our idealised conception of this ideology inevitably leads to a cultural imposition of ‘the right way’ of governance— this very act being inherently undemocratic, and leads to a multitude of outcomes that we fail to predict.

The Rohingya crisis is a good reminder of how the West’s and its media’s enthusiasm in promoting free elections led them to believe without reservation that Myanmar was en route to flying the flag of democracy high; it blinded them from warning signs of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stand on the Rohingyas. But perhaps, this crisis, too, has already started fading into the background, with the media pointing us to the next countries in line that are gaining momentum in their quests for democracy.

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