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Why democracy is worth fighting for?

The democratic system faces multiple threats in these volatile times. The clarion cry of the anti-democrats is that democracy favours the elites and has failed the masses that it was intended to serve. They point to the unfulfilled promises and the time wasted in the endless debate which gets in the way of the hard work of nation-building.
There is a troubling trend in established liberal democracies, that younger voters are impressed by populist leaders and authoritarian solutions. These angry voters have never lived in a totalitarian one-party state or under a dictatorship. If they had, they would understand what Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn meant when he said: “unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.”
Emerging democracies also are facing dangers from arbitrary rule, curtailment of freedom of expression and rigged elections. Crackdowns under the guise of combating crime and corruption are taking an ominous turn. They end up limiting political choices and impeding the will of the people. As we know, once a state starts down the path of authoritarianism, it is difficult to change course. To quote Professor Steven Levitsky How Democracies Die: “there is a misguided impression that authoritarianism can be controlled or tamed.”
Despite strident criticism, the democratic system remains the best hope for inclusive progress. It is the sole governance system that can account for competing interests, human frailties, and an unfair world. Furthermore, the checks and balances of a secular democracy impede the consolidation of coercive structures. It protects the right of freedom of speech and protest without fear or favour. Importantly, it instills respect for the practice of diverse religious beliefs and disbelief.
To cite a few examples, the rise of German and Japanese democracies after WW2 has helped prevent the rise of dictators and militarists. The policies of glasnost and perestroika inspired reforms of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union. It brought people out of the dark shadows of Gulags and forced labour camps. In turn, Western secular democracies have provided refuge to millions of people, fleeing tyranny and oppression, including from Muslim majority states. It is ironic though that some former refugees, living under western freedoms, are still advocates of repressive Islamic Shariah states.
In South Asia, the success of democracy in India belies the claim that a country has to be rich to function as grass-roots democracy. India has a progressive constitution based on the country’s secular roots. It serves as a foil against the majoritarian bias present in a range of official institutions in India. Moreover, in spite of the blot left by the unchecked human rights violations committed by state forces in Indian Kashmir, Indian democracy has largely protected Muslims and other minorities from an extremist section of the Hindu majority. In their mind, Hindutva extremists want revenge for Hindus who lived under hundreds of years of Muslim hegemony and misrule.
India is also a good example of democracy and leadership working together to liberalise the economy. As a result, in the last two decades, India pulled the second-most number of people in the world out of poverty. And the country also reported high GDP growth numbers exceeding 7 percent annually. The big challenge for India is to address the disparities between rich and poor. To help in achieving this goal, democratic institutions that can manage people’s expectations and soothe conflict are the best bet.
In contrast, grass-roots democracy didn’t take root in Pakistan. The country’s leadership is mostly elitist and disconnected from the masses. These factors hindered Pakistan’s political, economic, and social development. The low growth and high debt trap that the country finds itself has a great deal to do with flawed priorities that arose from anti-democratic governance.
Moreover, the country’s ethnic and religious minorities don’t have the safeguards they could have enjoyed under a progressive constitution.
It is the core responsibility of democratic governments to unite, inspire, and secure their grass root constituents and electoral base. A sign that a democratic system isn’t delivering is when voters are disaffected with the governments they helped elect. As a result, disgruntled voters tend to look for extreme solutions on the right and left of the political spectrum. The polarized political landscape plays into the hands of populists with divisive agendas and autocrats wielding the gun.
On the flip side, citizens also have a responsibility to remain committed to the democratic process. Voters must actively challenge their leaders and parties to deliver on their electoral promises. We must remember that governments and leaders alone don’t determine the success or failure of democracy. It also has a great deal to do with the actions and aspirations of constituents.
Finally, the building blocks of democracy are unity, courage and hard work. Creating a stable, democratic system takes time and effort. It is a process that can’t be done quickly or based on set timelines. It is not an all-or-nothing system and requires the creation of a political order that is participatory and pluralist. But the example of so many people in so many different parts of the world being prepared to risk so much to live in a democracy is a testimony to its enduring appeal.



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