Raza Habib Raja
I remember in 2006 when during the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans were fighting for the control of Senate. Although the popularity of George W Bush was waning due to a host of factors such as Iraq war and the Katrina Hurricane mismanagement, but it was still a very close fight. In USA, some seats are considered solid Republicans and some are solid Democrats. Who controls the Senate is eventually decided in what are known as “toss up” constituencies.
One of the presumably “solid” republican seats was of Senator George Allen of Virginia. As the campaign drew to a close, a controversy stirred up which ultimately led to George Allen’s defeat by a few thousand votes. The controversy erupted because in one of the speeches, Senator which at that time was leading the polls by a double digit percentage, called one of the associates of his democratic rival as “Macacca” which is a racial slur. It was perhaps nothing but a verbal gaffe which however was seized upon by the rival party with full ferocity. Suddenly George Allen was fighting for his survival as his lead started to erode in the polls. Despite several clarifications, he could not stem the reversal and went on to lose the seat. With the loss of that seat, GOP lost the control of the senate as well.
This incidence showed the all important aspect of what is known as “Political Correctness” especially with respect to ethnic minorities in the US society. What George Allen did was not something illegal but was politically incorrect and once it was aired in the public sphere, it resulted in his political demise. This is what defines a modern Western democracy today: You cannot get away by indulging in any racial insult.
When strong incumbents lose their seats over one gaffe, it shows that the population also, not just the state, takes treatment of minorities extremely seriously. A country’s tolerant character is often epitomized by what it considers politically correct.
In fact if we take a deeper look at most of the western countries, we will see the same pattern. This is not to say that racial or ethnical discrimination simply does not exist. It does exist but population and the state by and large do not endorse it and are ready to react when a certain line is crossed.
Contrast this with a country like Pakistan. Here our politicians and media personalities can easily whip up hatred against minorities or utter derogatory remarks about a religious minority and get away with it, at times with a thundering applause.
But politically correct behavior is just one aspect of the Western society. The state and its laws are often geared towards protection of minority. A law is nothing if not believed and backed up by majority of the population. Although democracy is a game of numbers but many of the Western societies have taken extra care that minority on ethnic/religious lines should be adequately safeguarded against majority’s possible hegemony. Particularly after the horrors inflicted by the Nazi Germany and given the fact that Hitler was democratically elected, the West has started to emphasize more on restrictions on majority.
In Western societies, the democracy is basically an improvised form (not just majority rule) which while agreeing to majority rule tries to enshrine protection of minorities from possible tyranny of majority. Yes, majority is needed for ensuring expression of popular will but it does not mean that majority should coalesce to infringe the basic rights of the minority particularly when the later is defined along religious or ethnic lines. That is why generally for possible “violation” a super majority is needed.
For example in United States, Bills of Right go extra step to protect basic individual freedom. These catalogue the rights that have to be upheld by the government, thus protecting, the rights of ANY minority against majority tyranny. Today, these rights are considered the essential element of any liberal democracy. Essentially the Bills of Right RESTRICT the scope of majority and try protecting the minority.
The tyranny of the majority (at times brought through voting mechanism) has been one of the most defining features of the last century. The chequered history in this respect has elevated the need for protection of minorities from possible abuse of the majorities as one of the foremost priorities. The UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, defines not just individual rights but also minimum protections for minorities. Article 27 asserts:
“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”
The above clearly shows that modern democracy (it is an improvised form of democracy) is not merely a game of numbers but it tries to fulfil the criteria of non violation of basic rights of the minorities. Yes while it is true that majority rule is important as a mean of popular expression but at the same time, it is not the ONLY criteria. Democracy is a complex phenomenon and would require other caveats such as adequate protection of minorities to be a liberal democracy. In a true liberal democracy the dominance of majority is counterchecked by proper protection of minorities.
But can this thing be replicated here? One has to remember that in some ways all the laws and minority protection mechanisms reflect the society’s consensus. A related and in fact extremely important question is that given that a country like Pakistan is infected by widespread bigotry, can some thing like the above be made a part of the constitution.
The answer is a tricky one because in representative democracy you do not seek direct approval on each bill or legislation. In fact you can pass an apparently unpopular bill and yet still be elected ( as your overall performance is perceived to be positive). In representative democracy, it is often the consensus of the representatives (which in the case of a backward society like Pakistan are mostly the elites) and not the consensus of the entire population which in reality matters. Of course, the assumption is that since representatives are accountable to the electorate therefore in some ways they cannot go against its will. But this assumption is over simplistic as it does not fully capture the principal agent problem arising out of the very nature of representative democracy. It is not possible for the principal, in this case the voters, to keep track of every legislation and even if it does , then it is not possible for it to stop it. Even highly unpopular legislations are at times passed and decision taken and yet the party survives the subsequent elections. Of course, this is not the case if the issue assumes so much importance that it becomes the sole concern. However, this is seldom the case.
In Pakistan case, I remember a bill pertaining to amendments to Hadood Ordinance was passed despite opposition of religious and conservative parties. It needed 2/3rd majority and PPP and PMLQ (then supporting Musharraf ) coalesced to get it passed. I am sure that the general population was not exactly supportive of such amendment and yet it got passed.
Of course not every “unpopular” legislation can be passed like this but to say that nothing can take place without direct consensus is also not completely accurate.
What in a democracy like Pakistan really matters is the BOTH opinion and the will of political elites and that of electorate. It will vary on issue to issue and on sensible handling of the political elite. Political elite can show maturity and can give a proper direction to masses. Obviously on some issues, it will not be possible.
For that matter, even in West during 19th and a large part of 20th century, it was the attitude of elites which provided the basis for constitutional liberalism. In fact it preceded universal suffrage.
I think, that political parties are not merely a representation of ideological expression of the populace. Rather a reciprocal relationship exists and parties through engagement also try to influence the people. In Pakistan case, leading political parties such as PPP and PMLN have to play that role.
Besides political maneuvering, the respect for minorities also needs to be cultivated in the public sphere. Right now the situation is extremely precarious with bigoted right wing anchors and televangelists. The liberals have to show courage and confront them on the mainstream media.
There are signs that they are beginning to. Recently, for example, Muhammad Hanif was extremely vocal on electronic media against the blasphemy law and spoke courageously against clergy.
There is a drift, we are seeking, and that drift starts to take place when such voices become increasingly prominent in the discourse. For those who are completely skeptical, let me remind them, West went out of abyss through a period known as enlightment..