Political parties have started a trend preventing peaceful transfer of power based on unfavourable electoral results
n political science academic circles, we exhibit a fairly clear preference for democracy as the most desirable form of government. As one would expect, people who have, to put it mildly, less than an ideal experience of practical democracy, such as in the case of Pakistan, justifiably question our pro-democracy bias. Sometimes, these questions take quite a simplistic form such as: what has democracy given us except a corrupt elite? On other occasions, somewhat polished theoretical questions around the democracy’s propensity to descend into majoritarian autocracies are raised.
It would be academically imprudent and intellectually arrogant to brush off either type of questions. In such discussions, whatever riposte one may muster in defence of democracy, invites further challenges. Democracy, after all, as Churchill admitted, is the worst form of government except for all others that have been tried from time to time. Lately, I have figured that there is one argument to vindicate democracy that I feel comfortable promoting: the chief merit of democracy is that it provides for a smooth, or at least smoother, transfer of power.
People may make poor decisions. From time to time, they may return leaders to power where one may be led to see the less funny side of Mark Twain’s ageless wit in his saying: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” But the principal logic behind democracy is not that people are wise and therefore, the matters of collective significance should be left to their judgment. Rather, it is that even fools may be slightly wiser the next time around.
Compare this to any other form of government. You may observe good or evil kings, benevolent or brutal dictators, but you will rarely see a transfer of power that is comparable to what we witness in even less than perfect democracies every few years.
I have started with this discussion about a single virtue of democracy – the transition from one party in government to another – due to a dangerous trend where political parties have started to raise reservations about the results of elections, and then make an effort to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. The argument naturally follows that if peaceful transition is the foremost merit of democracy, in undermining this process, we undermine not only democracy in how it is practiced but also the very concept on which democracy rests.
Does this mean that elections are always fair and that a party should accept results even when there are glaring flaws in the process? Far from it; but parties should know better than to raise doubts about and try to overturn the results of elections without providing verifiable evidence in support of such claims. If unwelcome results are the only proof of election misconduct, that is hardly ground for reversing the outcomes.
Going into the elections, whenever they are held, and whether those are held in parts or simultaneously, I would imagine that any party that competes for public office would abide by some basic rules of the game. The foremost among such rules is that there is no party that should be certain of a specific outcome. A party or movement might be riding a visible wave but that is at best an approximation of the popularity of its leadership, and does not have the same legal standing as that of an electoral mandate. If a party participates in the elections without showing readiness to accept adverse outcomes, it has assumed a dishonest approach to the process from the outset.
As we saw in the United States, leaders questioning the results of elections without evidence, comes at a significant cost for the democratic spirit, not only among the political class but also in the society. It breeds and nurtures cynicism and scepticism regarding democracy in the masses that usually results in apathy, and in some cases, outright radicalisation of the political sphere. Since Trump’s and the Republican Party’s questioning of the outcome of the 2020 presidential elections, the public trust in the American democracy has significantly eroded. Among those on the far right, there are calls for resorting to violent overthrow of the government. The situation in Pakistan can be even more dire with our lack of clarity regarding democracy and, in the clear and present ideological challenges, that our transitionary democracy continues to face.
Such rejection of results can become an unending cycle. If one party can reject election results without proof, what prevents the other from emulating it when it finds itself lower down the podium? This is a recipe for unending political instability that a country like Pakistan can hardly afford and this undermines not only the credibility of our democracy among our own population but also among the members of the international community.
The other issue with promoting unfounded allegations of electoral malpractice is that it presents opposing parties as essentially dishonest actors. While one can reconcile with actors across ideological or political spectrum, reconciling with actors one has framed as essentially evil is a more difficult proposition. This will further harm the social and political cohesion that has continuously been shredded for the last many years.
Rather than question the results of the elections after unfavourable results, a party with truly principled positions would work towards and legislate for transparency in the electoral process. Democracy is less a form of government and more of an approach to social life. How a people take a win or loss – with magnanimity or otherwise – reveals a lot about their individual and collective character.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science. He can be reached at email@example.com