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Saturday Jan 09 2021

Democracy in decline: But can we save it?

US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results by the US Congress, in Washington, US, January 6, 2021. Photo: Reuters/File

If I could recommend two books to read this winter, it would be: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and How to Rig an Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. Once you read them, an out-of-control mob taking over the United States Capitol doesn’t seem surprising.

While we may be spending an inordinate amount of time examining “Trumpocracy”, one must pause and also evaluate how America got to where it did today. There are centuries-old questions, left unanswered about America’s democratic system and its values. And this will be the foremost challenge for President-elect Joe Biden.

In How Democracies Die, the authors, both Harvard professors, explain how democracies fail and how leaders like Donald J. Trump subvert the system.

“Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking,” they state in the opening pages of the book, “We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about the failures of democracy in other places and times. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.”

Read more: Trump banned on Twitter due to risk of more violence

But now, admit the authors, they find themselves turning towards their own country. “Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States.”

While, How to Rig an Election is a comprehensive analysis of election fraud in other countries. The writers go into exhaustive details about how democratic values are undermined through manipulation and by using different methods of rigging.

It is unsettling that despite the damage to democratic institutions done by Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they still remain popular amongst their support base. Had the pandemic not caused the devastation it had in the United States, in all likelihood Trump would have been heading for a second term.

So, who is to blame? The men who abused power or the political parties who put them there and gave them a platform?

Tolerance is the essence of democracy. But these two leaders, Modi and Trump, have upended the entire dynamics of democracy and for their own political gains targeted countries, nations and religions.

In other countries, such has been the trend that the United States would often refuse to accept election results as legitimate if the party coming to power had an anti-American slant. For decades, the Americans funded anti-communist groups around the world in the name of democracy and were instrumental in the overthrow of democratic regimes.

Read more: As America moves forward, is there a cure for Trumpism?

Even in Pakistan, Washington supported dictators like Field Marshal Ayub Khan. It played a role in the separation of East Pakistan. It backed the opposition to overthrow the elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, after he refused to shut down the nuclear program. It supported General Zia ul Haq. And then let’s not forget the role the US played in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

It is also no secret that Washington stood with the last military dictator in Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, and pressurised former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to accept Musharraf as president after the 2007 election, later postponed to 2008.

When a superpower takes such positions in a country like Pakistan, which already has a fragile democratic system due to decades of “political engineering” by some all-powerful quarters, our democracy is further compromised.

But let’s go back to America. “Democracy of the people, by the people and for the people” has unfortunately also brought Trump and Modi to power. But the political parties who supported them, who stood behind these men should also not be so easily absolved of responsibility.

The next few weeks and months are important for the US. No one can predict the future. Trump may be down but not entirely out.

Read more: Trump tells supporters at Washington rally he will 'never concede'

However, if political parties, around the world, decide to evict anti-democratic people from within, democracy will not have to die.

Abbas is a senior analyst and columnist of GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO