What if the ‘people’ don’t want democracy?

Polling data shows that many people – from Libya to South Asia – are wary of democratic systems.

Inside Story - Hunting down the remnants of Gaddafi''s regime
Only a third of Libyans reportedly say they want a democracy within five years [EPA]

Oxford, United Kingdom – A survey has revealed that the people of Libya may not be keen on democracy after all. The “Arab Spring” has been celebrated in the Western world as a struggle of democracy against dictatorship. Often the implicit assumption was that what the revolutionaries who were trying to overthrow their authoritarian regimes wanted was a Western-style parliamentary democracy. So when only 15 per cent of those surveyed in Libya say they want democracy established in a year, compared with 40 per cent who profess a preference for a “strong leader”, it’s a bit of a let-down for Western cheerleaders of the upheavals in the Arab world. Moreover, apparently only about a third of those polled wanted democracy even in five years’ time.

 Inside Story – Libya in transition

According to the BBC, one of the academics involved with the poll said that “the survey suggested Libyans lacked the knowledge of how democracy works”. As Libyans have just emerged from a long and reportedly oppressive dictatorship, that is probably true, but that very lack of knowledge may just as well have elicited an overly optimistic view of democracy.

The results of democratic government are also apparent from news reports from other countries. Tortuous or seemingly patronising explanations offered for the preferences revealed by the Libyans demonstrate our reluctance to confront the reality that many of “the people” – not just in Libya but everywhere else – may not really want democracy, or may have deeply ambivalent or conflicted attitudes towards democracy, despite its apparent triumph as a political system.

Democracy has emerged as such a compelling political idea in recent decades, that to express anything other than unquestioning devotion to it risks being taken to be political heresy. Amartya Sen wrote that, despite the many momentous events of the 20th century, he had no difficulty in identifying the “emergence of democracy as the pre-eminently acceptable form of governance” as the century’s most important development. Democracy does not mean just elections. It includes certain values as well as expectations about the social, political and economic results it might produce. The Libyan survey results seem less awkward when one considers the fact that what people really want is good governance, however delivered. The power of democracy as a form of governance is based on the argument that while it may not be perfect, democracy is most likely to produce the best outcome in terms of governance, compared to the alternatives.

Greater exposure to democracy

Libyans certainly have had little exposure to democracy. It is most interesting therefore to compare their responses to questions about democracy with the first ever simultaneous survey on attitudes to democracy conducted a few years ago in five South Asian countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka – which collectively have a lot more experience of democracy than Libya. (State of Democracy in South Asia, Oxford University Press, 2008).

The South Asian survey revealed widespread support for democracy, but also revealed some fractures in the depth of that support. For example, 62 per cent of those surveyed said they preferred democracy to any other form of government, while only ten per cent clearly preferred dictatorship in certain circumstances. However, 28 per cent of respondents – quite a significant proportion – said that it did not matter to people like themselves whether the government was democratic or non-democratic. About a third of respondents, also a high proportion, did not understand the question or did not give any response.

The results are even more interesting – and worrying in terms of support for democracy – when one compares the specific responses in India and Pakistan. Support for democracy was weakest in Pakistan among all five countries surveyed. The authors of the report pointed out that when the survey was conducted, Pakistan was under authoritarian military rule. It is unclear how exactly that influenced the responses. When asked an open-ended question about what democracy meant to them, most people in both India and Pakistan responded very positively to the idea of democracy. Only seven per cent of Indians and eight per cent of Pakistanis described democracy in negative terms.

However, when it came to the question of preferring democracy to other (interpreted as authoritarian) forms of governance, the results were different. While 70 per cent of Indians clearly preferred democracy, only 37 per cent of Pakistanis did so. Similarly, only nine per cent of Indians expressed a clear preference for dictatorship, to 14 per cent of Pakistanis. One may put this down to the relative inexperience of Pakistan with a functioning democracy, as has been suggested in the case of the Libyan survey. However, just as in Libya, the experience of living under dictatorship could also have boosted support for democracy, even if only as an aspirational ideal, especially if the experience of dictatorship had been particularly negative.

Does democracy matter?

The third type of response on this question in the South Asian survey provokes us to think even more carefully about interpreting the strength of support for democracy, even after several decades of experience with it. A staggering 49 per cent of Pakistanis said that it did not matter to them whether the government was democratic or not. Even more surprisingly, 21 per cent of Indian respondents also said that it did not matter to people such as themselves whether the government was democratic or dictatorial. Added to the fact that a third of respondents offered no response at all, many people in countries with substantial experience of democracy or with significant experience of both democracy and dictatorship appear to share the Libyans’ ambivalence about democracy as the preferred form of governance.

This ambivalence is probed further in the South Asian survey by a process of elimination of respondents who say they approve of democracy, but would entertain authoritarian rule in some circumstances, do not care one way or the other, or who like the idea of rule by the army or a monarch, a “strong leader”, or government by technocratic experts. All five South Asian countries start out with broad support for democracy, but as soon as this process of elimination is applied, unequivocal support for democracy falls away sharply everywhere. Eventually unqualified support for democracy turns out to be in single digits everywhere other than India, and even in India it is a disappointing 19 per cent.

With all its experience of democracy, nearly 60 per cent of Indians still did not express unequivocal faith in democracy.”

Libyans would be interested to know that across the five South Asian countries, two-thirds of respondents also expressed a yearning for the rule of a “strong leader who does not have to bother about elections”. There was also an astonishingly high level of support for the option of military rule, even in India. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, who have both experienced military rule (and hence know its negatives), 60 per cent of respondents endorsed military rule. Even in India, which prides itself in never having allowed the army to venture out of civilian government control in more than sixty years, 23 per cent of respondents approved of army rule. The higher the level of education, the lower was the support for military rule, but as illiterate respondents across the five countries registered a high of 57 per cent support for military rule, even after falling off significantly with levels of education, 22 per cent of those who were graduates and post-graduates were still endorsing military rule.

The South Asian survey classified respondents as “strong democrats”, “weak democrats” and “non-democrats”. A “strong democrat” was defined as someone who expressed support for rule by elected representatives and always prefers it to non-democratic forms of government, while “non-democrats” equally clearly prefer non-democratic government. Across the five countries, 26 per cent were “strong democrats”, while 22 per cent were “non-democrats”. The highest proportion of “strong democrats” were in India (41 per cent) and lowest in Pakistan (ten per cent). This means, however, that with all its experience of democracy, nearly 60 per cent of Indians still did not express unequivocal faith in democracy. Indeed, 15 per cent of Indians were clearly categorised as “non-democrats”.

Most crucial are the figures for those described as “weak democrats” – respondents who expressed support for democracy, but did not reject various non-democratic forms of government. On average in the five South Asian countries, 52 per cent of respondents were “weak democrats”, indicating a worryingly high proportion of ambivalence about democracy, as these are people who could go either way at any crucial moment of decision about regime type. Even in India, 43 per cent of respondents fell in the “weak democrats” category, not that far off from Pakistan, where the proportion was 49 per cent.

Libya’s recent history is very different from the diverse political experience of South Asia, and Libyans being asked about their political preferences have emerged from a long spell of dictatorship with no direct experience of electoral politics. It is true that they do not know “how democracy works”, but what is interesting is that their ambivalence and inconsistent responses to democracy is shared by many others who do know “how democracy works”, or, indeed, how it doesn’t.

Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. She was a journalist in India for many years. She earned her degrees at Bryn Mawr College (History) and Harvard University (MPA and PhD in Political Economy and Government).