Majoritarian democracy vs republican democracy

The road to democracy is a process not an event, and will require an ongoing struggle.

Arab Flags
"Good governance is impossible without some sense of community," writes Professor Falk [Reuters]

Amid the political turmoil spoiling the Middle East politics is a conceptual confusion that contributes to acute political alienation of those societal elements that feel subject to a governmental leadership and policy agenda that is perceived as hostile to their interests and values. Such circumstances are aggravated by political cultures that have been accustomed to “one-man shows” that accentuate tendencies towards adoration and demonisation.

Each national situation reflects the particularities of history, culture, values, and a host of other considerations, and at the same time, there are certain shared tendencies that reflect commonalities of experience, as well as the deformed import of Western hegemonic ideas of modernity, constitutionalism, and governance.

The recent political turmoil in Turkey and Egypt, each in its own way, is illustrative.

Same but different

In Egypt, this circumstance led to determined opposition to the elected leadership, especially to Mohamed Morsi, the president drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The aim of this opposition seemed to be to create a crisis of governability of sufficient depth to provoke a crisis of legitimacy, which could then produce a populist challenge from below that would bring together ideological demands for a different kind of political leadership and material demands for a better life. In the end, those who had pleaded so persuasively for freedom in Tahrir Square were two years later calling on the armed forces to engage in the most brutal expressions of counter-revolutionary vengeance.

In Turkey, such a collision has recently produced turmoil and highlighted the dangers and passions that accompany lethal polarisation, initially, in the encounters at Gezi Park and later, in a titanic struggle between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey is different than Egypt in at least two major respects. First of all, its economy has flourished in the past decade, producing a rising middle class, and a business community with lots to lose if investor confidence and currency exchange rates decline sharply. This reality is complicated by the fact that part of those that have gained economically have been aligned with the AKP, and by the degree to which the Turkish armed forces are also major stakeholders in the private sector. Secondly, a major achievement of the AKP leadership has been to depoliticise the role of the Turkish military, partly to protect itself against interference and partly to satisfy European Union accession criteria.

Absence of community

Alienation and emotional distress is more a symptom than an explanation of why there exist such strong political tensions. Better understood, these conflicts are about class, religion, status, political style, and the benefits of governmental control. An additional source of public antagonism is the unresolved, and mostly unacknowledged, debate about the true nature of democracy as the ideal for good governance. One perplexing element is language, especially its use by politicians concerned with public opinion.

There is this impulse on one side to base governmental legitimacy on pleasing the citizenry, and on the other side, to insist upon fidelity to law and constitutionalism. Each side is motivated by unshakeable convictions, and has no disposition to listen, much less appreciate, what the others are saying. In effect, good governance is impossible without some sense of community, and what has become evident is that society unity is currently unattainable in the presence of the sort of alienation that has gripped the publics in Egypt and Turkey, and elsewhere.

Pining for old times

Part of the controversy can be reduced to these differences over the very nature of democracy, which needs to be qualified in one of two ways: majoritarian or republican. And here is the central tension: the public myth in all countries that deem themselves “modern” endorse the republican tradition of limited government and internal checks and balances, while the political culture is decidedly ambivalent. It can spontaneously legitimise the majoritarian prerogatives of a popular leader with strong societal backing. Those displaced, lament authoritarian tendencies that never troubled them in the past when they held the reins of governmental authority.

Part of the recent confusion is that sometimes the authoritarian tendency gets so corrupted that it loses support among those who share its class and ideological outlook, and a reformist enthusiasm emerges. This happened in Egypt, but its tenure was short lived as its adherents, drawn from the ranks of the urban educated elites, quickly realised that their interests and values were more jeopardised by the “new” order than it had been by the excesses of the “old” order.

The situation in Turkey is more subtle, yet exhibits several analogous features. Despite the outcome of elections that brought the AKP to power initially in 2002, subsequently reinforced by stronger electoral mandates in 2007 and 2012, most of the opposition never accepted these results as legitimate. In the background of this alienation was the implicit and feared belief that the AKP was mounting a challenge to the strong secularist legacy of Kemal Ataturk. With political acumen, the AKP manoeuvred pragmatically, creating a rapidly growing economy, proclaiming its fidelity to the secular creed, and by stages subjecting the armed forces to civilian control. Despite the magnitude of these achievements the AKP and Erdogan never gained respect from the anti-religious opposition. Strangely, this alienated opposition was never able to present a responsible opposition platform that could give the Turkish people a positive alternative.

Inside Story – Turkey: Political power struggle?

The Ataturk legacy included an acceptance of procedural democracy in the form of free and fair elections with the apparent implied assumption that the outcome would be faithful to his modernist orientation. When the AKP disappointed these expectations in 2002, the opposition became quickly fed up with the workings of “democracy”. Erdogan’s harsh style of discourse is particularly irritating to an already alienated opposition, reinforcing their belief that any alternative is better for Turkey than the AKP.

Similarly, the still obscure public falling out between the AKP and the hizmet movement has injected a new virus into the Turkish body politic. Perhaps Turkey is experiencing some of the mishaps associated with keeping a political party in power for too long. Such prolonged control of government almost inevitably produces scandal and corruption, especially in a political culture where the rule of law and the ethics of civic virtue have never been very strong.

Majoritarian or republican?

With this mix of considerations in mind, the distinction between “Majoritarian Democracy” and “Republican Democracy” seems important. In majoritarian democracy the leadership is essentially responsible to the electorate, and if its policies reflect the will of the majority, the views and values of opposed minorities need not be respected. Critical views treat such forms of government as susceptible to the “tyranny of the majority”. Arguably after Morsi’s election in 2012, and given the embittered opposition that seemed unwilling to accept the outcome of the vote, the MB used the prerogatives of office in a failed attempt to impose the majoritarian will.

Republican Democracy” in contrast, starts with a generally sceptical view of human nature, and seeks above all to find procedures and support the nurturing of a political culture that prizes moderate government over efficiency and transcendent leadership. The American adoption of republican democracy is a classic instance of moulding a constitutional system that was wary of majorities and protective of minorities and of individual rights (although initially totally blind to the human claims of slaves and native Americans).

Delinking government from religious claims of certainty was also consistent with republican sensitivity to human flaws and the general ethos of Lord Acton’s famous saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Because over time every political system faces crises, the American founders realised that the envisioned arrangements would only survive the tests of time if two conditions were met: first, reverence for the constitution by both lawmakers and citizens, and second, judicial supremacy to override legislative and executive swings towards either implementing the momentary passions of the mob or aggrandising power and authority, and thereby upsetting the delicate balance of institutions.

It need hardly be argued that neither Egypt nor Turkey are remotely similar to the United States but the superficial embrace of democracy by these and other countries might benefit from examining more closely the menace of majoritarian democracy in a fragmented polity and the difficulties of establishing republican democracy in political cultures that have been so long controlled by militarism and authoritarianism.

Egypt is experiencing the essentially anti-democratic restoration of authoritarian militarism, while Turkey is trying to preserve sufficient stability and consensus to enable the self-restrained persistence of procedural democracy and a successful process of constitutional renewal that rids the country of the 1982 militarist vision of governance, and moves towards creating the institutional and procedural frame and safeguards associated with republican democracy. Such a vision of a democratic future for Turkey implies a process, not an event, and will require an on-going struggle inevitably distracted by crises of legitimacy. The hope is that calm minds will prevail; serving the long-term interests of a state that retains great potential to be a beacon of light in the region and beyond.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.