Zombie democracy, or crass majoritarianism

Voting in South Africa
Voting in South Africa

This opinion piece from the British Economist deals with the ‘zombie democracy’ of Turkey, but it might as well have been written about South Africa since 1994 where huge majorities entitle rulers to trample upon the basic rights of minorities, such as whites and Afrikaners.

“BUT I’ve won three elections!” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s embattled prime minister, growls at his critics. On the face of it, his case is compelling: surely, many people in Turkey and beyond would agree, popularly elected leaders can govern as they please? That’s what democracy means.

Well, no. Majoritarianism—the credo of an expanding group of elected but autocratic rulers around the world, which holds that electoral might always makes you right—is not true democracy, even if, on the face of it, the two things look alike. It is worth explaining why.

To begin with, democratic legitimacy isn’t merely a correlative of a ruler’s share of the vote. Few candidates in the West nowadays win more than half of the votes, still less a majority of the electorate. Most are obliged to govern with slim electoral mandates.

If broad support does not automatically qualify a leader as a democrat, nor does strong opposition disqualify him. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms were contentious, to say the least. The heat and vitriol of politics have intensified in the Fox News, shock-jock, bile-blogging era: Barack Obama is often lambasted as tyrannical or traitorous. Tough decisions, such as spending cuts or tax rises, can provoke widespread anger, as the past few years have demonstrated. Bold reforms, which The Economist applauds, often do the same. That doesn’t make the leaders who impose them undemocratic, either.

The issue is how the relationship between supporters and opponents is managed. In part this is a matter of rules and institutions to constrain a leader’s power and to allow the aggrieved to find redress. These should include a robust account of citizens’ basic rights, independent courts to enforce them and free media to monitor them.

Beyond documents and institutions, the difference between crass majoritarianism and democracy resides in the heads of the mighty. Democrats have a bedrock understanding that the minority (or often majority) who did not vote for them are as much citizens of their country as those who did, and are entitled to a respectful hearing; and that a leader’s job is to deliberate and act in the national interests, not just those of his supporters. Turkey’s protesters took to the streets because they believed Mr Erdogan was not just hostile to their interests but deaf to their complaints. By demonising them as terrorists and foreign agents, and pulverising them with tear gas and water cannon, he has vindicated this belief. The contrast with Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff has insisted that demonstrators have a right to protest, is striking.


The basic idea of a democracy is that the voters should pick a government, which rules as it chooses until they see fit to chuck it out. But although voting is an important democratic right, it is not the only one. And winning an election does not entitle a leader to disregard all checks on his power. The majoritarian world view espoused by Mr Erdogan and leaders of his ilk is a kind of zombie democracy. It has the outward shape of the real thing, but it lacks the heart.

Read the whole article in The Economist.

About these ads