A quick skim through a dusty history or political science tome will tell you of a time when democracy was the new kid on the playground. The world then was populated with aging monarchies and dictatorships or autocracies that had lost their allure.
The franchise, a stake in deciding where and how a political system would be, was all the rage, glistening in the eyes of beholders wearied by wars into which their autocrats or dictators or kings had led them. A stake, a turn to people power, could — would — prevent all of this; the masses, it was assumed, would like to avert mass death, and it would be better for one and all. Then came the Second World War, a moment when the extension of the franchise, the ability of the individual to vote, to think and discuss and decide, proved terribly inadequate.
Together, the many ‘individuals’ who made up the Weimar Republic voted for a mass murderer, a mass murderer who represented the will of the masses. Energised and empowered, Hitler stomped all over Europe and even the fragile republics; the intellectual elites, thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, designers like Coco Chanel, and many more, capitulated. If they did not tout the cause of the strong man serial killer in town, they stayed quiet.
De Beauvoir signed a declaration swearing to her Aryan heritage; many others did so as well. They say that the power of a genocidal state is in the complicity it wins from everyone not doing the killing. They do not wield the pistol, turn the knob that will release the gas, order the execution, but they sign the papers, they look the other way, they say it is simply what is necessary, what they have to do.
The post-war years took this experience seriously, and the birthing of constitutions was an effort to provide against just that. If the votes of the masses permitted for the expression of popular will, then the constitution would protect those whose welfare is usually of little concern to the masses: the minorities, the women, the most vulnerable. To safeguard their interests, there would be an independent judiciary, interpreting and applying the constitution that a polity and its representatives had written for itself.
The era of constitutional democracy has been a good one. The march began in the West but it endeared itself to many more; the election, the constitution, a signal that a country was signing itself up as a modern polity, committed to both the majority and the minority, to the idea that consensus could deliver what a diktat could not. Elections were essential to the march of constitutional democracy, an aspiration that those who did not yet have them could hope and aim for.
The first decades of this millennium changed even that. In this, the militant phase of democracy went on the march. Those that had not signed up, the US unofficially declared, would have their hands forced, their unwilling signatures produced by threat or even by bombs.
Dictators were felled and elections instituted, the inked thumb or the lined finger became the visuals, to those who voted in unwilling democracies, of what would be soon arriving: law and order, jobs, the heady heedlessness of the Americans who had brought the doctrine with them. Afghan women held up their fingers, Iraqi grandfathers did too. Having an election was the beginning; affluence would be the end.
That affluence never came. It turns out that the believers in many new democracies had read the research studies wrong, as had the ones in old democracies. These were studies that said that democracies could really only sustain themselves if per capita income was above a certain level. Those in new democracies had thought the income would come once democracy was there. Those in old democracies thought democracy would always stay if the income remained.
Both have been proven wrong. Americans who went marching about, smashing institutions that didn’t fit and conjuring up security forces that did not exist have been forced, following the election of Donald Trump, to reconsider its worth and value. Two years ago, the voters of that country delivered up a president who may believe in democracy but seems to have mixed feelings about the constitution, about the restraints it places on his power, on the checks it imposes on his lack of balance.
This has implications for the whole world. The democracy that the world has left is a lot less shiny, quite a bit tarnished with the scum of being subjected to too much, and not polished quite enough. Pakistanis who voted on Wednesday have to contend with this democracy, shorn of its ebullience and optimism, of its too flashy promises of certain betterment.
The question, then, for those who will take time out — who should take time out — to stand in line and wait in the heat to cast their vote is a complicated one. Can this democracy of now, this not so bright democracy, which carries the burdens of war and sacrifice, of failure and detriment, be loved by those whose stake in the system it seeks to protect from themselves, from the sum of many selves?
The answer for Pakistan is not yet clear or known, but it is important. Those who voted today will participate in a system that is far from perfect, whose failings are increasingly well known and whose promises are increasingly meagre. It is, however, the system we have, the system that ensures that it is the many millions and not the select few who set out today, whose decisions matter today.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.