The Necessity for Delinking Democracy From Majoritarianism

When institutions weaken, so does the distinction between constitutional and representative democracy.

The terms, ‘majoritarian democracy’, ‘majority rule’ and ‘majoritarianism’ are often used interchangeably, but as recent events in several countries practising representative democracy have shown, there is a fine dividing line between them that is often overlooked to the detriment of the principles underlying universal franchise.

There is danger in equating ‘democracy’ – in whatever form, i.e. representative or direct – with ‘majoritarianism’.

There is a negative connotation associated with the latter that, if not disentangled, it robs the former of many of its fundamental principles when the Greeks first introduced the idea of democracy way back in 5th century BC.

Under ‘majoritarianism’, a majority of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society. Needless to add and consistent with rational behaviour, they will ensure that their interests are protected even at the expense of the rest. The crucial missing link is ‘trust’ that is often lost as is evident in the most ‘stable democracies’ in the world practising representative democracy in a form that has given rise to one community (be it in a ‘majority’ numerically or socially) wielding absolute power over another, or money enabling one class of affluent individuals use the electoral system to keep out less affluent groups.

A recent ranking of countries on the basis of ‘trust’, revealed some surprising results:

“The US has experienced a significant 37% point drop in trust across its institutions while at the opposite end of the scale, China experienced a 27-point gain”.

Significantly, the period covered included the Trump era. Notwithstanding recent developments, ‘Indians also place a high level of trust in their government with seven out of every ten people having faith in the political process’.

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The Indian evidence, however, merits further careful analysis. The ‘seven out of every 10 people’ may belong to a particular religious or social group who feel that their expectations have been fulfilled by the party they have elected at the expense of the remaining three who may belong to the marginalised or minority groups.

If so, this is evidence in favour of ‘majoritarianism’, not ringing evidence in favour of trust in all groups in the electoral system.

What the Global Trust Index based evidence also reported is that ‘in aggregate, India’s trust rating across government, media, NGOs and business fell 13 percentage points, statistically marking one of the sharpest decreases’.

Further insight into the Indian evidence is provided in a survey that reported a breakdown between institutions and elected offices by the degree of ‘trust’. At the top of the ladder are the army and the judiciary, while bringing up the rear are the executive (in the form of PM, CM), the Election Commission, the police, government officials and political parties.

A tribal woman shows her ink-marked finger after voting at a polling centre. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui 

Three of the ‘best’ examples of countries with a ‘representative’ democratic system are the US, UK and India. In an earlier piece, I argued that, on the basis of recent evidence, these three countries are also at the lower end of upward social mobility.

This result is perhaps not surprising if, as seems evident from the rise of Trump in the US and the fanning of nationalist hysteria in the UK on the back of Brexit, majority rule has led to the dismantling of plurality of views and the denial of opportunity of disadvantaged, minority and dissident groups to get a level playing field and move up the ladder.

The problem with the ‘first past the post, the winner who takes all’ electoral system is that the successful candidate has no incentive (indeed every disincentive) to look after the views of those who did not vote in favour of the winner. If the demographic or socioeconomic composition of the population is heavily weighted in favour of one group, majoritarianism inevitably follows. Indeed it is sanctioned by the system.

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In Australia, another example of a representative democracy built on ‘first past the post, winner takes all’ electoral system, the indigenous community, the original inhabitants whom the white settlers dispossessed, still have no official recognition in the Australian Constitution. In a classic example of majoritarianism, in a referendum in 1967 in Australia, where over 90 % of the people participated, the majority did not recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (that Australian indigenous people are known as) as first peoples.

Lest the reader feel that representative democracy inevitably drifts into ‘majoritarianism’, I should add that this did not happen in Canada or Norway, where indigenous groups have been granted the recognition that has been denied to their Australian counterparts. New Zealand, which has ‘representative democracy’ but no written constitution, also points to the non-inevitability of ‘majoritarianism’ by having a formal treaty with the original Maori inhabitants by the white settlers.

The concerns about ‘representative democracy’ have been voiced previously by the Nobel Laureate, James Buchanan. In his work with Gordon Tulloch, he argued in favour of a ‘constitutional democracy’ where the general voting populace, within the political society, had effective means of

(a) controlling the elected representatives in the government and
(b) holding them accountable (responsible, or answerable) for their decisions and actions while in public office.

Technically, India, unlike the US, is an example of ‘constitutional democracy’, since the Indian constitution, via the judiciary, holds the elected representatives accountable for their actions. Such safeguards assume, as did the members of the constituent assembly when drafting the Indian constitution, the continuing role of a strong media and judiciary in protecting the interests and rights of all groups, be they religious or socioeconomic.

When institutions weaken, so does the distinction between constitutional and representative democracy. One way to prevent such a distinction from getting blurred is to separate the judiciary from the executive, not just in its working, but also in the way judicial appointments are made by ensuring that such selections are made at an arms-length from the government of the day.

Interestingly, neither in the US nor in India, is this the case. Similarly, when one sees the lack of diversity in coverage and opinions in mainstream media, it is clear we are losing out on one of the most effective means to ensure accountability and foster trust in the electorate.

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In the context of India, I wish to argue for a convention that takes a fresh look at our political and electoral systems, and the way political parties are funded. India’s democratic principles are built on a solid foundation that merits full credit to the members of the constituent assembly and makes the country stand out positively in South Asia. In the 70th year since the framing of the constitution, it is timely to take a fresh look at democratic principles and devise measures that seek to increase the trust of the people in the political and electoral processes. That trust has to be inclusive and not just from ‘seven in 10 people’, as the above-quoted evidence suggests.

There is a lack of trust, that is endangering the very existence of an inclusive democratic system, that all the citizens have confidence in and feel beneficial in being a part of. It is this lack of trust that one sees in the three countries of UK, US, and India that are cited as the most prominent examples of universal suffrage. The lack of trust is not just in the political system but between different sections of society.

NGOs, universities, a strong judiciary along with an enlightened and non-sectarian media can ensure accountability of elected politicians. Photo: Reuters

A significant factor underlying this lack of trust is the sharp rise in polarisation in all these countries, though the polarised groups are quite different between these countries. A comprehensive analysis of the role of polarisation in endangering democracy and ushering in majoritarianism has been provided in the edited volume, ‘Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization’, where the editors, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue, have echoed a very similar opinion.

They specifically mention the US, Poland. Turkey and India as among the severely polarised countries where ‘political entrepreneurs have exploited and exacerbated long-simmering divisions for their own purposes—in the process undermining the prospects for democratic consensus and productive governance.’ Carothers and O’Donohue go on to make an interesting point:

“A growing economy would ease polarisation. Yet we found that in some places, such as India, it actually made things worse. Indeed, the growth of India’s middle class has led to rising support for polarizing Hindu nationalist narratives.”

The slide towards majoritarianism has thus become inevitable.

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Fighting polarisation is the key to ensuring that the principles of a democratic system are preserved. This can be done by focussing on institutional reforms, such as decentralising political power or changing electoral rules. Carothers and O’Donohue suggest ‘ranked-choice voting, a system that favours centrist candidates and discourages negative campaigning’. They also cite the case of Kenya that ‘adopted a new constitution in 2010 that sought to ease ferocious competition for national office by giving regional officials greater autonomy and control over state resources’.

I would go beyond institutional reforms and point to the significant role that can be played by NGOs and the universities (more generally, institutes of higher learning), a strong judiciary along with an enlightened and non-sectarian media in ensuring accountability in the elected politicians and building up trust in the population at large, inclusive of all groups, minority or otherwise.

In the end, there is no alternative to open and transparent democratic societies. We need to guard against the dangers that threaten the character of such societies.

Ranjan Ray is a professor of economics at Monash University.