Look at the state of the world’s democratic nations, and it is easy to see why so many are concerned for the future of democracy.
Leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have centralised political power by changing their countries’ constitutions, silencing dissent and controlling the media. Since 2016’s coup attempt in Turkey, Erdoğan’s government has used the subsequent state of emergency to incarcerate thousands without trial. Opposition politicians, judges, journalists and academics have been thrown in jail – all following a successful referendum that saw the office of president shed many of the restraints of parliament. The recent presidential elections then returned Erdoğan to office, albeit with the slimmest of majorities.
Given this climate of fear and censorship, the people cannot be said to have voted freely. But the fact that they did vote raises a fundamental question: can an electorate vote democracy away?
The people have spoken … sort of
First of all, there are important distinctions between general elections and constitutional referendums, and each comes with its own set of democratic dangers.
In Turkey and the UK, narrow referendum results have endorsed fundamental constitutional change. But these referendums are not, like general elections, exercising the democratic right to select leaders. Instead, they are making complex governmental decisions that often require understanding of specialist information, way beyond what could reasonably be expected of an ordinary person. Voting on such questions – usually concerning fundamental long-term change – ought to, and often does require a super majority. Otherwise, as we can see from the 52/48 split in the UK’s Brexit vote, the results can be highly contentious.
General elections do not require super majorities, and the government is formed from whichever party captures enough seats to command the legislative assembly, or, in a proportional system, the opportunity to lead a coalition. Frequently, the popular vote is not reflected in the number of seats a party wins. In Hungary, Orbán’s Fidesz party won 49% of the vote, but 133 of the 199 available seats. In the US Hillary Clinton gained more votes overall, but lost the presidency under the electoral college system.
These divergences are well-established, and when elections are contested between two moderate parties trying to appeal to the middle ground (as has been the case across Europe for many years), such anomalies have not caused too much instability. But in today’s more extreme, divergent political climate, a greater number of governments could emerge that are divisive and extremely unstable. When there is enough support for the extremes, they can be elected against the wishes of the majority of the population, leaving the ordinary voter faced with “democratically elected” leaders whose policies they vehemently oppose.
Tale as old as time
The concept of electorate-mandated autocracy goes back as far as the modern democratic state. In his Eighteenth Brumaire, Karl Marx lamented the election of Napoleon III in 1848 that led to him declaring himself “emperor” in 1852. Marx observed how easy it was for an already centralised power to centralise further, and remove the institutions that might stop it from doing so. He lamented too, how easy it was to adopt a “heroic” personality, and to strategically appeal to the interests of specific groups of people in order to win an election. The appeals are of course hollow, but they can harness the support of those seduced by charisma and strength.
To suggest that electorates deliberately, or consciously vote for autocracy is another matter. The standard explanation is that people know not what they do – that they are swept up in a desire to be part of something greater than themselves. This is partly true, but there are certainly those that support autocracy and hold extreme views. When these elements represent a significant enough minority they can sometimes sweep enough people into their narratives to elect an extreme leader whose views do not represent the body politic.
More than a vote
But even in a vote with high turnout, an electorate free of disproportionately powerful minorities, and a legislative assembly aligned entirely with the popular vote, the results of an election could be wholly undemocratic. An election, to hold validity, must be “free and fair”.
Many recent votes have been blighted by constraints on the press, manipulation of social media and data (note the Cambridge Analytica story), and defamatory campaigns that have strangled the free flow of information. Targeted attacks on those representing “the establishment” (such as George Soros during the Hungarian elections), destabilise the moderate views and institutions associated with them, and foster a divisive “us and them” mentality.
The institutions that structure political power and authority can also easily be centralised, particularly in moments of recognised stress, such as war or a state of emergency. These provide a reason or excuse for consolidation of executive power, allowing the governing class to make decisions without having to go through regular legislative channels. And once in place, these can be difficult to reverse. Turkey’s state of emergency, the US Patriot Act and Britain’s Prevent legislation are all examples of the power states have acquired to act without regard for due process.
Turkey’s presidential elections, and its presidential referendum, were not democratic because the state had already become autocratic. Rather, they were exercises in projecting an image of democracy, since states that run elections are popularly assumed to be democratic. In reality the vote was not free, so the people did not “vote against” democracy.
Democracy is about more than just voting. It is about freedom of speech, the separation of executive from legislative power, judicial independence, and political equality. Democratic institutions exist to keep power from becoming centralised in a single, despotic location. Once these institutions begin to weaken, and the only remaining element of democracy is the pretence of elections, then democracy in its meaningful form is already gone.
Powerless votes perpetuating pre-existing autocracies are barely votes at all. And a democratic vote that votes against democracy, probably wasn’t very democratic in the first place.