Strengths and Weaknesses of Democracy
While democracy is seen by many today as “the best regime” achieved by the Western people as a result of long struggles and quests, it should not be overlooked that serious debates arose around it, important criticisms have been directed, and the search for the better continues. Some of the criticisms directed toward democracy are ideological. And since it is ideological, a neutral and unbiased perspective could not be maintained. Therefore, it lacks scientific and academic values.
However, notable criticisms about democracy have been voiced by Western researchers, particularly Marxist writers and political Islamists, and its shortcomings and weaknesses have been noted. Fundamentally, democracy is not used by its own, but the very fact that it is also being referred next to epithets such as “secular, liberal, participatory, pluralist, majoritarian, Marxist, constitutional, social, developmentalist, Muslim, Christian, classical, authoritarian” and different definitions and varieties of democracy are being mentioned justify that different opinions and quests are still on the go.
It cannot be denied that democracy has important advantages against governments such as monarchy, oligarchy, and aristocracy, and provides important opportunities for the people towards securing freedoms and human rights and protecting the common interests of society. However, it is not the right point of view to claim that it is completely flawless and to regard it as the “last station for humanity”. Because criticisms about democracy and political searches in this field must continue in order to overcome some crises and depressions experienced by today’s people.
Renowned British politician Churchill’s following words, “Democracy is not the best form of regime, but the one with the least downsides.” and the following quote from Raymond Aron, who intensely criticizes democracy, “All pluralist regimes based on the constitution are oligarchic like all political regimes. However, democracy is less oligarchic than all known regimes.” provides important perspectives on democracy. From this point of view, although democracy is the best of the current political regimes, it is not that democracy does not have flaws or shortcomings.
It is useful to make a reminder at this point. What we focus on here is to emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as a system and a theory. Otherwise, it is a different matter how it is brought into practice, and what kind of troubles and abuses come into existence. Although there may be monarchic regimes that are quite fair and respectful to human rights, tyrannical regimes and dictatorships hiding under the mask of democracy may emerge as well.
Undoubtedly, one of the most important advantages of democracy compared to other regimes is that it ensures the power to change hands without fights and conflicts. The free elections and open ballot system allow the people to be ruled by the people they like and consent to. Likewise, democracy prevents power concentration and arrogance of power since it gives sovereignty to the people and adopts the principle of separation of powers. It also averts arbitrary practices since it is based on the rule of law on one side and paves the way for the supervision, observation, and accountability of the rulers before the law on the other side.
On the other hand, one of the factors that make democracy superior to other regimes is that it is the most important alternative towards preventing despotism and autocracy, and also authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Democracies make the individual important and effective against the state as it mobilizes public power in order to protect the weak against the strong. It provides the opportunity for the individuals to live their life according to their own thoughts and preferences without being subjected to any state pressure. It also prevents all kinds of discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization thanks to its pluralist character.
Undoubtedly, the spirit of investment and enterprise will blossom in real democracies where the property and life safety are ensured, “state terror” is abolished, and the rights are defined and guaranteed by the constitution. The economic progress, industrialization, technological superiority, and economic prosperity of the countries ruled by democracy demonstrate this.
In addition to all these positive aspects, the gaps, open parts for abuses, deficiencies, and flaws in a democracy are being voiced by the individuals who study in this field. One of them is that it can lead to a dictatorship of the majority and thus endanger minority rights. Because the essence of democracy is formed by mobocracy. But the will of the majority of the people, not all, is effective in the regime. Election results, parliamentary decisions, etc. are always determined by the decisions of the majority. In a place where plurality is valid, there is no guarantee that pluralism can be achieved. In a country where regime and politics are shaped according to the demands and requests of the majority, it was stated that there are not enough mechanisms and values to prevent religious, ethnic, or political minorities from experiencing some deprivations and even being subjected to oppression.
Another criticism brought up about the matter is that democracies are open to a secret oligarchy by nature. The main reason for defending public sovereignty is to ensure that regime and politics are shaped according to the public interests. It is envisaged that democracies will mobilize state facilities in the direction of realizing public interests, not for the account of certain individuals or groups. However, it is stated that politics and state policies are determined by dominant classes, oppression, and interest groups rather than popular will. At one point, the secretary of the US Department of Defense said, “What is good for General Motors is also good for America.” and it was perceived as a deciphering of oligarchy’s right to intervene in politics and caused great protests. Therefore, democratic decision mechanisms; how to protect business and financial circles or political elites from direct and indirect interventions and manipulations remains an important question.
Some intellectuals such as Rene Guenon and J. S. Mill have stated that democracies might cause harm due to the fact that they take a purely quantitative approach to the matter of regime and that they ignore quality and arbitrariness. It has been questioned by many intellectuals and political theorists whether it is right to leave politics, which requires a certain amount of information and vast knowledge, to the ordinary masses of people or the equal participation of all people in the regime. Because there is no guarantee that the choices and decisions of 51% will be correct. It is stated that it is very difficult for a society that consists of many ignorant or apolitical people to make accurate decisions on this matter.
Democracies are based on the premise that “the people will not deceive themselves and try to make the most rational decisions for their own benefits”. Those who advocate democracy accept that the majority can be mistaken. However, they indicate that the possibility of the majority to be mistaken is much lower than that of the minority.
But another question arises at this point. It is whether the masses of people can make free decisions or not on their own, or whether they will be allowed by politicians or not. Similarly, it can also be questioned whether the public has sufficient opportunities to know the candidates. Because the public can be easily misguided by propaganda and manipulations before the election. Especially in countries where media power is controlled by certain hands, the possibility of “forming an opinion” becomes monopolized.
Democracies do not focus on “who should rule” by nature and do not discuss the required qualifications a ruler should possess. They assume that the individual who is elected by the majority is actually “the most suitable” for the ruling. Therefore, it is seen even in the most democratic countries that individuals, who do not know the people, lacking political experience, and do not understand about foreign relations, might come to power. Because these people find a way to convince or deceive the public thanks to the propaganda technique they use, media support and, the parties they rely on.
As a result, in democracies, the regime has the potential to be under the control of the people, who form an oligarchic minority that holds the political and economic power, and are not qualified, knowledgeable, and fair instead of competent, knowledgeable, and fair people.
An important part of the criticisms about democracy is related to political parties. Because the rulers elected by the people are determined by the political parties in general. Rather than the public interest, the interests of the parties and the circles where the parties gather strength become prominent. The people remain desperate and without alternatives since they cannot trust the existing political parties and cannot find any of these as a merit on behalf of the regime.
In the same way, both the parties in power and the opposition are interested in strengthening their own power and guaranteeing their future rather than focusing the problems of the country; they try to make their ideology dominant instead of serving the people better; they undertake purges targeting the chiefs and officers of the opposing ideology as soon as they become the ruling party in order to assign their own followers; therefore, they are stuck in serious pragmatism and opportunism.
Disintegration, separation, and polarization caused by the relentless competition and destructive rivalry between the parties; disregarding the will of some of the people due to the election threshold; the state being forced to be governed by weak and unstable coalitions often in multiparty systems; the fact that the elected deputies become the spokespersons of their own parties instead of the people who support them on the way from the main criticisms about the parties.
Some of the criticisms on this issue are related to the legislation. As it is known, the modern state has established a serious monopoly on legislation. In democracies, legislative power is executed by the parliament. The duty of the deputies working in the parliament is to take into consideration the general customs, wishes, and demands of the people as much as possible. However, up to what extent the people, who are the deputies of the nation, can be questioned whether they take into consideration the wishes and desires of the people or not after they come to the office thanks to the votes of their supporters? Because, as witnessed in many countries, the holders of influence and authority can easily play with the laws in favor of their personal interests; in other words, they change the statutes they wish, annul them and replace them with new ones.
The lack of standards of judgement and moral principles; the lack of emphasis on equality in the face of the prominence of equality; the limited opportunities of the people to control and oversee the execution after the elections; the weakness of the mechanisms which will prevent the dominance of one-man regimes or the parties or individuals shifting towards dictatorship; the ability of executive, which becomes the most effective element of the political organization, to easily establish control over legislation and judiciary are among the matters of debate about democracies.
Culture of Democracy
We have mentioned that democracy is basically a type of regime and a political technique based on values such as equality, freedom, human rights, the culture of reconciliation, and it also aims to realize these values. But it should not be forgotten that no matter how perfect democracy is portrayed on paper, putting it into practice is directly related to culture, education, and human quality. Therefore, in a country where social and economic conditions are not sufficient, the culture of democracy is not developed and democratic values are not digested sufficiently; it will not be possible to achieve the goals expected from democracy whatever the name of the political regime in practice is called.
Undoubtedly, factors such as poverty, the structure of class society, racism, ignorance, fanaticism, radicalism, marginalization, discrimination are the major obstacles for democracy. Therefore, such problems must first be overcome in order for democracy to survive in a country. Democracy being practiced in countries that have economic independence and have a high level of education is a great demonstration to this fact. Although democracy offers important advantages for a person to live as a respected and honorable individual, it is not as easy to enforce and maintain it.
It is a fact that the model has to agree to a certain extent with the social structure, values, and cultural texture of the society in order for that model predicted by the political system to be successful. In this respect, the perfect implementation of democracy in a country depends first on the basis of democratic values to correspond to the social base. It is very difficult to apply democracy as a form of regime in a society where individuals do not see diversity in intrafamilial and interpersonal relations and administration of institutions and organizations, do not respect differences, and do not develop a culture of reconciliation.
In addition, awareness of rights and justice, respect for human rights and freedoms, and a sense of responsibility must develop among the members of the society in order for democracy to function perfectly in a society. Moreover, the society’s attainment of political and cultural maturity, the development of public conscience and social consciousness, and above all, the fact that the society consists of moral and virtuous people are important dynamics for developing a sense of democracy.
The following meaning should not be understood from the statements above: “The obstacles in front of democratization should be eliminated first, and the members of the society should be prepared for this in order to achieve the transition to democracy in the countries where monarchies and kingdoms are present.” Olivier Roy refers to this with his following finding: “France would still be a monarchy if we had to wait for everyone to be a democrat before creating democracy.” (Olivier Roy, Secularism Confronts Islam, s. 109)
Therefore, with the arrival and the establishment of democracy in a country, a struggle must be fought together with the establishment of a culture of democracy among the people. Regardless of the society in question, the adoption and stability of democracy is dependent on a certain period of time.
So far, we have outlined the views on democracy, emphasized the reasons for opposing democracy, and tried to give some analysis of the concept of democracy in order to understand the matter well. After this, we will focus on the relationship between democracy and Islam in different aspects and will try to show that defending democracy is not an obstacle for Islam and that Muslims have no other way out other than defending democracy.
To be continued…
Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic law and Religious Studies.