How elections can lead to a tyranny of the minority
A favourite scene of mine from the Bangla movie Baishe Srabon takes place when one of the characters asks a working class man what democracy means to him. He replies: “Well, didn’t we have an election last month?”
This reflects much. Democracy is often twisted into the narrow confines of voting in post-colonial societies. The very introduction of voting in the British Raj was an act of appeasement to quell the democratic movement against imperialism to provide the people with a certain mirage of agency so that their fierce movement against imperialism would be quelled.
However, voting by itself does not completely create a scope for agency in public affairs. Voting does not provide such an agency -- it transfers the agency from a group to a single representative, who does not even represent the whole of the group all the time. If the members of the group, especially those who do not feel represented by the representative, often termed the minority due to the voting procedure but actually a majority in a holistic sense, retreats from their struggle for agency, then democracy remains undone.
Because electoral democracy demarcates constituencies by area and not by interest, the group that it identifies never identifies a community, but a demographic of a specific locality.
Voting, in the sense that it robs people of agency, becomes a tool for de-politicization. This happens more if elections are few and far between, but also happens when they are regular, to a lesser degree. If people resign their democratic duty into voting, their rights and their interests are not bargained for in the public sphere and the narrow interest groups, such as business lobbies, become the sole bargainers on the table and the regular citizens lose out.
This tendency of the resignation of public affairs in the hands of the organized few is often termed the tyranny of the minority. As the majority is dispersed and disorganized, it becomes easy for the minorities to band on their self-interests and collectively bargain in state affairs and most of the people lose out.
Therefore, common voters, resigning their democratic responsibilities into voting, lose against the powerful and the self-interested. Public affairs, then, become a sphere for bargaining between different lobbies that represent special interests, not the public interest.
Voting was never meant to be a mechanism for creating a democratic space.
It was meant to be a mechanism for appeasement in the name of expediency. It is the tool for resigning the right to manage public affairs by the individual to the group. Even though voting is sold as a tool for majoritarian control, it leads to a system of minority control.
Therefore, while we often fear the tyranny of the majority in a democracy, we must also fear the tyranny of the minority.
Therefore, it is superficial for us to believe that voting can be a method for implementing real democracy that ensures the rights of the consumers, refugees, labourers, migrants, dissenters, and other disenfranchised groups. Unless the minorities are organized and can create a method of collective bargaining in the sphere of public affairs, even a republic with well-functioning liberal democratic institutions can become illiberal.
As such, our duties as citizens to ensure democracy is to create organizations and institutions that have bigger goals than winning an election.
Even when there is not a significant influence of power and corruption, there is an influence of money.
And then there are influences of subversive interest groups and lobbies. Therefore, the method of voting in a liberal democracy, by design, can never ensure democracy in the broad sense.
The fact that the voting rights in many countries in this age is suspended or exposed at the present moment is a blessing for us.
We can, now, clearly see that the democratic space must be built beneath or over the institutional corpus.
As the mirage of democracy is now removed, we can clearly see that our democracy needs much more deliberation.
It shows us the need for building multitudes of civil society organizations that can lobby and fight for the rights of the disenfranchised.
It shows us the need that the public sphere would always be a continuous negotiation between different interest groups and as long as we fail to create an interest group for the group that we care about, our rights will always be excluded.
Therefore, it is right for us to fight for the vote. It is a necessary tool for enfranchisement.
It provides us with representatives who can effectively bargain for our rights in the parliament.
But we must also remember that those representatives may be bound to higher powers than that of public support, especially in regimes where democracy has been distorted by crony capitalism and systematic confinements, a fact that is sadly true in many republics.
Our duty, as such, is to organize the disenfranchised and create broad interest groups that can represent the interests of as many people as possible and to find the best methods to fight for the rights of that group in as many ways as possible.
The fight could take place in the judiciary, the civil society, the universities, the cultural realm and, yes, also the parliament.
But the parliament must not be the sole method for our bargaining, unless we want to resign our agency to the collective and the organized minority that may not represent our interest.
The suspension or subversion of electoral democracy has now provided us a chance to create super-democratic structures that can ensure democracy even after electoral democracy is reinstituted. Otherwise, our fight for democracy will resign into the achievement of elections, and the struggle for our rights will continue to be ignored.
Anupam Debashis Roy is an Editor of Muktiforum. He can be reached at [email protected]