Can democracy still be unfair if everyone votes?

Published: September 15, 2012

Banning the display of religious symbols in France; the ban on construction of minarets in Switzerland; they are all gifts of democracy given to us by educated people. PHOTO: FILE

Mirza is a very good friend of mine but sometimes he just talks utter nonsense. Yesterday evening I was extremely blunt when he told me that he didn’t understand democracy.

“Are you in your senses, Mirza?” I was shocked.

“Absolutely,” he was calm.

“Think again, Mirza,” I couldn’t believe what he had said,

“Democracy, which is the best political system in the world; the system that offers solutions to all our problems; the system due to which common people like you reach the corridors of power; the system–”

“Yes,” he interrupted me,

“I don’t understand it.”

My voice rising, I said,

“So what do you want, dictatorship? Don’t you remember what Yahya, Ayub and Zia did to our country? What about Musharraf, do you want him to come to power again?”

“No, I didn’t say that,” he was still calm.

“Oh…now I get it. You are in favour of Sharia law. You maulvi.

“Stop being judgmental, Mangalwala. I hate it when you assume that no sensible person can favour Sharia law. And let me remind you that I didn’t even say a word about Sharia. You mentioned it,”

After he made me realise my mistake I said,

“Then what do you mean you don’t understand democracy?”

“That should have been your first question, my dear,” he smiled.

“Okay okay, got it. Move on,”

I wanted to hear this.

He asked,

“How do you define democracy?”

“Don’t you remember? It is the best revenge,” I said, smiling.

“Well, this statement has been used in the previous elections. It won’t work now,” he returned my smile.

I gave him another statement ─ a celebrated one,

“Democracy is a system of the people, by the people, for the people,”

“Give me the actual definition, Mangalwala,” he rejected this one, too.

“I am surprised that you don’t even know the definition of democracy,” I said,

“In simple words, it is a political system in which everyone is asked to give their opinion and all decisions are made on the basis of that opinion.”

“But all people never give their opinion,” he argued,

“Whether it’s the US or Pakistan, only forty to fifty per cent of the population participates in the elections, which means that democracy represents only half of the population, and sometimes even less than half.”

In a convincing tone I rebutted his argument, still trying to make him understand, I said,

“Well, the issue is in the people who do not vote. It is not a problem with democracy,”

“Okay. Tell me, what if there are three candidates in an election; two of them get 33% votes each and the third one gets 34% votes; your democracy means that the one who got 34% votes will be declared winner despite the fact that 66 % people rejected him?” he came from another side.

“Do you have any other option?” I said.

“We will talk about alternate options later. First you tell me, do you agree with this rule of majority?” he asked.

“Obviously,” I was clear.

“No. You are lying,”

Shocked by his reaction I exclaimed,

“Mirza, you know that I am not a liar. I never do that,”

“But this time you are,” he was adamant.

“How can you say that?”

“You don’t smoke,” he said.

“What does smoking have to do with majority rule of democracy?” I was surprised.

“Your two younger brothers are smokers,”

Sensing the creation of a trap, treading carefully I asked him in a puzzled,

“What do you want to say?”

“As far as I know, you do not allow anyone to smoke in your house and your brothers have to go outside the house when they want to smoke. If you follow democracy, then the rule you have implemented is wrong,” he came to the point.

“But… Smoking is a bad habit,” I said.

“We are not discussing whether it is a bad habit or not. We are discussing the majority rule of democracy,” Mirza said.

“Listen, this is not a correct example,”

I was loud now,

“My age, my education and my maturity level are higher than my younger brothers. I know best what should be allowed in the house and what shouldn’t be.”

“But does democracy give any weightage to age, education and maturity level? Democracy means one person, one vote. They are two; you are one. They are in majority,”

I could see that he was enjoying this argument now.

“Well, in a democratic country, laws are not just made on the basis of majority rule. Regulations are debated; people are explained about the pros and cons and then decisions are made,” I tried to clarify my point.

“So is the final decision made after the debate and going through the pros and cons?” asked Mirza.

“People are asked to vote after this whole process and then the final decision is made after counting the votes. Whoever gets more votes is declared the winner,” I explained.

“What if after the whole process, people still vote for something unreasonable?” he said.

“It can’t be. How is it possible that sensible people with full knowledge of right and wrong vote for something unreasonable? Never,” I rejected.

“It can happen. Your brothers are both educated guys who have full knowledge of the evils of smoking. You have also discussed this with them many times but still they choose to smoke,” bringing the topic back to smoking,

“Let’s look at the world. Banning the display of religious symbols in France; the ban on construction of minarets in Switzerland; they are all gifts of democracy given to us by educated people. All wars waged by the US have been in the name of democracy. Obama, who bailed out financial institutions with public tax money, is also a democratic leader. Do you want me to give you some other examples of ridiculous things done by educated and democratic people or were these enough?”

I started to think about what he had just said.

“If you insist, let me change the example. Two months ago, you were designated as the head of your department. Who gave you this position?” he questioned.

“The owner of our company. He gave me this position on the basis of my performance,” I was proud of my job.

“Why didn’t he choose the democratic process? He should have asked the people of the department if they wanted you as their supervisor.”

I could tell now, that Mirza was keen on confusing me.

“Why should he ask the employees? It’s his company. It’s his money. He decides,” I defended my boss.

“So if you have money, you can be a dictator?” Mirza smiled.

“Again you are giving a wrong example, Mirza,” I tried to convince him again,

“Everyone has the right to choose any system for themselves. Nobody can impose something on you. It is freedom of choice.”

“But when it comes to your America, we all know how it imposes democracy on everyone,” he was being sarcastic, “Isn’t it strange? You don’t implement democracy in your house or your offices but you only insist on this one system when it comes to countries. Tell me what if your boss realises today that you are not capable of the job given to you and that he had made a mistake?”

“He would simply kick me out of the company, what else?” I was a bit angry now.

“But democracy doesn’t allow this either. People have to wait for five years even if they instantly realise that they had made a mistake and chosen the wrong people to rule. That’s the reason, Mr Mangalwala. That’s why I don’t understand democracy,” he repeated his statement.

“You know, Mirza. Things are not as simple as you think they are,” I was fed up now.

“They are not as complicated as you try to make them either,” he mocked me.

“Actually there is no point in explaining it to you because you don’t want to understand,”

I gave my final statement and left his house, just to return the next evening to for another heated discuss about something completely different with Mirza.

Do you think democracy is the best system of governance for Pakistan?

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Ovais Ahmed Mangalwala

A producer for Express News.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Hameer Abbasi

    Democracy in Pakistan is essentially useless because:

    People are illiterate and very easily manipulated, and thus give votes to governments who have proven themselves unworthy multiple times in the past or just their wadairas and the government doesn’t bother to educate them because of this very reason, and
    Rigging is a dominant part of elections. It should be done electronically, with one vote against every NIC number. But then again, in Karachi, MQM is known for stealing NICs, and presenting people with receipts to get them back, so even this is of no use.

    We need, in a word, a revolution.Recommend

  • The Guardian

    Pakistan needs a secular totalitarian regime to come out of the pits of the abyss it has descended into.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You have over simplified many points but liked the way you have written this.
    A democratic system in Pakistan can only work if the three pillars of the state function independently but in concert for the betterment of the country. If lip service only is to done, as it is today, then its a waste of time.Recommend

  • khalid khan

    A fluent dialogue although over simplifying many things but addressing the core of the issue. Mr, Mangalwala has made its point and I am sure many would agree with him like me. Cheers!!!Recommend

  • Salman

    Amongst the current systems, please do tell me which system of governance is better than democracy? Sure you can point out some faulty decisions. But we’ve got the clear results worldwide of democratic countries and how they’ve developed as opposed to our non-democratic countries. Recommend

  • Fizza

    You’d have to understand the whole history of nation-state system to understand why democracy is best. We are born in the world where nation-state system has become a norm and one cannot live without having nationality of at least one-state. In reality, and in law, to be a national of a country is not an obligation but a choice you make. You sacrifice your freedom and accept the laws of a country for getting security and prosperity in return. That’s why it’s important that you choose the person who will rule you. But yes, now, a lot of flaws have been found out in the democratic system and they needs to be corrected.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    There is a simple choice between democracy (with all its flaws and inefficiencies) and authoritarianism (dictatorship/ monarchy/ theocracy etc) and most people in their right minds would prefer the former. It is strange that the same people who correlate Turkey’s economic growth with its ability to maintain democracy and prevent military takeovers are the one’s who are questioning it within Pakistan – despite the obvious admiration within the latter for the former. There are many other examples – Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, Chile which have experienced dictatorships and have no reason or inclination to revert to those days, regardless of present economic woes; to be able to change those who govern you without having to go through a revolution seems a pretty big plus. A fact that is somehow missing in this blog is the role of the constitution that represents the value system and rights that are afforded to citizens; representative democracy without a constitution is practically an oligarchy of sorts. Recommend

  • Faaltu mein khwam kha

    @Hameer Abbasi
    We need, in a word, a revolution
    I would just like to remove the letter r from your solution.evolution by self experience and a strong sense of learning from mistakes,keeping regional and sectarian biases aside and growing a sense of responsibility is key for success of Democracy in any country.remember the adage we get the leaders we deserve.asking for revolution without an alternative course of action is recipe for disaster.Recommend

  • Ahmad

    The smokers argument is quite easy to refute, although the metaphor is a stretch of the imagination. As democracies (people) evolve they make better, more mature and responsible choices, in this case, choosing not to smoke.
    And secondly, the company point. People choose leaders to lead them. Making unpopular but essentially correct decisions and seeing them through is the mark of genuine leadership. Democracy gives you the chance to choose your leader, but after that it is not a popularity contest. Leaders are chosen to make tough choices whatever they may be. 10.5 million people (the number of votes in 2008) cannot collectively make a wrong decision. As opposed to a handful in a dictatorship. We have Musharraf’s mess before us to prove that point. And the is precisely why democracy is the way to go. In Bill Clinton’s words (i think):
    “Democracy is the worst type of political system. Except all the other ones.”Recommend

  • A.

    Honestly speaking I don’t care whether I get bashed for my opinion or not. But I think for a few years Pakistanis need a extremely harsh government jo sab ko seedha kar de. And I’m a Pakistani myself. Some people in this country not just the 2% elite need to be told what is right and what is wrong.

    We don’t need a government who interferes in personal matters like Zia’s nikah nama police but someone who forces people to obey the laws.

    I’m sick of young idiots coming out on streets throwing rose petals on people like Mumtaz Qadri, sick of all the racism and sexism that persists in society. Look at what is happening in Balochistan and Karachi there are no go areas for people of each ethnicity in both. A woman can’t even walk out on her street without getting harassed yet people still point fingers at her character. I’m sick of people’s hypocrisy. They cry about load-shedding yet most of them don’t even pay their bills!! And most of all I’m just really sick of people’s attitude in this country.

    After we have this harsh government for a few years who has put everyone on line and abolished feudalism, caste based racism etc. then we can have proper democracyRecommend

  • umer

    Sharia law ? that is democratic…
    Imamat on the other hand is not.Recommend

  • suomoto

    what are we discussing merits of here? US is to deploy forces in Muslim countries as a “peace keeping mission” the rest of the muslim countries already have US forces “voluntarily serving” on their land, and look how the american ammo is selling like hotcakes for all the civil wars in middle east in the name of Islamic and ethnic factions and arab spring, helloooo? its all about securing the Zionist state of Israel, what are we even discussing here? merits of equality, there is NO equality this here: proves neo colonialism is here to STAY people!! or oppression n dictatorship n imperialism in the name of this democrazy!Recommend

  • The Guardian

    Can’t agree more with you. Brilliant comment.Recommend

  • hush

    Democracy and Elections are Two very different things ! Elections can deliver but never under democracy. look for alternatesRecommend

  • abhay

    Its like comparing apples and oranges. Since everybody can’t rule, they have to choose one to do that. Whether he/she is wrong/right, ethical/unethical is not the masses’ problem. As they call in operation mangement, it is not the correct soltution but the optimal solution. Recommend

  • Yasir

    “Sanity is not Statistical” – George Orwell (1984).. I really don’t understand Democracy myself, especially in Pakistan.
    In my opinion ideal situation would be, a reasonable dictator, who strongly believes in education of the masses, should rule for 5-10 years. Enough time to nurture a generation who can handle democracy.. Oh and the education curriculum should be unbiased.. we all have rights to our own dreams :pRecommend

  • Zainab

    Sounds like a Mahatir Muhammad. Recommend