Democracy Paradox: Institutional Versus Popular Legitimacy – OpEd


By Moez Mobeen

Democracy is a system which is built on the idea of sovereignty of the masses. In its essence, it is an idea based on the sovereignty of the human mind. It envisions a system where the human mind determines the laws, regulations, and systems which should organize and govern human societies. However, this “ideal” conceptualization of democracy ran against some practical characteristics of human societies. Human intellect has an individualistic characteristic in the sense that human beings differ with each other about their interpretations of different events and realities based on different individual perceptions (of reality), experiences, and priorities. So, the idea of sovereignty of the human mind posed a real question:  Who gets to define what the human mind is thinking? Human history has seen many thinkers presenting numerous ideas about the political, social, and economic organization of human societies. So, which of these ideas should be “sovereign”? Moreover, who from amongst the human beings gets to decide which ideas are “sovereign” and which are not? What is the practical framework according to which this “sovereignty” of ideas is determined? These practical limitations in the implementation of democracy led to redefinition of the idea of sovereignty of the masses and that of the human mind in the context of practicality. As it seemed impossible to take the opinion of each and every individual in the formation of laws and regulations in a country, the idea of “representative sovereignty” was conceived. What it meant was that a “representative” would represent the thinking of certain segment of the population, thereby, concentrating the collective human will and thinking in a select group of individuals. This idea of “representative sovereignty” also led to the creation of the framework which would define what ideas—and laws based on these ideas—would be “sovereign”; those which enjoy majority. So, with the idea of “Representative sovereignty” emerged the idea of “Sovereignty of the majority”.

Although democracy claims sovereignty of the masses, in reality, democratic institutions are built on the idea of “representative sovereignty”, so the sovereignty of the masses actually translates into or is taken to mean “the sovereignty of legislative assemblies”. In “Representative Sovereignty”, the representatives of the people make laws and policies according to desires and whims of the people, thus, realizing the sovereignty of the masses—as the masses get to decide which laws should be implemented. But, this is as far as the theory goes. In reality, the representative of the masses does not actually represent the thinking of the masses, but he or she actually thinks on behalf of the masses. So, it is actually the legislator who comes up with the ideas, laws, and regulations which should govern the masses and not the other way around. So, for all practical purposes, the “sovereignty of the legislative assemblies” is actually the “sovereignty of the political elite (read legislators)”. All the legislator has to do is to seek approval for his/her ideas or proposed laws and regulations from his/her respective constituency and claim to represent the masses. So, in democratic polity, the masses exercise indirect sovereignty while the legislators enjoy direct sovereignty. Moreover, the people do not actually play a direct role in the making of laws and regulations, rather, a legitimizing role. It is important to realize this point:  Democracy is not bottom up as the common perception has it; rather, it is top down with some modifications. That modification is the legitimizing effect. The lawmakers make the laws and then convince the electorate to accept it. It can be argued that if the electorate rejects the lawmaker’s opinions and votes him/her out of the legislative assembly, then, the electorate is indeed sovereign. However, in this case, the electorate will be choosing between two different lawmakers, and if it chooses one over the other, this means the electorate has merely chosen the ideas or laws suggested by one lawmaker over the ideas and laws suggested by another lawmaker. In no way during the exercise has the electorate actually been involved in the direct process of law making. Add to this the vast resources available to the legislators in the form of electronic and print media, party platforms, and political rallies, and it is quite obvious how biased this arrangement is towards the political elite to suggest any notions of sovereignty of the masses.

This particular gap between sovereignty of the masses and that of the legislative assemblies has created what we can call the democracy paradox. In democratic polity, the democratic institutions are built deriving their legitimacy from the legislative assemblies. So, the shape of the republic (or the state) and all its institutions is determined by the legislative assembly—whether the state would have a parliamentary or presidential form of government, what would be the powers of the executive authority, what would be the jurisdiction of the judiciary, who would collect and manage finances, the number of ministries, the civil military relations and their conduct, the guiding principles and rules of foreign and defense policy, and the like. It is important to note that all institutions of the state derive their legitimacy from the legislative assemblies. The legislative assemblies have the right to amend the shape of the state institutions, limit or expand their jurisdiction, and abolish these institutions and make new ones in their place. In short, the legitimacy of the state institutions and everyone working for them, whether in the position of ruling or as an employee of the state, is derived from the legislative assemblies and not directly from the masses. In modern democratic polity, the nation state is sovereign and all actions carried out by the state and any of its institutions are considered legitimate. However, the modern democratic state claims authority and sovereignty in the name of the masses and, as argued earlier, takes its legitimacy from the legislative assemblies and not directly from the masses. The democracy paradox, as is often seen in every democratic state, is that of popular versus institutional legitimacy. What if the state and its institutions take decisions which are in sharp contrast to the popular sentiment of the general public at large? Would that decision be legitimate because a legitimate and competent authority took that decision or would it be illegitimate because the popular will is against it? To put the paradox clearly: What if the state which claims sovereignty in the name of the people takes some actions or adopts some policies which are in direct contradiction to the popular will of the masses? In this case, will institutional legitimacy take preference or the popular will triumph? Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq against popular will back home, the bailout packages given to American banks against popular sentiment, austerity measures being carried out in Greece and Italy against the will of the masses, the continuation of the Afghan war by Western nations despite its unpopularity at home, the pursuance of peace process between the democratic governments of Pakistan and India despite popular resistance at home, and the continuation of war on terror in Pakistan despite fierce public opposition are just a few of the many examples of policies or decisions taken by democratic states where the state and the masses were at odds with each other.

However, there is another dimension to this debate. The Western Powers which lead the world today and claim its intellectual leadership insist on the universality of democracy as a system of life and the separation of the state and the church. The Post World War II international order has been built on the liberal ideas which these states own and propagate. Through multilateral institutions like the United Nations, European Union, Common wealth, and NATO, these states have propagated democracy as a way of life. So, a forced international consensus has been maintained through the political power and influence of Western states which insists that the international community adhere to liberal ideas and values and the states across the globe adopt democracy as the basis of their ruling systems. This forced intellectual consensus at the international level is used to support those who believe that institutional legitimacy of democratic institutions takes precedence over popular will of the masses.

For the Muslim World, this particular debate about institutional versus popular legitimacy is very important in the context of change, its description, and how it can be brought about. Since the abolition of the caliphate at the hands of Mustafa Kamal, a forced reform of the society, initiated by the state, has been imposed upon it by a ruling class which believed institutional supremacy is more important than popular will. The mantra was, the Muslim public is naïve, backward, and is deeply steeped in the legacy of the caliphate and the idea of unification of the temporal and the spiritual; therefore, it is not expected that it will adopt the “modern nation state” and democratic institutions. Hence, the way forward is that democratic institutions and republican ideas be imposed upon it by a select liberal elite which will also act as “a vanguard group” and will lead this reform through the power of the state. The emergence of “Kemalism” as the defining ideology of the post caliphate order epitomized such an approach and served as a model and a precedent for the whole of the Muslim World which was implemented in every Muslim nation state which emerged from the debris of the caliphate, albeit in different forms (kingships, constitutional monarchies, dictatorships). The fact that Kemalism emerged as a political ideology from Istanbul, the seat of the caliphate, could not have been more symbolic, for this was the message to the Muslim World that it should move beyond the institution of the caliphate towards republicanism, and that Turkey, the intellectual and spiritual center of the Muslim World, has taken the lead in this regard. The six principles or the “six arrows” (as they are called) of Kemalism which formed the cornerstone of Mustafa Kamal’s brutal republican rule were aimed at forcing the Muslims of Turkey to embrace the ideals of the new world, which were preached by London and Paris. Mustafa Kamal’s six principles included: Republicanism – which aimed to replace the Ottoman political order, which invested power in the sultan and his immediate entourage, with a republican system; Nationalism – which aimed to inculcate a distinct Turkish identity within the Muslims of Turkey to replace the pan-Islamism of the Ottoman State; Populism – which aimed at introducing democratic ideals in the Muslims of Turkey; Revolutionism – a  doctrine which was used by Mustafa Kamal to justify radical change in the Ottoman system; Secularism – which was aimed at achieving a far-reaching overhaul in the power of religion within the state; and Statism – which, like its contemporaries communism and fascism, favored the state-led development of the economy and society.

Mustapha Kamal’s approach, which was adopted by ruling elites across the Muslim World, focused on institutional supremacy over popular will. This approach advocates the importance of institutions over that of the aspirations of the masses. So, the legitimacy of the state and its institutions throughout the Muslim World does not come from the Muslim Masses in the context of their approval for them, rather these institutions have been forced upon the Muslim World by a ruling elite which sees itself as “reformers” trying to reform their populations into adopting democratic ideals and values. At the heart of the problem of establishing democratic institutions in the Muslim World is that the Muslim World is not convinced on the idea of the “sovereignty of the human mind”. The popular will in the Muslim World stands for the unification of the temporal and the spiritual while the state and its institutions emphasize the separation of the two. So, the Muslim World finds itself in a fierce battle within itself. On one side is the state, its institutions and a group of “liberal” reformers who have used state power to try to reform the Muslim world; on the other side are the Muslim masses and political movements who have resisted this reform and braved state power and oppression to advocate different institutions which are built on the idea of the rule of the divine. It was this fierce struggle which was going on for decades as strong undercurrents within the Muslim World which imploded in the form of the Arab Spring. The fact that every post Arab spring government has brought Islamists into power goes on to show that the “Kemalist” approach of state backed reforms has failed and that the Muslim World aspires to rule by Islam.

However, the Arab Spring and the mass uprisings also brought forth the question of institutional versus popular legitimacy in the context of change in a practical manner. The manner in which transition of power took place in different Arab countries forcefully brought forward the need to intellectually settle this question. As the popular uprisings filled Arab streets, the role of Arab Armies became central in the removal of the old despots. So, should the army or the people of power support institutions and the state against popular will? Or should the armies support the desire for change and become tools for change by abolishing the existing states and their institutions? While the “Kemalist” approach relied on state power and force to reform the society based on ideals alien to it, supporting existing political movements advocating certain ideals which enjoy mass support is a radically different approach. In fact, it appears that the only thing which stands between the Muslim World and radical restructuring of the state and its institutions is the decision of the Muslim Armies to make up their minds—Whether they will support the old state and its institutions or if they will support popular will and put their weight behind the call for reuniting the temporal and the spiritual by reestablishing the caliphate.

Moez Mobeen is a free lance columnist based in Islamabad who regularly writes on Muslim Affairs.

New Civilisation

New Civilisation is an online political journal which provides a unique source of insight and critical analysis regarding the pressing political, economic and ideological issues of the time. Its motivation is to provide an authentic alternative to the standard analysis often found in mainstream outlets – opening a channel for advocates of alternative Islamic political models to present their critiques of other understandings and put forward their own opinions while allowing them to be discussed and challenged within an environment of informed and respectful discourse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *