3 different takes on democracy: America, Afghanistan, Venezuela

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 2, 2021

When I think of democracy, I look around the world and see three very different ways of dealing with the popular will. (Click here, here, here, here and here for some of my other blogs on democracy. The last on that five-click list is about Plato’s prediction of the inevitable trajectory: democracy, oligarchy, tyranny.) Anyway, moving on to the three examples:

First, the United States.

At one end of the ideological spectrum is a Pew Research Centre survey conducted between August 23 to August 29. With the US military evacuation of Afghanistan completed, 54 per cent of US adults said the decision to withdraw troops from the country was the right one and 42 per cent said it was wrong. There is, of course, also clear evidence that the American public is unenthused about the way Joe Biden handled the pull-out. But, the administration’s decision to leave Afghanistan was democratic. It was made by an elected president and reflected the popular will.

The other end of the spectrum is the issue of abortion rights in the United States. The Texas law, which makes abortion practically inaccessible, is seen to be the way the US Supreme Court will go, with nation-wide implications, within a year. Is what’s happened in Texas wrong? I may not like it, but it is democratic. It is the will of the people. If you want different laws, you have to elect a different state legislature.

Second, Afghanistan.

Notice the way the Taliban took over the country. The lack of opposition and the quietude with which people (other than the ones at the international airport) have responded. It’s likely that things will start to settle down if a government is announced sharpish, if there is some security on the streets of Kabul (as there already is in Herat, etc), if banks start to function properly, if salaries start to be paid and if policies on what’s in and what’s out are announced.

For those who might want to know how the Taliban could possibly reflect the  will of the people, I recommend reading Vanda Felbab-Brown. She is at Brookings and is one of the few foreign policy pundits who is writing about facts rather than overdone rhetoric. Let me quote fragments from a recent analysis on why the Taliban may be preferable to a lot of Afghans than the corrupt Kabul government that they have replaced: “In areas that it (the Taliban) has ruled in recent years and during its 1990s regime, the Taliban’s principal claim to performance-based (as opposed to ideology-based) legitimacy has been its ability to deliver order and suppress crime and conflict — a brutal order, but a tight and predictable one…In its shadow governance, the Taliban effectively delivered order and enforcing rules, such as ensuring that teachers showed up to teach when it allowed schools to operate and that government employees did not steal supplies from clinics. The Taliban also got much political capital from delivering swift, not corrupt, and enforced dispute resolution (and from protecting the poppy economy.) And it has excelled in taxing economic activity in Afghanistan, legal and illegal — from NATO supply trucks to government aid programs, drugs, and logging.”

It’s true that a lack of opposition (to the Taliban or anyone else) doesn’t signify total popular support, but it does indicate some level of acceptance.

Third, Venezuela.

Venezuela’s main opposition parties have said they will finally end their three-year boycott of elections organized by President Nicolas Maduro’s government. It is a recognition that Mr Maduro is well entrenched in power but also acknowledgement of a basic fact — one has to fight elections  or fight a war, in order to bring about change.

There were fears that Zambia’s recent election would be rigged, but guess what, the opposition candidate won!

The Venezuelan opposition will now field candidates in upcoming races for governors and mayors. This is not a surrender; it is a continuing struggle and a recognition that one has to be in it to win it.