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Fights are Good
Beware, Democracy!

Fights are Good! Polar Bears in Manitoba, Canada
Fights are Good! Polar Bears in Manitoba, Canada | mauritius images / age fotostock / Don Johnston

There’s nothing better than democracy; Hasnain Kazim is convinced of that. He also knows that it cannot be had without effort, without balance and, above all, without a fight.

By Hasnain Kazim

Quite a few people see themselves as “fervent advocates of democracy.” Those who claim to be “committed to democracy” believe that they’re working for what is good, what is just. Democracy is considered, at least by most of us in the Western world, but also in other parts of the world, to be the best of all forms of government: The people have the say! We live in self-determination! The best solution wins!

Who makes the rules?

That’s all correct, all good, but it’s not that simple. And we mustn’t forget that it’s about governance, and that always means the exercise of power. Who decides over whom, who has to follow whom, who makes the rules? When people live together, if things are to be good and just – civilised –, they need rules. So, there is a need for governance, and thus hierarchies – things that aren’t always pleasant.

There could be a dictator, a “strong man” (let’s face it, dictators are usually men), a “leader” who arrogantly claims power for himself and decides everything over the heads of others. Or an autocrat who may keep up the appearance of democracy, but also decides everything on his own. We know what that means: Arbitrary rule. Lack of freedom. Suffering. Violence.

Or we have a democracy with elections, a parliament and an elected government. In that sense, democracy is the least of the evils. Don’t get me wrong: As far as forms of government are concerned, there’s nothing better than a democracy. Where power is transferred by the people through elections for a limited period of time. Where someone can be re-elected and thus rewarded. And where, if dissatisfaction with the governing becomes too great, power can be taken away again. Excellent!

Arguing, discussing, finding wise compromises

But democracy isn’t simple. Sure, you could only pursue your own interests, and there are people who believe that if everyone did that, something good would come out of it in the end. To a certain extent, that may even be true. In practice, however, it turns out that the quiet and the weak, the hesitant and the timid, the considerate and the compliant fall by the wayside. In a democracy, therefore, with all the talk and all the actions, the interests of other people must also be taken into account. This involves consideration and respect.

Democratic decisions are usually a compromise; after all, as many people as possible, including minorities, should be able to find themselves in them. To be able to make such wise decisions, you have to inform yourself in advance. You have to talk, debate, discuss, argue, consider, exchange lines of reasoning, present and justify your own views, sometimes endure sharp words (and sometimes dish them out), reconsider positions, possibly change them, and ultimately seek a balance.

All of this is hard work. There’s a risk that some people will shy away from these efforts and want simple, uncompromising solutions. One commands, all obey, bang-bang, done! Still others believe that there is no need to work for democracy, no need to nurture and cultivate it, after all, democracy has been around for a long time, what could go wrong? Remember our teachers who talked about democracy living from participation and about having to defend it, working for it. We pupils yawned. What are they talking about? we asked ourselves. We already have democracy!

The global threat of populism

In fact, democracy is on the decline worldwide. In all parts of the world, simple answers to difficult questions are becoming ensnarled, populists are celebrating success with their radical proposals, people are no longer focusing on compromise and peaceful coexistence, but on the right of the strongest and on division. Democracy itself is vulnerable to populism because it is based on voting and majority rule. Some people think that democracy means the rule of the majority over the minority. If that were the case, minorities would never have a say. This is another reason why balance and representation of all people are necessary.

Now some people want more grassroots democracy, more referendums. After arguments have been exchanged, people should be allowed to vote on everything. In principle, that’s right: as much democracy as possible. The only problem is that some political issues are so complex that they cannot be squeezed into a yes-no question. Moreover – and this is also a risk – people can be manipulated. At the right time, with the right words, you can get them excited about anything. For example, even for torture and the death penalty, or for the stigmatisation and discrimination of a population group, an ethnic group or a religion.

Fighting for democratic values

But that is unacceptable in a civilised society. That is why democracy needs limits. Also limits to what can be said. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean that everything can be said without consequences. Words have consequences, and one bears responsibility for one’s words. We live in times when extremists are gaining influence. Right-wing extremists, fascists, neo-Nazis here, Islamists there. Many of these people use democracy for their own purposes. They offer supposedly simple solutions to complex problems, win elections that way, put up MPs, take advantage of democratic structures to undermine democracy. They set the agenda, co-govern in some countries, even provide the head of government in some, and they always poison the climate in a society.

That’s why we need to fight. We must seek confrontation when we see our values, our open, liberal society in danger. We must raise our voices, bring arguments, stand up for democracy. If we don’t fight, if we shy away from confrontation, hard-won freedoms will be curtailed again, authoritarianism will spread, strange ideologies will gain more and more followers. We must fight so that democracy wins. Because the truth is: There’s nothing better.