Populist leaders project minority communities as others, inciting latent racist phobias and pursuing anti-minority policies Image Credit: Gulf News

US President Woodrow Wilson had warned in 1920: “Nothing … is more likely to disturb the peace of the world than the treatment which might … be meted out to minorities.” Since the Second World War, atrocities against minorities have played a significant role in most interstate wars, creating millions of refugees and civilian deaths.

There exists plenty of evidence that countries can’t, in the long-term, suppress minorities and that oppression breed violence. Sustained internal peace is possible in a multicultural country only when it promotes inter-ethnic accommodation and recognises the rights of minorities, and respects their culture and sentiments.

It is not an easy and quick task for any country to establish a governance system in which the minority population can be integrated while guaranteeing respect for their group rights and individual rights. For more than three decades, there is an almost established notion that democracy is the ideal form of government and a growing global belief that a community of democratic nations is the best way to maintain domestic and international peace.

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Even brute force has been used by the global powers to change regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, assuming that the mere imposition of democracy would be the essential step towards peace.

Thus, the question needs to be asked whether democracy brings policies of ethnic accommodation and contributes to internal peace? If so, why so many democracies in the world experience civil wars, and their minority populations demand self-rule or secession? International IDEA’s Report, The Global State of Democracy 2019, says while 26% of countries in 1975 were democracies, in 2018, it had gone up to 62%.

A democratic slide

There has been a democratic slide for the last 15 years, adversely affecting the quality, but the number of democracies continue to rise. There were 90 democracies in 2008, and it increased to 97 in 2018. Despite the increasing number of democracies, the world has not witnessed a decline in internal conflicts or civil wars. According to Uppsala Conflict Data Program, while there were only 38 violent conflicts in which countries were directly a party in 2008, that number had risen to 54 in 2019.

In this context, it is not the number but the quality of democracy matters. Many countries are witnessing democratic backsliding in recent years, as the elected leaders actively engaged in weakening of institutions that act as checks and balances and going to any extent to curtail civil liberties.

As the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reports, out of 167 countries it had covered in 2020, the democracy scores of 116 countries have declined. There are now only 23 ‘full democracies’ globally, while the number of flawed democracies and hybrid regimes has reached 87. These semi or hybrid democracies are more prone to inflict physical and cultural violence on the minorities than authoritarian or fully consolidated democratic countries.

Democracy is inherently tricky in religiously, or ethnically or racially segmented societies as it can encourage zero-sum political behaviour, particularly by the majority group to capture absolute power. This may explain why several flawed democracies in the global South have recently and/or presently witnessed violent conflicts vis-a-vis minority groups within their state borders.

Unless there are solid constitutional provisions backed up by robust democratic institutions and political culture of inclusivity and accommodation, there is an inherent weakness in electoral democracies. The majority rule is not necessarily friendly to or understanding minorities and their aspirations and needs.

In a democracy, the majority can abuse its electoral power against the minority by electing a government that imposes laws and mores of one religion, race, or ethnicity. While many semi or hybrid democracies have witnessed the rise of right-wing ethno-nationalist populism, the minorities have become the targeted objects to polarise the majority.

The populist leaders project minority communities as others, inciting latent racist phobias and pursuing anti-minority policies. On the one hand, this policy results in more oppression and marginalisation of minorities and, on the other hand, increasing popularity of the leaders among the majority group and helping them win elections.

Winning strategy of populists

Thus, the vilification of minorities has become the winning strategy of populists in flawed democracies’ electoral politics. With the backsliding of democracy, the world is also experiencing backsliding on minority rights.

The problem with populists is that they define democracy as ‘tyranny’ of the majority and prefer to take the political fight to the streets instead of discussing within parliament. Even in some cases, they encourage majoritarian mob violence against the minority to polarise their support base further.

The international community is quite prompt in criticising the minority oppression in an authoritarian regime. It is convenient to target a leader or a junta, which doesn’t have electoral legitimacy. But, when an elected populist in a semi or hybrid democracy, with all rhetorical nationalist credentials, engages in oppressing minorities and violating their fundamental human rights, that policy claims to have the country’s legitimate support.

Targeting a person or his clique is more effortless and politically correct than targeting a country.

There is no doubt a minority is more likely to be subjected explicitly to suppression and human rights violations in a flawed democracy under an ethno-nationalist populist than in a non-electoral authoritarian system. This does not mean the abandonment of the democracy project.

Still, it suggests that democracy, if not well-established, may exacerbate social inequalities and result in further deterioration of the political, economic, and cultural rights of minority groups.