Umut Özkırımlı
Apr 04 2018

The plague of our times: Majoritarianism

The tyranny of the majority, or as it was called in ancient Greek “ochlocracy”, or mob rule, is one of the most hotly contested concepts in political science. The term has gone through a revival from the 17th century onwards, popularised by such figures as the fourth president of the United States James Madison, French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, and the English political philosopher John Stuart Mill.

For these thinkers, the rule of the majority always carries the risk of disregarding the rights of the minority, or what can be loosely termed the public interest. Madison, for example, suggested federalism as a solution to this potential problem. In this reading, even if the majority tries to override the rights of a minority locally, in one of the states, the same majority would be unlikely to seize power in a country as large as the United States, composed of several, different states. Moreover, the principle of the separation of powers – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary – would protect the minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

According to John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, the solution lies in proportional representation or, more generally, the “harm principle”. As long as individuals do not cause harm to others, they should have the freedom to do whatever they want; but if their actions harm others, rulers have the right to intervene and prevent those actions.  

I do not intend to test the patience of the readers by summarising the criticisms raised against those suggestions. In any case, a discussion of “tyranny of the majority”, itself a problematic term amenable to different, not all of them benign, interpretations, is not the aim of this article. After all, we know that a minority can seize power too, and oppress the majority as the cases of South Africa during the apartheid era, or Syria show.

Moreover, renouncing democracy because of the potential of minority rights being trampled upon by the majority or establishing mechanisms that would grant a higher value to the votes of the rich and more educated, as Mill suggested, would not necessarily advisable.

Having said that, it is also true that the concept draws our attention to a crucial problem: How could we prevent a group, majority or minority, that comes to power through legitimate means from overriding the rights of others without repudiating democracy? Put differently, how can we struggle against conceptions of democracy that reduces it to “majoritarianism”, bent on getting the votes of a simple majority in subsequent elections, disregarding all other processes, institutions, and rights that we normally associate with democratic rule?

This problem is not peculiar to autocratic regimes or military dictatorships as is generally assumed. Examined more closely (without exclusively focusing on the police violence that took place the day of the polling as foreign media did), the recent referendum for independence in Catalonia is a perfect example of how the majoritarian understanding of democracy could be exploited .

In Catalonia, an autonomous region with its own cultural characteristics (in particular, a different language) and a strong economy compared to the rest of Spain, the movement for independence has always been powerfully represented by various parties since the end of the Franco regime. Yet, it has never commanded the support of an absolute majority. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Catalan government’s Centre for Opinion Studies in 2007 (Diego Muro, “The Stillbirth of the Catalan Republic, Current History, March 2018), the percentage of those who supported the idea of an independent state was 16,8.

As a result of the 2008 economic crisis and the austerity policies pursued by the central government in Madrid, this support increased to 37.4 percent in 2017 (it needs to be noted that the share of those favouring the idea of an independent state rose to 49 percent at the peak of the economic crisis in 2010).

The referendum for independence that was held on Oct. 1, 2017 is a violation of the 1978 constitution, which had the support of 90 percent of the Catalans at the time. Not surprisingly, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared that the referendum was illegal according to the existing constitution. Despite this, independence supporters succeeded in holding the referendum and managed to get 92 percent of the votes, but with only a 43-percent turnout.

On Oct. 10, the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont declared, in the words of Diego Muro, the world’s “shortest-lived republic”; Puigdemont, who first stated that the Catalan Republic is now an “independent and sovereign state”, renounced his position only 57 seconds later with the hope of continuing negotiations with Madrid. He later fled to Brussels, when independence leaders were detained one after another (he was himself detained in Germany on March 25).

But how has an illegal referendum that did not have the support of the majority of Catalans taken place? Enter “majoritarianism”! The independence supporters who rode the wave of rising nationalism managed to secure a narrow parliamentary majority in the 2015 regional elections by establishing a coalition of strange bedfellows including bourgeois nationalists as well as anti-capitalist anarchists, thereby paving the way for the referendum of October 2017. The process was almost interrupted when the leader of the coalition Artur Mas lost his position due to skirmishes within his own party and parliament faced the risk of being abolished with new elections set for March 2016. At that point, two other parties within the coalition reached a last minute deal and elected Puigdemont as the new coalition leader, averting the risk of re-election.

The reason why I have summarised this micro example in some detail is to show how majoritarianism could be abused in practice. In the process that led to an independence referendum in Catalonia, a “legitimate majority” was obtained in the regional parliament by manipulating nationalist ideas. The objections of the central government in Madrid, though in line with the constitution, have been interpreted by those backing Catalan independence as a violation of the legitimate rights of the Catalan people. And ironically, this claim was put forward by the very same people who have been complaining since the early 1980s that the Spanish majority disregards the rights of the Catalan minority.

The story would sound familiar to you. The Islamist/pious majority mistreated by the Kemalist/secular minority; the mistreated minority who comes to power through legitimate elections partly due to the fragmentation of the secular opposition and their inability to suggest alternative policies; the abandonment of the principles defended when in opposition once assuming power and clinging to it through repeated elections whose legitimacy is severely debated; and the suppression of the rights and freedoms of the minority by a rigid understanding of majoritarianism and the subsequent imposition of the lifestyle and the values of the majority on the minority.

There is another reason for the selection of the term, “the plague of our times”, as the title of this article however – to emphasise that majoritarianism should not be perceived as something peculiar to either Spain or Turkey. Many populist-authoritarian actors, both on the right and the left, manage to remain in power in a number of countries, from Hungry and Poland to India and Bolivia, by relying on this conception of majoritarianism. The rights of all types of minorities, whether based on religion, ethnicity, class or sexual orientation, are being undermined again through majoritarianism.

The answer to the question I raised above, “how to fight against this hegemonic understanding without trespassing the boundaries of democracy”, will the subject of my next article.