“How many political parties do you think America has?” droned the college senior one autumn afternoon at a campus canteen in Calcutta. A week into college, a speech on class struggle is the last thing you want to hear in your downtime. But somehow, that question has remained lodged in my memory ever since, probably because it was the only time I mustered a response, if only to give my stubbly senior’s monologue the appearance of a conversation as a mark of respect. Or probably because it keeps coming back, every time I introspect the idea of democracy.
“Well, two main ones, of course.”
“Wrong. Tell me how the Republicans are different from the Democrats,” the Communist Party talent scout delivered the clincher with a flourish, perfected after years of practising leftist mumbo jumbo on unsuspecting college freshmen.
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Wherever the shaggy communist tormentor from my misspent youth is today, I am sure he is watching the US presidential elections with unreserved glee. Now he doesn’t even have to belabour his theory of fundamentally indistinguishable political opposites keeping up the appearance of choice in democracies. Increasingly, it seems, there is just one party running in this election. With the other one too busy distancing itself from its embarrassing candidate, this contest is essentially between the Democratic Party and Donald Trump. If you found the recent vote-rigging scandal in one-party China ironic, what would you call this one-party election in the bastion of democracy?
What began as a trickle over the course of a noxious election season turned into a stampede for the exits for Republican leaders after their nominee managed to make “pussy” an acceptable headline word by the time of the second presidential debate. As The Donald’s skeletons came tumbling out of the locker room, he drew the condemnation of nearly half of all 331 incumbent Republican senators, Congress members and governors, Reuters found in a review of official statements and local news coverage. For die-hard Republicans torn between loyalty to the party and revulsion for its leader, the mood is best summarised in a recent Foreign Policy piece titled “What the hell happened to my Republican Party?”
To ease their pain, Trump has done what he does best – fire. Turning the tables on the party establishment trying to lose him, he fired the party, instead. “It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to,” he tweeted a day after the second debate, finally dropping all pretence of representing a party. First the man hijacks a party, then gives it the boot, and now he has trashed the notion of democracy itself by refusing to concede if he loses the election. Because it’s all rigged, he says. Just the point my communist tormentor was trying to make.
As this farcical campaign draws to an end, Hillary Clinton is now widely expected to win. The pollsters could be right, or it could be plain wishful thinking. Maybe there are enough rednecks out there to still make it swing Trump’s way, or maybe a country that voted in Barack Obama wouldn’t elect an unhinged outlier, who knows. But America’s options today – between a mad man and an establishment robot – are starkly similar to the lack of acceptable choice many of us in Asia face in our own democratic lives.
In India, the world’s biggest democracy, for decades after independence in 1947, for all practical purposes there was just one party with the wherewithal to rule. Alternatives began to emerge only as the Congress began to wither. And withered it has so much that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today appears unrivalled as a national party.
In the provinces, where much of India’s political power now resides, parties often manage to rule term after term without any competition. In the state where I grew up, West Bengal, with a population of 92 million, communists were in power for 34 straight years – the longest of anywhere other than China and Cuba. In these three decades, Bengal virtually became a one-party state as all competing political forces retreated and the communists emasculated all levers of state apparatus. In 2011, the communists were ousted by a regional party, which has since monopolised power with a grip more iron than its predecessor. Indian psephologists even have a term for a party’s repeated success at the hustings – TINA (There Is No Alternative).
Elsewhere in the region, Malaysia is in the midst of a financial scandal that would have shaken any government to its core, yet Prime Minister Najib Razak remains unassailable. TINA. And, imagine the despair and the lack of choice in the Philippines – controlled by a handful of political dynasties for most part – that could have catapulted someone like Rodrigo Duterte to power. Yet, despite Duterte’s, let’s say, unconventional, style of governance, there’s no substantial political opposition in sight. TINA again.
This limited or lack of choice means the level of trust in popularly elected representatives can be less than leaders in autocratic states, strange as it may sound. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index this year, China ranked 28 out of 140 countries in terms of “public trust in politicians”, ahead of India at 31 and the Philippines at 89.
As Americans try to decide which of the two candidates they hate less, if not trust more, they may well decide to let Hillary win on TINA since the alternative is so unpalatable. At least she seems to think before she talks and doesn’t come across as a person who would grab somebody by the you know what. One good thing about democracy is that we learn not to ask for much of our leaders. But even that doesn’t make it any easier to find them.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the deputy editor of This Week in Asia