On January 7th, it was after a tedious four days of voting and fifteen ballots that Representative Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the House Republicans, secured enough votes to win the speakership of the House of Representatives. Many in Washington and elsewhere watched in utter disbelief as the drama in the House unfolded.
For over a century, only a first vote has been enough to decide the Speaker of the House, but 2023 changed that. Mr. McCarthy, who had been confident that he would secure the position repeatedly failed to secure the required 218 votes, even though his party held a majority with 222 seats in the House.
The stakes for Mr. McCarthy were very high. The position of the Speaker of the House is very coveted and is one of the most powerful in the US, as the speaker gets to set the agenda of the House and oversee its legislative business. McCarthy had his eyes on the prize, even though he knew Former House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who stepped down on the 3rd of January after the Republican flip of the House in the midterm elections, was a tough act to follow.
For seven long years, Kevin McCarthy had his eyes set on the position of the House speaker.
However, it only took only 20 far-right Republican MAGA (Make America Great Again) lawmakers to stop him in his tracks. These were hardcore supporters of former President Trump, who were adamant to obstruct the ascension of a potential speaker from their own party.
For days, as the world watched in awe, the cameras showed bored children in the House, watching their lawmaker parents negotiate over votes. Congresswoman AOC was seen talking to a Republican lawmaker who particularly disliked her in the past. Such was a show of political conciliation. Particularly fascinating were the negotiations between McCarthy and Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who waited to vote against him until he needed just one vote to win. The detractors cited ideological concerns.
While many in Washington worried that such a divisive vote showed how divided American democracy and politics had become, this writer was left fascinated by the very show of strength of American democracy and institutions. While the dissenters stalled the elections for Speaker, no one doubted the fate of the House of Representatives. Everyone knew, over one round or fifteen, that the House would eventually have a Speaker. And so it did. After making some concessions and a call by Trump, Kevin McCarthy was elected as the Speaker. The drama ended.
Few months before and thousands of miles away, Pakistan painted a starkly different picture. The days leading up to Imran Khan’s no confidence motion were very chaotic and revealed the fault lines in Pakistan’s democracy. For days, PM Khan had tried to stall the no-confidence motion on the pretext of a ruling by Deputy Speaker Asad Qaiser, and dissolved parliament, knowing full well that he had lost support of the parliamentarians. The Supreme Court opened its docket at night; many reckoned a rather odd time for the court to operate and the ruling followed: Khan had acted unconstitutionally when he had tried to block the motion. Thus, it took 174 (2 over the required votes) out of the 342 seats in parliament for Khan to be deposed.
However, what made this case very different from the McCarthy Saga was that for the days leading up to and following the motion, no one in Islamabad knew full well what the fate of Pakistani democracy would be. Many feared the emergence of a martial law takeover, not an irrational concern in a country which has seen three coups in its seventy five year history. Capitalizing on the uncertainty, Khan blamed his dismissal on a US regime-change conspiracy and bullied the opposition for days, the kind of tactics populist leaders are well known to employ. Thus, Khan became the first Prime Minister in the history of Pakistan to be deposed through a vote of no-confidence, the only constitutional way a Prime Minister can be ousted.
This is not the first time Pakistanis have quivered with fears of a democratic breakdown. Uncertainty is an everyday part of Pakistani political life. Moreover, various elements within society, be it political elites or institutional actors, have been the first one to trade the system of democratic governance for their own short-term interests. Politicians have colluded with authoritarian elements for a share in power and Presidents have deposed democratically elected Prime Ministers when they have fallen out with them. In recent years, democratic authoritarianism – the use of the very institutions of democracy and electoral means to bypass democracy altogether and advance authoritarian forms of power – has gained increased prominence.
Democratic backsliding hasn’t been a uniquely Pakistani phenomenon; India and Brazil haven’t performed well in this arena either. What is intriguing is the way populist leaders, the supposed ‘outsiders’, have bypassed the very institutions that brought them to power by means of popular support.
Steven Levitsky, the American political scientist very aptly puts this into words, ‘The drift into authoritarianism doesn’t always set off alarm bells. Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled even as it happens before their eyes.”