Most Russians and Pakistanis say they prefer a ‘strong ruler’ over democracy

January 11, 2013

The Pew global attitudes project, a big set of periodic surveys on everything from economics to religion, is a terrific window into the public opinions and ideas that increasingly guide our world. I'll be returning to this data over the coming days and weeks, but this one really struck me. Pew asked people in seven countries whether they prefer democratic government or one with a "strong" leader. The latter choice was more popular in only two countries: Pakistan and Russia. In the other five, democracy is most popular among polled respondents. 


Source: Pew Global Attitude

People in these seven countries, generally speaking, seem to have the kind of government they want. The one exception is Pakistan, where people seem to want less democracy, based on this poll. The other results suggest bad news for Russia's opposition and good news for public pressure keeping Egypt's new government in check. Here's the poll question as it was read:

Some feel that we should rely on a democratic form of government to solve our country's problems. Others feel that we should rely on a leader with a strong hand to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your opinion?  

Democracy is most popular in Lebanon, at 80 percent, perhaps because of the turmoil in neighboring dictatorships but despite the many ups and downs of Lebanon's tumultuous parliamentary system. Democracy is also popular in three countries that are in the slow process of instituting their own: Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt. That's probably not a coincidence, given that building a democratic system requires enormous popular buy-in as well as, often, overwhelming public pressure against the old ways.

It's about a tie, give or take, in Jordan: 49 percent say they prefer democracy, 42 percent want the "strong hand" option. Jordan's system is a constitutional monarchy – the king rules as well as reigns – with an appointed, civilian government that is a bit more accountable than the monarch. A tie vote, then, seems somewhat appropriate. Maybe it's not so surprising that, despite occasional protests, Jordan has remained largely untouched by the Arab Spring.

Russia's results – 57 percent for "strong hand," 32 percent for democracy – should probably not be surprising. The ideas of a "strong state" and of centralized power have been popular among certain segments of the Russian population at least since the raucous and economically disastrous early 1990s, when rapid liberalization led to financial collapse. Though Putin's popularity seems to be declining, this poll is a small but discouraging sign for an opposition seeking a freer and more participatory system. Democracy is still twice as popular in Egypt, despite all the trouble that the February 2011 revolution has brought.

Perhaps the most surprising figure here is Pakistan, where respondents told Pew they prefer a "strong hand" to democracy by two-to-one. Interestingly, when Pew asked Pakistanis to choose between a "democratic" or "non-democratic" government, only 17 percent picked the latter. So the "strong hand" would seem to be appealing.

Though Pakistan is nominally democratic, its military has often played a much more direct role, leading coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999. The Post's Richard Leiby actually explored this question in a July article, the headline of which hints at just how bad things have gotten in the country: "In Pakistan, political and economic crises stir nostalgia for military rule." That sentiment has helped to create some potentially destabilizing tension in Pakistani politics:

Such yearnings for order are certainly not new in Pakistan’s 64-year history: The army, generally with popular support, has stepped in three times to topple weak governments and impose martial law.

Judicial obeisance to the generals used to be the norm. But, styling itself as a corruption-battling people’s advocate, the current Supreme Court has inverted the narrative. It has spearheaded investigations into misdeeds of the executive branch and the military.

Some experts call Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry the country's most powerful man. Critics accuse him of mounting a “judicial coup” in the name of the rule of law.

His court picked off long-serving Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last month for refusing to follow its orders and is poised to oust his successor for the same thing. A power struggle among the judiciary, the executive branch and, to a lesser extent, the army, threatens to destabilize the nuclear-armed nation at a time when its counterterrorism partnership with the United States has essentially fallen apart.

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Max Fisher · January 10, 2013