Friday, June 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others

What differentiates a democracy from an autocracy?

Update : 20 Sep 2022, 10:18 PM

In the words of the late Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Those were his words after having lost the general election having just won the Second World War. But is it necessarily the case? Let’s ponder a little.

In my humble opinion, there really are two distinct types of government: Democracy and autocracy.

Democracy is the rule by the people, or the majority, as per the Athenian definition. It’s a form of government where the people select their governing legislation -- who people are and how authority is shared among them are some of the core issues for democratic theory, development, and constitution. 

Some of the cornerstones of these issues are free speech and assembly, equality and inclusiveness, consent, voting, membership, minority rights, and right to life.

A dichotomy

In contrast to democracy, we have autocracy, a dictatorship in essence. It either comes in the form of authoritarianism or totalitarianism.

Authoritarianism is a type of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Authoritarian regimes can be either autocratic or oligarchic in nature and be based upon the rule of a party or the military.

Totalitarianism is a form of political system or government that prohibits opposition parties, restricts individual opposition to the state, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It is known to be the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. Political power in totalitarian states has often been held by autocrats who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media. 

In the 21st century, as we currently stand, can we rightly say the world is fairly democratic, or perhaps more autocratic?

Different people may well have different answers to this question. Just look at the three major regions: North America, Europe, and Asia -- the flavours are quite different and distinct.

In the United States, where they champion democracy, they had a populist government elected democratically, but quite divisive, as we have seen with former President Trump and his Republican Party’s record in the years between 2016 and 2020.

Is it the right system?

Democracy has single-handedly been responsible for bigotry and racism. However, at the same time, the institutions of the United States have more or less held sway, putting much needed faith in the checks and balances of the system.

There have been many instances where the abuse of executive power has been noticed, especially in the Russiagate affair and others where President Trump's White House has directly interfered with investigations. But the institutions that uphold the constitution of the United States have not faltered. It has held strong.

In the United Kingdom, they had the Brexit referendum in 2016 where 52% voted to leave the European Union. After being an integral part of the European Union for almost 50 years, Britain became the first member state to leave the EU on January 31, 2020. Because of what? You guessed right. Democracy.

The 2016 Brexit referendum was in no way legally binding but the British parliament decided to respect it. The Conservative governments of David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson fully respected the wishes of the British people even though Brexit was clearly divisive, culminating into two leadership contests within the Tories following the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron because he backed the “Remain” campaign.

He didn’t have to go, but he nevertheless chose to. Like America, Britain too faced the ugliness of bigotry and racism, after having lived side by side with their European neighbours for almost half a century in a political and economic union. Both the Leave and Stay camps of Brexit put up a good fight in their arguments. The camps were passionate and convincing -- but in the end only one won.

It was democracy at its best.

Closer to home

Bangladesh in South Asia, by contrast, had a different story altogether.

The current democratically elected government of the Awami League came to power in 2009 promising economic development.

One of their first changes to the constitution was changing the provision of caretaker government which became void. This meant that holding any future elections would be under the government that is governing. This was unacceptable to the opposition political parties, but at that time no one made much noise, hoping that the institutions that uphold the constitution of Bangladesh would not allow this. 

Much to the dismay of many if not most, the 2014 national elections were a one-sided affair. The Awami League and its allies participated and got elected even as the opposition parties did not.

Then came the elections in 2018, with widespread allegations of rigging.

The provision of caretaker government was introduced in 1996 due to the potential for authoritarianism practiced by the ruling parties and their abuse of power. The provision stated that, after their term ended, the ruling party would resign and hand over power to a neutral caretaker advisory council which would oversee the next elections within a period of three months.

This worked well until it didn’t.

In 2006, it looked like we were heading towards a highly questionable election which prompted a military takeover in early 2007.

The next national elections were held in 2008 somewhat fairly, prompting the Awami League to come to power with an absolute majority, and has been in power ever since.

While there has been good economic growth during this time, according to critics, mismanagement has kept the economy from reaching its fullest potential.

Add to that the effects of Covid-19, rampant floods, the Ukraine War, and ensuing inflation -- and the current situation is challenging, to say the least.

Checks and balances

It should be pointed out that the lack of functioning checks and balances gives the current government a great deal of power to do as it sees fit.

Due to this and the lack of any kind of effective opposition, it is more or less one-party rule in all but name at this point.

There have been some positive developments in the form of a few mega-projects.

GDP growth has been impressive as well, averaging 7% over the last decade with an impressive 8% in 2019.

But it has been a jobless growth, with youth unemployment at a staggering 47% according to one 2015 report while officially the figure was recorded as 28% as recently as 2019.

Most disconcertingly, the institutions of the state and structures of government are now seemingly controlled by those who are loyal to the ruling dispensation.

In short, what can be observed is an erosion of democratic values even though Bangladesh remains ostensibly a democratic state.

What does the future hold for Bangladesh?

The bottom line is that no matter how impressive one’s economic record may be, when you don’t allow for criticism, impede free speech, and control all state machinery -- it never lasts.

Was Winston Churchill right? Absolutely.

But it is worth bearing in mind that democracy means allowing the full flourishing of democratic norms and the appurtenances of democracy such as freedom of expression and independent institutions.

And that is where we are falling short at the moment.

Maroof Mohsin is Adjunct Lecturer, North South University.

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