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Democracy, development, and denial

  • Published at 12:00 am January 22nd, 2019
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The ballot box is not enough BIGSTOCK

Elections cannot guarantee democracy -- good governance must be ensured

Let’s not confuse democracy with development or vice versa. 

A thought-provoking article in The Daily Star titled “Democracy in crisis” by Ali Riaz -- a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University, USA -- drew my attention. In this article, he wrote: “That democratic values and democratic institutions are in crisis all around the world is no longer a revelation; casual observation of the current global scene is enough to bear this out.” 

It is a fact that many populist leaders have appeared on the stage of world politics and come in different races, colours, and genders. They have managed to create an agency of loyalists who are even good at praising the leaders’ attire. 

Some extremist demagogues have emerged in all societies, even in healthy democracies. Nowadays, many of the leaders advocating populism are found using sports nationalism (cricket or football) as a weapon to unite the nation; some are using religion to build (or befool) the nation; and some are introducing “development theory” to establish a new kind of democracy before the people or voters who seem to be confused about the present-day democracy -- where intolerance prevails -- across the globe. 

According to Georgetown University’s political philosopher Jason Brennan, we would be better off if we replaced democracy with a form of government known as “epistocracy.” In his controversial book, Against Democracy, he says: “Epistocracy is a system in which the votes of people who can prove their political knowledge count more than the votes of people who can’t. In other words, it’s a system that privileges the most politically informed citizens.” He also argues that democracy is overrated, and isn’t necessarily more just than other forms of government. Besides, it doesn’t empower citizens or create more equitable outcomes.

In an interview taken by Sean Illing, writer for Vox, Brennan says: “We know that an unfortunate side effect of democracy is that it incentivizes citizens to be ignorant, irrational, tribalistic, and to not use their votes in very serious ways. So this is an attempt to correct for that pathology, while keeping what’s good about a democratic system.” In fact, political division has become so dysfunctional and ugly that it’s crippling to democracy. 

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their article “This is how democracies die” in The Guardian, write: “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive.” 

They aptly describe how democracy is dying: “Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended -- by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms.” 

US president Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democracy is the anti-thesis of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. When there’s a lack of democracy prevailing in a state, people’s freedom is hampered, the press is gagged, and the judiciary is also controlled by the party in power. 

The absence of effective (pro-people) democracy leads to a kleptocracy. And kleptocracy is defined as a government with corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) who use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth. Such a government remains usually unaccountable to its nation. It seems that effective democracies are dying globally. 

Democracy -- though not effectively functioning -- prevails in Bangladesh, but currently the unbridled financial scams and pervasive loot in the banking sector are tantamount to kleptcocracy. This is happening because good governance is absent in the financial sector. 

People perceive that corruption is rampant in all sectors; bribery has become a way of life in government offices. Citizens of Bangladesh want to see a written charter which must be made public and accessible so that government officials can be held accountable for the services they provide. It seems we are in a tangle of kleptocracy, because many of our institutions lack accountability and good governance. 

Notwithstanding, I want to believe that the newly formed government -- led by the fourth-time PrimeMminister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina -- will take serious actions to establish effective democracy; institutionalize it by letting the constitutional organizations work independently and effectively; make development sustainable by curbing corruption in all sectors; and enhance efficiency of bureaucracy by introducing a reward and punishment system in government sector. 

The government should also manoeuvre to face these challenges, since the PM now shows zero tolerance for corruption. This declaration was also included in the Awami League’s election manifesto before the 11th parliamentary election held on December 30, 2018. However, establishing good governance in all sectors -- both public and private -- should be the top priority for the new government. We hope the new government, following a landslide victory, will be able to bring about some positive changes in the rule of law.

Professor Amartya Sen identified four essential components for institutionalizing democracy. He put stress on four Ds -- debate, discussion, democracy, and development. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, debate is sometimes regarded as disobedience; discussion is often discouraged; development is somewhat synonymous with democracy; and the practice of democracy is limited to the holding of national elections every five years.

In conclusion, I want to quote Professor Amartya Sen: “Throughout the 19th century, theorists of democracy found it quite natural to discuss whether one country or another was ‘fit for democracy.’ This thinking changed only in the 20th century, with the recognition that the question itself was wrong: A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.” Now the choice is ours. 

Sheikh Nahid Neazy is Chair and Associate Professor, Department of English, Stamford University, Bangladesh. The writer is also a translator and columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]