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The people that aren’t

  • Published at 06:03 pm January 7th, 2014

Let us return to the issue of the crucial importance of the election, as one of the insights we could glean from our perhaps newfound understanding of the limitations inherent in the setup of modern-day representational government.

The apolitical citizen

One of the mysteries of government in our times is in the secret ballot. Although, to us today, the secret ballot seems the most crucial of institutions that guarantee our democracies, this is a relatively new thought. It was in fact not until the 1870s that it was introduced to elections in Great Britain, for instance, and even later in the US. It was used by the ancient Greeks in some particular cases, but not as a general practice. The problem with the secret ballot is that it is in some ways profoundly non-democratic. The problem is that it allows, strangely, the citizen to be apolitical, unengaged, uncomitted.

If the people are to rule, that is the individual is given a role in the ruling of his or her society, is that individual then not supposed to profess his or her views, to argue, take a stand, convince, and take responsibility? The politician must profess his or her views and values in order to run for election. But the citizen must not. He may if he so wishes retain all his political thinking to himself. In fact he in some ways is encouraged not to divulge his thinking. “The vote is secret,” he will say if asked how he votes.

The peculiarities of this institution enables us to hold our views to ourselves, whether our views are liberal, stark conservative, radical, or racist. We may even be confused, mentally unstable, drunk or irrational, and still retain the right to vote. The secret ballot enables us to remain ignorant and uninvolved, and yet to retain our full rights as citizens, including the vote. We may even chose to vote blindly or our of spite. We have a right to vote, but no responsibility for the consequences of our voting beyond that. As adult members of society we are in other respects expected to take responsibility for our actions and clean up any mess unfortunate decisions on our own part may have caused. Not so in democratic politics.

The cover of the secret ballot was introduced in order to shield the ordinary voter from the influence of the rich. And so it does. But it also gives us an opportunity to be non-political, to take no responsibility for the outcome of our actions or the sanity of our views.

In the sense that democracy means government by the people, the secret ballot pushes us in the opposite direction: Government by those whose views are not known and who take no part in government. The voter votes, but his responsibility for the government of his country is nil. The voter is irrelevant except in that he has a say in which section of the ruling elite that is to rule; worse, he is irresponsible, without responsibility. In this sense, there is no “by the people.”

In this sense the dividing line between the citizenry and the political class is quite clear. True, there are all sorts of activists, workers, local party leaders etc, in between the rulers and the ruled, but I believe these in-betweeners can arguably be held to be among the rulers: Their views are known, and if their people are at the helm they enjoy perks of power locally.

In two fundamental senses, then, we do not have “government by the people.” We have government by politicians, very often hailing from political families and thus entrenched as a political aristocracy, and we have a largely mute and unengaged population, lovingly referred to as “the people,” who awkwardly expresses an opinion on matters of government only every fourth year or so but in such a way as to take no actual responsibility for the consequences of this action. The strange arrangement we call democracy draws its legitimacy from what is perceived theoretically as an expression of opinion, but which in many ways is better understood as the regular selection and reselection of rulers from among a motley crew of candidates from the political class. Our modern-day democracy is at best a modified version of elite rule.

Still ok?

If you have followed me this far and believe it makes sense, we may at this stage easily end up indulging in wallows and indignation over this evident state of affairs, and propose ways of making democracies more democratic. But rather than doing so we may turn the table and ask ourselves instead: Is this so bad? Perhaps elite rule is a good thing, after all? Or perhaps this regular changing of the guard, the election, is sufficient for the citizen to feel empowered or even statisfied that government happens not only in his name but as a consequence of his explicit and powerful action? And to keep the rulers on their toes? Any which way, the system is not likely to change soon. Not only are the rulers happy to perpetuate the current system, any revolution would surely jeopardise their privileges, but the ruled may not be all too adverse either.

There are times when the ruled suffer under the consequences of their own uninvolvement, under the fratricidal infighting of the modern-day Mughal courts, such as the people of Bangladesh have under the last few weeks and months, but there is no evidence of any revolt and widespread protest. Quite the contrary. And it is perhaps in this reticence that we find some hints that may help us explain how the country has come to this sorry state – not once but over and over again throughout its twenty-something years of experience with “government by the people.”

For the fact remains that the Bangladeshi population is largely uninvolved in politics. This is not unique in the world but needs to be underlined. The thousands or even tens of thousands that take part in demonstrations are but a minuscule proportion of the 160 million people in the country. Hartals are effective not because so many actively take part, but because so many fear treading outdoors on hartal days. This is well known.

Even if most people individually disagree with the objectives or practice of the hartal, they voice their disagreements in ineffectual ways to friends and family. Not in engagement with the mob or the masters of the mob. Hartals are effective because in Bangladesh (like most democracies) the population is largely not engaged in politics. One can hardly blame people for not venturing out on the streets during hartal days. It is the rule of mobs and innocents are being killed. But the obvious and very curious circumstance is the link between the mobs that rule the streets and the parties they are affiliated with.

There is no reason to doubt the closeness of this link. It may not be direct, but there is certainly an indirect link between the violence on the streets and political masters in the two dominant political parties. There is a strong general dissatisfaction with political unrest. This dissatisfaction is not limited to the occasional period of election-time violence but encompass dissatisfaction with both parties and their role in other political scurges, such as corruption, nepotism, violence, and malgovernance. These practices seem both disagreeable and repugnant if we read the newspapers or listen to representatives of civil society.

So, following up on theory, if the political parties and their practices are so disagreeable and repugnant, then why are the political parties voted back into power again and again? Bangladesh is being ruled today and has astonishingly enough been ruled for the last thirty years by three people: Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and HM Ershad. With no end in sight, only sons, and possibly a wife. This astonishing continuity is all the more astonishing if we cast the net wider and include the large number of political families that have been engaged in politics since then and before, and still are. The influence of these three groupings or political clusters is if anything increasing.

The vote cast for candidates from parties other than Awami League, BNP or Jatiyo in 1991 was just below 30%. Ever since the figure has slowly dwindled and was in 2008 less than 10%. Candidates from outside of these three court factions find increasingly fewer takers. Another strange fact is that the increase in support for these three is parallelled by an increase in the proportion of voters who cast their vote, ie in voter turn-out. It is for us but to observe that the rulers of Bangladesh since 1971 are as a class the recipients of the support of the overwhelming and increasing majority of the electors.

Why this is so is a different matter. Such a line of enquiry would entail investigations into the practices of politics and the personalised relationships between the ruler and the ruled, into the dynamics of local politics and the understandings democracy, representation and authority. In the meantime we may conclude, perhaps a little despondantly, that there is little reason to believe that things will change any time soon. The fratricidal infighting of the ruling class will continue, but the ruling class will remain. The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

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