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What if Annisul Huq was right?

  • Published at 06:47 pm November 1st, 2015
What if Annisul Huq was right?

The city corporation elections in April this year were characterised by the dominant political party using its strength in order for its candidates to win. It used its street presence and its position as the governing party to muscle the opposition aside. A small but illustrative example is the fact that processions that impeded normal traffic were not allowed, and yet there were several very long and very jubilant Awami League processions impeding traffic.

Another example is that opposition activists were actively encouraged by Awami League activists to keep off the streets, not to distribute leaflets, and not to keep a booth near the polling station. There were clearly instances of using “muscle power” and the police or even the judiciary to influence voters and the poll. Individual opposition activists and, in particular, BNP activists that we spoke with were frightened and unhappy. The opposition decided late in the afternoon of polling day to pull out of the election and the Awami League supported candidates won in a clearly flawed election.

Much of the same kind of criticism was raised earlier, in the context of the January 2014 national election. As the reader will remember, the opposition boycotted that poll and almost half of the MPs were “elected” unopposed; the rest were elected in a vote in which only about a third of the voters participated.

Both the national government and the city corporations have been criticised by the opposition, human rights organisations, media, some foreign embassies and many within the think-tank political analysis sector for not being democratically constituted. This criticism, no doubt, has some merit.

However, the new Dhaka North City Corporation Mayor Annisul Huq dismissed the complaints. He was criticised a few days after the poll in April for accepting the flawed election results. According to newspaper reports, he said that the irregularities the opposition were whining about were all part of the “rough and tumble” of Bangladeshi politics. In other words, he suggested it was politics as usual for the country, nothing out of the ordinary, and the opposition would have done the same had they had the opportunity.

The thinking behind the criticism is that a flawed election damages the legitimacy of the government. Is that wrong? Can we have a democracy with flawed elections? One question is whether democracy and legitimacy really go hand in hand.

A little while ago, a report appeared in Dhaka Tribune claiming “Support for government growing.” It pointed to a survey that showed more and more people were happy with the government. This suggests that a seemingly undemocratically elected government may enjoy increasing support.

There are probably all sorts of methodological questions to be raised regarding such surveys and we might not want to put too much emphasis on it. But it does indicate something fundamental: People can be satisfied with the government’s performance even if the government is not elected in a fully democratic way. Or, put another way, Annisul Huq may be right in suggesting that “muscle power” and election manipulation need not detract from a government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the voters.

But what if our understanding of democracy is faulty? What if our understanding is based on flimsy notions of what democracy is or ought to be, or worse, based on idealised notions of how democracy works in the West? Perhaps we need to think about democracy anew.

Three democratic associations

Democracy is a catch-all concept that does not tell us much until we disentangle its many meanings. It is associated with a series of ideas, of what we often think of as prerequisites. But some of these are tall orders that highlight blemishes rather than allow enhanced understanding of how government legitimacy is formed.

Of these associated ideas, there are three sets. First, democracy is, in most cases, closely associated with the election. There are many forms of election and representation, including proportional representation vs first-past-the-post, vote by showing hand vs secret vote, and any mixture of regular elections and referendums. There are arguments in favour or against one or the other version, but we leave those aside here.

We generally agree that elections are integral to democracy. There is still the question of whether elections and democracy are the same, for example, if all elected representatives belong to the majority community for instance, or very few of a large minority community get elected (Muslims in India, blacks in the US). In Bangladesh, very few MPs are women or young men.

Is it democratic that the nation as such is democratically represented, but large groups of its population are unrepresented? This bias is, of course, the case of most democracies, but a bias nonetheless.

Second, democracy is also often associated with certain institutional arrangements. These have to do with the process of decision-making. They may seem less obvious, but will still by many be considered fundamental to democracy. They include a free press and freedom of speech, an impartial judiciary, equality before the law, and the creation of equal opportunity. Equal opportunity is created through equality in access to education, to health services, and to government services. It also has to do with due process and formal procedures, among other things.

Third, democracy is often associated with policy outcomes, with certain broad sets of policy objectives. These vary from context to context or from country to country. Let us take a few examples. The American notion of democracy is often associated with a free market and individual opportunity, the self-made man, private enterprise, and strong individual liberties -- and for many, American “greatness.”

In other countries, democracy would be more closely associated with social redistribution of assets, free health services, welfare measures, gender equality, and even positive discrimination. Elsewhere, democracy is closely associated with national independence. For societies that have known years and even generations of autocratic rule, democracy is associated with personal recognition and emancipation, with respect for the common man and woman.

The thing is these three sets of associations or prerequisites for democracy can easily be the opposite. Due process, for instance, or an independent judiciary, may or may not work in favour of most and may as easily work in favour of the few. Britain in the old Dickens days was highly unequal, but absolutely rule bound. And policy outcomes are even more problematic. Who will decide which is the more democratic, to be in favour of individual liberties or to be in favour of positive discrimination?

In addition to asking such questions we need to acknowledge also the limitations of elections, their irrelevance, for a large number of important policy decisions. Take Bangabandhu, for instance, and the momentous decisions he took in March 1971. These were not cleared through an election, but they were democratic in the sense that they represented the will and aspirations of many, perhaps most, of those who were most strongly affected.

Or take General Charles de Gaulle of France, who, as Bangabandhu, represented, embodied an interpretation of the nation’s ethos, its defining values. Or Mahatma Gandhi, who was never elected. Policy outcome may be democratic in the sense of representing broad aspirations, and yet it may be unencumbered by elections.

 

The concluding part of this long form will be published tomorrow.  

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