Those, who emphatically point to the frequent political turmoil as the sign of demise of democracy, must take a lesson from the mayoral election of Narayanganj City Corporation held on October 30, 2011. Dr. Selina Hayat Ivy’s victory rejects three elements in Bangladeshi politics (1) the politics of NO, (2) the politics of power and influence, and (3) the prediction of the doomsters about the sustainability of democratic process. I salute the voters of Narayanganj for defying all odds to support Dr. Ivy. I also commend the government for ensuring a peaceful election without army deployment.
Coming back to the issue of democratic sustainability, one must reject the critics’ view as either uninformed at best or self-serving at worst. Such view ignores the inherent learning process in emerging democracies, which, initially, is likely to create tensions among new civic groups and between the new groups and traditional elites, all trying to realign their position towards the new political system.
Let me explain how. In Bangladesh, democratic learning process began right after the fall of the military regime in 1991. The regime’s fall suddenly exposed the people to a set of democratic products, namely political freedom, electoral process and the free press. Consequently, tensions ensued as the new civic groups, on one hand, began to challenge traditional elites’ dominance in the political process and, on the other hand, started to compete among themselves for political power.
The tensions manifested in confrontational politics are apparently conceived by the critics as the sign of unsustainability of democracy in Bangladesh. Contrary to critics’ prediction, the practice of democracy, even amid frequent turmoil, has introduced certain minimum rights, thereby empowering people, and helped evolve a democratic culture, thus making people more cognizant about the benefits of preserving democracy. The rights under democracy are reflected in people’s greater: (1) access to information disseminated by media; (2) ability to file Habeas Corpus’ against government’s repression; and, (3) opportunity to reject unpopular incumbent/candidates through electoral process.
The evolving democratic culture is reflected in the growing voter participation rate in successive parliamentary elections during 1991-08. These rights have evolved over time because of less an act of the benevolence of democratic leadership than a fate accompli. Just ask if it is not for the benefits resulting from the democratic process, what else have been motivating people to participate in electoral process with growing enthusiasm since 1991?
One may also ask why the doomsters merely highlight the inherent instability of the democratic process while ignoring inherent weaknesses in alternative system. For example, what would be an alternative to the allegedly dysfunctional democratic process?
If military rule is thought to be an alternative, what would be the moral basis for justifying a regime that governs under the barrel of guns?
Even if the rule under the barrel of guns is justified to be a better alternative then would the critics be equally willing to trade their freedom of choice to a group of armed mastaans for peace?
If inherent instability of democratic process is a concern, what about the frequent violent coups, counter coups and suppression of political activities during the military rule? How are those weighed in their argument against democracy?
Why they ignore these very relevant questions, I will leave that for the readers to figure out. Let me end with an aphorism by a ‘Yankee businessman of New Hampshire’ quoted in Halperin, Siegle, and Weinstein (2003) nicely contrasting the democracy and dictatorship.
“Dictatorship is like a big proud ship — steaming away across the ocean with a great hulk and powerful engines driving it. It’s going fast and strong and looks like nothing could stop it. What happens? Your fine ship strikes something — under the surface. Maybe it’s a mine or a reef, maybe it’s a torpedo or an iceberg. And, your wonderful ship sinks!
Now take democracy. It’s like riding on a raft, a rickety raft that was put together in a hurry. We get tossed about on the waves, it’s bad going, and our feet are always wet. But that raft doesn’t sink… It’s the raft that will get to the shore at last!”
ABM Nasir is an Associate Professor of Economics at the North Carolina Central University, USA.