Dhaka Courier

Do we want or need representative democracy?


The topic is the holiest of all cows in a Bangladeshis mind but history has little to offer as evidence that “democracy” has made any difference in the life of Bangladesh. The country has many unique aspects including the fact that it fought a war to gain independence. This in contemporary history is rare except perhaps in the case of Kampuchea, now Cambodia. That is the by-product of a people’s war.

A world of mixed models

Cambodia is going from strength to strength under single party rule as the war was led by the Communist Party. It doesn’t believe in multi-party representative democracy underpinned by elections but that  fact has not interfered with its broader objective of gaining socio - economic gains which for the electorate is the majority‘s prime objective.

A bigger example though not fully applicable is that of China where more people have been lifted out of poverty than anywhere without the assistance of electoral democracy. It’s a fact that China also has a single party of the Communist variety but then it is also offering the most dramatic challenge to conventional political science. By including market capitalism as a tool of socio-economic progress led by a Communist party , it has taken socio-economic governance to a radical level. Few can match this example which is both a real life and philosophical counter to conventional wisdom.  It makes a very basic point : can socialism survive only when it is tagged to capitalism?

It is obvious that the world is experimenting with models and the ones doing so are not ready or bound to traditions. Electoral democracy is a governance model that may have done well in the past and that too in the colonizer countries but the colonized have fared much worse. Such models that have emerged in societies were fundamentally different to each other. But both had the same objective which is legitimization of majority rule. It is thus not a prescription for change but upholding the status quo of majoritarianism.

Bangladesh and electoral history trends

Pre- 1971 history is clearly one of seeking a way out for state making to gain socio-economic benefits. When it was stalled in 1947 and diverted, people began movements. Much of the historical change was pushed by armed resistance of the peasantry soon after British takeover which led to electoral voting rights for them in 1909. It changed the entire landscape as the peasant power became a deciding issue for the elite. Without their muscle or votes, elites could not gain.

Two major votes are noted, one in 1937 and the other in 1946. Although the peasantry won the votes, they didn’t get the states they wanted and had to fight on till 1971. Though the votes were positive in themselves, this was possible as they were held under colonial rulers who had no stake in the outcome. However life didn’t improve for the peasants because of the votes.

The votes of 1954 was significant as a symbol of unity but was dismissed by the Pakistani ruling class. After the 1970 voting, no power was handed over and it was the 1971 war which won the state. It’s true these elections gelled the people but 1969 and 1948-52 did a better job at that. There is a need to ask if votes led to gain before 1971.

Post-1971 scenario

The scenario hasn’t changed after 1971 as Bangladesh has experienced a wide variety of regimes and governance patterns. They range from multi-party to one –party to military rule -direct and indirect- but no co-relationship has been established between development and elections. The focus on electoral democracy doesn’t come from the majority particularly the villages where traditional mediating institutions were demolished to establish “electoral democracy”. It primarily comes from the ruling class elite who gain from sustaining a legitimacy installing mechanism for gaining power.

Decline in electoral democracy has been on the rise since the 2000s as several research shows. People have found no reason to support one set of “national leaders’ and then another set for a period and then change back. And they have said so. Their interest is much more in economic development. The electoral model is also an elitist one inspired by the colonial/Western system of governance. Ordinary people –the worst victims of colonialism- are getting rid of ideas and constructions which they don’t think benefit them by ignoring them. (Public perception of voting: A non-metropolitan area study 2005)

Less conflict within the ruling class?

One of the reasons why the elite class is also moving away from quality electoral methods of governance is because the conflict within the ruling class is lesser than ever before. The major clusters of power work in alliance. They effectively moved from hostility to co-operation in 1990 to  practical alliance in 2008. The system is more conducive to wealth formation of the ruling class and no contest of this model exists now. The inevitable decline of the middle class, weak and dependent on the upper class has also helped in consolidating this method.

The majority has little to gain from voting based governance models. However, they have gained much strength as a result of which they are more alienated from the urban elite than ever. Many new connection models have also emerged but with 65% of the population in the rural area and the majority of the remaining 35% urban are migrants from villages too. Bangladesh remains a fundamentally rural state which is based on convenience rather than consensus. In such a situation decline of interest in the conventional model will be inevitable as it is not of much use to the majority.

  • Do we want or need representative democracy?
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 31
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • DhakaCourier

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