We're Live Bangla Monday, August 02, 2021

Democracy not a system dependent on the will of the rulers


Democracy faces a crisis the world over and the issue is being discussed far and wide. The 2021 annual report of Freedom House says that the regression of democracy over the past 15 years continues and has been particularly strong in the past one year. In 2020, democracy regressed in 73 states and progressed in only 28. And two thirds of the world’s population lives in the countries in which democracy has slid back.

The rulers of the country where democracy is regressing do not consider themselves to be undemocratic. On the contrary, they claim to be safeguarding democracy. They say that since there is no hard and fast definition of democracy and no one single form of democracy, the system they are promoting is just another form of democracy.

Having no specific definition does not mean that democracy has no definite principle. Democracy does not consider any particular system of government as the ideal – but that does not mean that there are no essential criteria of a democratic system. Democracy is an ideology and, at the same time, a system of governance. These two aspects cannot be separated.

It was during the time of Aristotle in ancient Greece that the search began for the essential and basic principles of democracy. But it was in the 16th century that these issues featured significantly in the discussions on the state and the rights of citizens. Baron de Montesquieu, Thomas Hobbs, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau made important contributions in this regard. Their deliberations stemmed from a stand against absolutist states and emphasised individual liberties.

Hobbs (1588-1679) was slightly inclined towards absolutism, basically on the question of individual liberties. But he placed importance on a social contract among the people. He forcefully said that in exchange of sacrificing some rights, ‘absolute power’ would protect the people. John Locke (1632-1704) did not just question Hobbs on the matter of social contract, but took the concept further ahead. His logic was that the social contract must be between the state and the subjects. 

Locke very clearly did not discard the necessity of monarchy, but gave importance to the concept of establishing a government on the basis of approval, adding that if these representatives failed to uphold the welfare of the subjects, that approval would be withdrawn. That has grown to be the main precondition in the relations between the government and the subjects in any democratic system. He also mentioned the need t keep the legislative and the executive separate.

Montesquieu (1689-1755) spoke of three types of government: a republic that would be either democratic or aristocratic; monarchy; and autocracy. But, importantly, he spoke of people’s sovereignty, saying that the people were sovereign. It is from this basic principle that voting rights and the law in this regard are an indispensible part of the democratic government form.

In his well-known book ‘The Social Contract’ (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) insisted that the people would take up social contact. They would have to forfeit certain rights for this, not to any monarch, but to the entire society, to the people. They would mean applying their will to create laws in the interest of public welfare.

Almost all theorists have said that it is the government would apply this general will. The question is, how can we be certain that the government will not exceed the limits? Jeremy Bentham (1748-1831) and James Mill (1773-1836) have discussed this in detail. According to him, the accountability of the ruler to the subject is an important matter. Bentham wrote that democracy safeguards the people who are part of the democratic system from being exploited by the executives whom they have appointed to protect them. That is the objective and reaction of democracy. In other words, it is necessary to save democracy from autocracy and even from those who have been appointed to implement the will of the people. That is why the points stressed by both Bentham and Mill are summarised by political scientist David Held who maintained that in general the interests of the society could be upheld by mean of votes, secret ballots, contest between potential political leaders, elections, speeches and public involvement.

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) mentioned two issues – democracy and independence. His reasoning was that liberty was essential in our lives. If there was no liberty, people’s voices would be stifled and they would lose their ability for new thinking, discoveries and to flourish as a people. He said that liberty could flourish the best with a community active under a democratic system. The first of the three liberties mentioned by Mill was freedom of thought and emotion, which means freedom of expression. According to Mill, an essential condition among the very important tasks in governance was a constitutional system of control where the people’s approval would be vested on the people’s representatives. In other words, it was essential for constitution to hold the control of those in power.

The summary of the work done by renowned political theorists indicates that democracy has four fundamental ideals – people’s sovereignty, representation, accountability and freedom of expression.

Sovereignty means the people will establish the government and the government will be under the people’s will. This concept not only rejects autocratic authority or aristocratic rule, but points to the rule of law. In short, the bottom line is that the basis of democracy is that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. Sovereignty is an inseparable matter. It cannot be snatched away from the people in the name of divine powers, development, national security or political ideology.

Representation is the manner in which the people bestow their approval on the ruler. For example, the US constitution declares that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right and the government has been formed to ensure these rights, given the approval by the people. It is the people’s approval that gives legitimacy to the government’s right to rule. The poet John Milton wrote, “The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what only is derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people to the common good of all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birth-right.”

Accountability is concept where on one side it develops by means of checks and balances, and on the other it ensures people’s role in the government’s routine work. It would not be right to view accountability simply in a vertical manner. In the case of a sustainable and effective democracy, accountability will be vertical, horizontal and social. Then again, a government’s horizontal accountability is created though some relatively independent institutions which will function as a net. These are certain constitutionally recognised institutions like the anti-corruption and the human rights institutions. Social accountability is the system of accountability to civil institutions.

Freedom of speech and press freedom, freedom to organise and to congregate, lie at the heart of freedom of expression. This is a basic factor of human rights. Justice Benjamin Cardozo of the US Supreme Court, in a case of 1937, described freedom of expression as the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.

Three attributes of democratic rule

The assault on democracy by those donning masks of democracy is now a global problem. On one hand they claim themselves to be democratic, yet on the other they raise questions about the fundamental principles of democracy and the democratic system of government. The discussions of political scientists on democracy, autocratic systems and issues of government from around 400 years ago, have highlighted four basic principles of democracy – people’s sovereignty, representation, accountability and freedom of expression. But democracy is not just a couple of ideological principles, it is also a system of governance. What attributes are required to consider a system of governance democratic?

In the 20th century when many countries took democracy as the ideal, the main question posed by political scientists was how to determine whether the basic principles were being implemented. Their main concern was how democracy was being practiced and how it should be practiced. Their focus was on democracy as a system of governance. Prominent among these political scientists were Joseph Schumpeter, Samuel Huntington, Adam Przeworski, Giovanni Sartori, Juan Linz and Robert Dahl.

Schumpeter defined democracy as “that institutional method for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”

Huntington defines democracy "[as a political system that exists] to the extent that its most powerful collective decision makers are selected through fair, honest, and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes and in which virtually all the adult population is eligible to vote.” Przeworski and others claimed that “democracy is a system in which parties lose elections,” and so it is characterised by i. uncertainty, ii. irreversibility and iii. repeatability. In other words, we do not know who will come to power, that once the elections result is determined, this cannot be reversed, and that is cycle of uncertainty and process of determining results will be repeated continuously.

According to Robert Dahl, there are seven prerequisites for a system to be considered democratic. These are, elected officials, free and fair election, universal voting rights, the right to contest in the elections, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information and the freedom of association. Dahl asserts that democracy is not just “free, fair and competitive elections, but also the freedoms that make them truly meaningful (such as the freedom of organisation and freedom of expression), alternative sources of information, and institutions to ensure that government policies depend on the votes and preferences of the citizens.”

Based on such research, three attributes can be taken as essential to democracy. These are: 1. Universal voting rights, 2. Regular, free, competitive, multiparty elections for legislative and chief executive offices, 3. Respect for civil and political rights including freedom of expression, assembly and association. Added to this is the rule of law under which all citizens and representatives of the state enjoy true legal equality. So of any country is to be called democratic, it must have these three criteria. If any one of these criteria is absent, the presence of others becomes impossible.

What has been noticeable over the past few decades is an increase in elections being held in various countries. In the various phases of democracy, elections have been given such importance that many undemocratic countries in the 90's have been holding regular elections to show that they are practicing democracy.

Samuel Huntington depicted elections as a test of democracy being consolidated or not. He said that to determine whether a democracy has taken permanent place in a country can be determined by whether the country has been able to hold two consecutive peaceful elections or not. That’s the ‘two turnover test’. The test of democratisation is to see whether the defeated accept the results and whether the victors change the democratic process and take up an authoritarian rule.

Even if two essential attributions of democracy – ensuring the right to vote and holding elections – are fulfilled, but if the elections are not free and participatory, then this will not lead the country to democracy, but take it in the opposite direction. It is to be seen of these elections consolidate democracy or serve to consolidate the power of the rulers. Those in power have devised various ways of rigging the elections, some overt and some covert. It also must be kept in mind that an election is not just a matter of one day. Voters vote on one day, but the preparation for the election starts for long beforehand. If steps are taken from back then to manipulate the results, the voters lose interest in voting. The essential factors of democracy are citizens’ rights to speak, express their views, to assemble, and, above all, to be ensured of legal rights and not be subject to extrajudicial harassment for this.

The people can well determine the state of the three factors of democracy in Bangladesh. Freedom Houses 2021 annual report indicates a steady deterioration in Bangladesh’s ranking. In 2021 Bangladesh’s score was 39, same as in 2020. In 2019 it was 41 and in 2018 it was 45. Similarly, there has been a deterioration in political rights and citizen’s liberties. With the highest score of political rights being 40, Bangladesh scored 15, which even in 2016 was 21. Freedom House terms Bangladesh’s system of government as ‘partly free’. The use of the Digital Security Act indicates how restricted freedom of expression remains. According to the research institution, Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), from January 2020 to February 2021, 873 persons were accused under this act and over 13 per cent of them were journalists.

What sort of democracy do the people of Bangladesh want?

While the existing rule of government in Bangladesh has a façade of democracy, questions can certainly be raised about how far it is democratic in the true sense of the word. The ruling party and its supporters claim that this is the reflection of the people’s aspirations. But what do the people of Bangladesh actually understand as democracy, what do they want? We must keep in mind that the four core principles of democracy are sovereignty of the people, representation, accountability and freedom of expression. And three essential attributes of democracy are voting rights; regular free, competitive, multiparty elections for the parliament and the post of chief executive; and ensuring civil and political rights. Do the people of Bangladesh expect anything less than this?

A way to understand what form of democracy the people of Bangladesh want, is to refer to surveys taken in the past. A survey was conducted on 4,067 families from 12 April to 30 April 2017 under a project of Resolve (principal researchers – Ali Riaz and Christine C Fair) where, among other issues, questions were asked concerning democracy. In this nationally representative face-to-face survey, we found overwhelming support for certain core principles of democracy.

The survey used four key attributes – property rights, elected representation, independent judiciary, and freedom of expression and assembly. The respondents, 92 per cent, gave highest support to individual property rights, with 63 per cent of them saying individual property rights were extremely important and 30 per cent saying this was very important. Coming up close, 91 per cent said elected representation was a core democratic principle, more than 61 per cent saying this was extremely important and 31 per cent saying it was very important.

Of the other attributes of democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of organisation were supported by 76 per cent and 75 per cent of the respondents respectively. The respondents were strongly in favour of elected leadership. Of them, 55 per cent were in favour of democratic secular leadership and 39 per cent supported democratically elected religious leaders. Very few were in favour of non-democratic leadership, whether secular or religious. The results of the survey identified people’s views towards democracy and the indications of democratic rule. This survey was carried out over three years after the election held in 2014. The 2014 election was not free and participatory, but these attributes of democracy had not lost relevance to the people. They still measured democracy by these attributes.

The results of our survey were not surprising. They were consistent with surveys conducted previously. In a survey conducted by USAID in late 2003, nearly two-thirds of the respondents (62 per cent) had chosen a ‘government ruled by democratically elected representatives’ as their preferred system of governance. Among the other choices, 21 per cent were in favour of a ‘government rules by Islamic law, with respected religious figures as leaders.’ This was followed by 11 per cent respondents in favour of ‘a government ruled by a military leaders who gets things done’, and 3 per cent for ‘a non-elected government ruled by specialists, experts and business leaders who know what it takes to develop a country.’

These views were almost the same, a decade since then. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2014 showed that 70 per cent of Bangladesh were in favour of democracy as opposed to 27 per cent who preferred a ‘strong leader’.

In a survey of the Governance Barometer Survey Bangladesh 2019 (conducted by BRAC University), 80 per cent of the respondents felt that elections were the significant ideal of democracy. This was followed by free public debate (71per cent), rule of consent (60 per cent), ability to participate in decision making (50 per cent) and ability to access information on government activities (40 per cent).

Ten years after that, a survey was conducted by the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) in 2000, where respondents were provided with a list of fundamental and were asked, “How important is it to you that the following rights be respected in Bangladesh?” Rural respondents picket “one can choose from several candidates when voting” overwhelmingly while urban respondents indicated “honest elections are held regularly” as the most important right.

About the attributes of democracy, the Global Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2002 showed that Bangladeshis identified three major attributes of democracy: people can openly criticise the government (81 per cent), neutral, two-party elections (71 per cent); and the free press an report without censorship (64 per cent).

There is hardly any need to go into details of the gap between the expectations of the Bangladeshi people concerning democracy which have remained unchanged over two decades, and the prevailing state of governance in the country. It is clear for all to see. From the history of the past 50 years we see that the country’s democracy had been eroded by the leaders, both civilian and military. Democracy has been continuously subject to serious deterioration over the past three decades and has now gone into regression. In order to retract from that path, it is imperative to understand the core principles of democracy and, based on that, the democratic forces can determine what is to be done.


(Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University in the US)