|Volume 6 | Issue 04 | April 2012|
Rule by Brute Majority?
We must rein in the force of parliamentary majority when it tends to cross limits, advises
Rule by the majority is a mark of modern representative government. In parliamentary democracy, the political party that wins a majority of seats in the legislature, forms the government and rules the country till the end of its tenure. There is nothing wrong in rule by majority as long as the party in power fulfills its constitutional obligations. Problems arise when the majority is overwhelming. Massive majority in the legislature often tempts those in power to become authoritarian. Virtually unchallenged in the parliament, they tend to ride roughshod over the constitutional opposition and in the process they are also often inclined to deviate from the essential values and principles of democracy. In consequence, human rights are restricted and democracy gravely endangered.
The opposition in Bangladesh, severely diminished in the parliament as a result of very poor performance in the national elections of 2008, repeatedly asserts that the ruling party or parties are relentlessly indulging in undemocratic practices. The opposition BNP and its allies incessantly accuse the party in power Awami League (AL) of increasing autocratic conduct. They maintain that with three-fourths of the seats in the legislature, the ruling party is using its 'brute majority to replace democracy by one-party rule'.
Serious as these allegations are, there is no concrete way to substantiate them. Whatever the AL and its allies in government are doing to further their hold on power is ostensibly legal and within constitutional limits. While it is true that major modifications have been made in the constitution by the 15th Amendment without consultations with and participation of the BNP, the process was in accord with relevant provisions of the Constitution. The amendment abolished the provision of caretaker government on the basis of a Supreme Court judgment declaring caretaker government as ultra vires of the Constitution. The concerned judgment, though not yet fully written, also said that for the sake of security and peace the parliament could, if it so decided, provide for holding two more elections under a suitable modified caretaker government. The ruling party, however, used its massive majority in the legislature to ignore this part of the highest court's advice.
The opposition claims that this is an instance of bulldozing the opposition's objections by brutal use of the strength of numbers. It also steadfastly refuses to accept the holding of national elections under the aegis of the present ruling party. It forcefully asserts that it will not only refrain from participating from such elections but build a mass movement against the efforts to stage the elections without its participation. During recent months it has also held several road-marches or rallies and a grand rally in Dhaka on March 12 to press forth its demand for elections under caretaker government. All this has led to a considerable heating up of the political situation. Rapid and continuous rise of the price of essentials, repeated hikes of electricity, gas and fuel prices, depressing downslide of the stock market and the liquidity crises in banks and financial institutions on account of increasing government borrowing have created a grim situation for the national economy. Government leaders, however, resolutely claim that the economy is in good health. Despite differing projections by multilateral financial institutions and development partners they assert that the GDP growth rate in the current year would be near 7%. The ruling party also mentions that despite minor dislocations, the economy of Bangladesh is in a better state than those of some economically and industrially developed states that are gripped by economic downturn and financial crises. They also say that while prices of some essential commodities have increased, mainly because of rise in world prices, people's earnings have also registered increase on account of steady national development efforts. A large number of people, however, are not convinced of the correctness of these claims. Complaints of want and economic inadequacy are numerous and widespread. People point out that even government statistics show the disturbing extent of price and monetary inflation. The media carry numerous reports on people's sufferings on account of diminishing purchasing power and increasing cost of living.
Political and economic uncertainties are accompanied by rising social unrest. The mysterious murder of media couple Sagar-Runi in their bedroom in February and the killing of a Saudi diplomat stationed in Dhaka in March by yet unidentified assassins in the diplomatic zone have caused great apprehensions among the people about the law and order situation. All these disturbing developments create an unhealthy psycho-social atmosphere tending to destroy hope for stability and development of the socio-economic life of the nation.
What is essential to arrest this downslide is a set of measures to bring back popular confidence and trust in a functioning democratic order. Those who are in the driving seats of our fledgling democracy would do well to remember the wise words of John Stuart Mill: "The only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state is the one in which the whole people participate."
An excess of majority that inflates the ego of the ruling party leads to exclusion of the democratic opposition from decision making. The result can be very harmful to the democratic way of life. As L.T. Hobhouse wrote: "Democracy is not merely the government of a majority. It is rather the government which best expresses the community as a whole, and towards this ideal, the power assigned legally to the majority is merely a mechanical means."
When the means becomes all important to the detriment of the end the process of democratic government becomes counterproductive. It generates the tendency of autocratic and dictatorial conduct and behaviour among the leaders of parties with great numerical strength in legislature. Such leaders often adorned with charisma and dynastic credentials hold complete sway over their respective parties. Majority achieved by concerned parties in legislature reinforces their control over the government, especially the executive. In consequence, the democratic system is subsumed by virtual personal rule. In such circumstances leaders and their followers when in power forget what sociologist McIver so aptly observed: "In a democracy, people control… government becomes an agent and the people the principal who holds it to account … democracy is not a way of governing whether by majority or otherwise but primarily a way of determining who shall govern and to what ends."
Real democracy is defined by the objectives that a good society aims to achieve. The end here is welfare of the people. Unlike other systems, democracy seeks to secure the wellbeing and prosperity of the people through society-wide participation in the making and implementation of public policy. The means are a part and parcel of the end and cannot be twisted to exclude one or more segments of the community. Majority rule alone is not enough. It needs to be accompanied by considerations of others' rights and opportunities. The minority is as important as the majority in a participatory democracy.
Again, when speaking of the majority and its claims to a monopoly in decision making, one has to remember that a majority in legislature, however overwhelming, does not necessarily reflect the measure of people's support. For instance, in Bangladesh the parties with three-fourth of the legislative seats have the support of only 3 to 4% more of the electorate than the opposition. The existing system of electoral representation does not truly reflect the extent of electorates' support to various contestants. In such circumstances the need to consult with and secure the participation of opposition forces is a compelling one. The sooner the ruling party realises the truth, the better.
Has Bangladesh lost its way in the maze of complex challenges confronting democracy? Has more than two decades of avowed parliamentary democracy deviated the nation from the correct path? Has majority rule been unwisely misused to build a fabric of autocracy? One does not know for sure, not yet. Nevertheless, if timely measures are not initiated, our struggling democracy may face a new and greater crisis. One such vital measure is to rein in the force of parliamentary majority when it tends to cross limits. One can only hope that those who are concerned will appreciate the wisdom of the saying: "It is good to have a giant's strength but it is tyrannical to use it like a giant."
Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley is founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly Asian Affairs. He was a former teacher of Dhaka University and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister.
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