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Volume 6 Issue 01| January 2012


Original Forum

Readers' Forum
Life Beyond Forty: Challenges for the nation in coming times
--Ziauddin Choudhury

Keeping Democracy Alive

-- Interview with Prof Dr Rounaq Jahan

Duty of the State

---- Arafat Hosen Khan
Tipaimukh Dam and Indian Hydropolitics
-- Rashid Askari

Social Business: Turning Capitalism on its Head
-- Zaidi Sattar
What Does the European Sovereign Debt Crisis Mean for Us?
-- Nofel Wahid
Going Diasporic in One's Own Country
-- Rifat Munim

Photo Feature
The Maze of Metal

Green Business to Reduce Green House Gas

-- Isteak Ahammed

Durban Climate Conference:
LDCs Tryst with Destiny
--Quamrul Islam Chowdhury

Bangladesh Armed Forces: 40 Years on

-- Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury

The Missing Fifth Book

-- Jyoti Rahman
Maulana Bhashani: The Majloom Jononeta
-- M. Waheeduzzaman Manik


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Readers' FORUM

Government of the minority, by the minority, for the minority

It was the 148th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on November 19. On that day in 1863, on the occasion of the dedication of the new soldiers' cemetery at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Abraham Lincoln, the then-president of the United States, delivered his historic two-minute speech to remind his fellow Americans that dedication of themselves to the great task the soldiers left behind was much more important than the consecration of a graveyard for them. The speech is one of the most quoted ones in the history of mankind; but, more interestingly, it has not been quoted so many times to refer to the Civil War as it has been to refer to what Lincoln said about the nature of the government the soldiers had sacrificed their lives for. It is in this speech that the world came across the famous definition of democracy: 'the government of the people, by the people, for the people'. Unfortunately, democracy was never a government of the people, not even in the time of Lincoln; but rather, over the last two centuries, it has been virtually reduced to the government of the minority, by the minority, for the minority.

Dear readers, I do not think it is important to trace back what Abraham Lincoln meant by the word 'people', as our common sense says that 'the people' refers to all the population in a country. Unfortunately, there is neither any democracy nor any other form of government which is represented and unanimously supported by all the people of the country. It is, however, very difficult for us to say what percentage of the people in the monarchies like Saudi Arabia and communist regimes like Cuba and China consider them a part of or support the government there, but it is much easier to estimate what percentage of the people are represented in a government in any democracy. In Bangladesh, for example, the present ruling party got only 49 per cent of the total votes in the general election of 2008. Thus the government of the Awami League is not a government of the people: it is simply a government of the majority, if we include the other parties in the Grand Alliance; but, in practice, it is a government of the minority, as almost 51 per cent of the people did not vote for it. However, Bangladesh is not considered a full democracy; it is a so-called hybrid democracy ranked 83rd among the 167 countries on the Democracy Index --2010. According to the Index, there are only 26 full democracies in the world, with Norway being on top of the list. Ironically, the best full democracy of the world also does not have a government of the people. In the Norwegian Parliamentary Election of 2009, Norwegian Labour Party alone got only 35.4% of the total votes and 37.9% of the parliamentary seats; and its Red-Green Coalition, which also includes the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party, together got only 47.8% of the votes and 50.88% of the seats.

In the United States, which is ranked 17th on the Democracy Index, Barack H. Obama got only 52.87% of the popular votes and 67.8% of the electoral votes in the last presidential election in 2008. Then how can we call these democracies the governments of the people? Even Abraham Lincoln got only 39.65% of the popular votes and 59.4% of the electoral votes in the US Presidential Election of 1860; and therefore, the government led by him was not a government of the people either, as 60.35% of the people did not support it. The pattern is almost the same in all the full, flawed and hybrid democracies in the world. Literally, there is no 'government of the people': what we actually have in most of the multiparty democratic countries is simply a government of the minority; and, in most of the two-party democracies, we have nothing more than a 'government of the majority'.

'The majority' in a democracy, however, consists of at least two diverse groups of people: one comprises the people who are the staunch supporters of the government, or the ruling party; and the other includes the people who do not usually align themselves with a fixed party, but rather, they are the consciousness-raising people who always vote for a change. This second group which consists of only a small section of the people in a country is the real king-making entity there. In Bangladesh, for example, there are roughly 10% people whose votes determine which party will win majority seats and form the government. We know, dear readers, the BNP got 30.8% votes in 1991, 33.6% in 1996, 41.40% in 2001, and 33.2% votes in 2008, while the Awami League got 30.1% votes in 1991, 37.4% in 1996, 40.02% in 2001, and 49.0% votes in 2008. Now, if we analyse these election results, we find a pattern: both the Awami League and the BNP have a vote bank that always supports them whether they serve the people well or not as a ruling party in any term. This vote bank perhaps consists of around 35% of the total voters for each one of these two parties now. None of these two parties, however, can, or will ever, win an election and form a government with the support of only its fixed vote bank unless and only if it is able to attract 5-8% more voters from the minority group of the conscious citizens of the country, popularly known as 'the floating voters'. Almost all the democracies in the world seem to have a similar pattern. Then how can we call democracy a government by the people? Isn't it simply a government by the minority?

Democracy is also not a government for the people, as it was envisioned by Abraham Lincoln. If it really were, no people would live in the slums, starve to death, or die untreated, while their so-called servants would be indulging in heavenly delight. In fact, democracy is now a government for the minority in most of the countries of the world. Unfortunately, this minority are not the same people who make the king; they are the kings themselves. The rulers and the ruing party activists, party financers, and their near and dear ones are the people only whom each and every government seems to serve now.

Dear readers, if we really want to see democracy as the government of the people, by the people, for the people, we must ensure that all the people in a country are represented in the government. This is, however, not a difficult task to do: we just need to modify the current democratic system to ensure that all the parties, representing the people by virtue of their winning a certain number of seats in an election, have a proportionate share in the government, or in other words, the ministries should be distributed among the political parties, based on their representation in the parliament. The party winning the majority seats, in this case, may have the power to decide which ministries it will keep for itself and which ones it will leave for others. Such a government will be a government of the people in the literal and the true sense. The most important benefit of such a government is that it will give rise to an intense competition among the ministries held by different parties, as every party will strive to perform better than its political rivals. The people may also get a chance to heave a sigh of relief, as they will no longer find the opposition parties in the street when they should be in the parliament; and more importantly, they will also stop being puppets in the hands of the political parties from which, especially in a two-party system, they must choose one whether it has a good record of serving them or not, as they know one will surely win and form a government whether they unanimously support it or not.

AZMM Moksedul Milon
Lecturer in English, Presidency University, Dhaka

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