Photo: SK Enamul Haq

Is rule by the majority enough?

Mohammad Abu Hena

Mankind around the world, has undergone the unique experience of living under different political systems. At times this experience, depending on the nature of the system of government, has been happy, and at times, traumatic. The democracy we find today in the western world in varying forms and styles which we have, more or less, adopted in our part of the world, suiting indigenous requirements. It has emerged through a process of evolution experiments, experience, struggles and scarifies.

The word 'democracy' was originally used by Plato and Aristotle. It meant rule by the 'demos' meaning the mob. Plato and his disciple Aristotle in particular used the term 'democracy' in a derogatory sense, likening it almost to what we may call 'mobocracy'. Even as late as the eighteenth century, the advocates, of democracy were often disdainfully looked upon. The winds of change in concepts and ideas started blowing since then. When Switzerland and the United States became democracies, they were the only two democracies in the modern world. Even in the middle of the nineteenth century, not too many countries subscribed to the idea of democracy. Today the picture has reversed totally. Everyone takes pride in being an exponent of democracy. In fact, the situation has come to such a pass that it has become fashionable to talk about democracy and wax eloquent over its virtues. Regardless of whether one is a true practitioner of democracy, one claims to be a democrat. The expression 'undermocratic' has become one of condemnation.

The fundamental question that faces us is: What then is democracy? Many definitions have been attempted. Briefly, some have defined it as 'rule by the majority', some as 'consent of the governed', or as representative government'. Abraham Lincoln, in his immortal words, defined it as 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people.' While talking about rule by consent, it may be worthwhile to quote what Charles Frankel said: "Democratic government is simply one technique for determining who the winners and who the losers in the political fray will be.'Government by consent' cannot be interpreted to mean that those who are governed necessarily agree with what their rulers decide to do. Nor can it mean that 'the majority' agrees. For in a democracy the minority, too, is presumably governed by its consent."

Over the years political parties emerged as the best vehicles through which citizens' choices of policies and priorities of the State could be determined. Expression of free will was thought to be better handled by the political parties through their contact with citizens at the grassroots. However, this has also not been an unmixed blessing. There are examples of political parties who, after having attained state powers, used the powers of State to suppress political dissent. To counteract such developments, political thinkers have placed emphasis on institution-building -- institutions like the free press, independent judiciary, sovereign legislature, ombudsmen to check excesses, and non-governmental institutions which keep watchful eyes on the state of governance. A society which has been able to develop these institutions can be seen to be successful in steering the governmental machinery in the right direction to achieve the maximum good.

I believe, there are at least three important features which distinguish a democratic system. First, there should be an equality of rights and duties for all citizens. You cannot call a system democratic unless there is such an equality or at any rate a tendency towards and equalisation among the rights and duties for all. A hierarchical society and a democracy are contradictory. This is why democracy, after achieving political equality, seeks to administer economic and social justice as well. Second, there should be an attempt at convergence between rights and duties so that every right arises out of a duty, every duty follows from a right. Third, and most importantly, there is distribution of power among different organs and possibly in a number of different centres. History has shown that whenever power has been concentrated in a single hand or in the hands of a single group, or in the hands of a single class, there cannot be a democracy. In that event, society becomes monolithic and a prey of despotism. Without a multiciplicity of groups, communities, divergent points of view, diversity of beliefs and interests, a democracy cannot perhaps be in full play. The strength of democracy lies in holding these diverse centres of power in balance and in forging some kind of cohesion and harmony among them, leading to social and national unity and improvement of the health of the body politic.

In a pluralistic society it is not unlikely that people subscribe to different beliefs, ideas and ideologies. They may hold divergent views on policies, issues, problems and strategies. They may hold divergent views on policies, issues, problems and strategies. They may also have common and shared views on some or many issues. Human beings as they are, not being machines, should be free to express their opinions on any issue and democracy encourages and promotes this freedom of thought and expression. This freedom may give rise to conflicts among individuals or groups, among communities or political parties in terms of their beliefs, ideas, goals or policies. Societies in transition, by their very nature, are characterised particularly by these different types of conflicts. A number of countries which achieved dramatic economic growth seem to have responded to such conflicts by forcefully guiding the competing forces for what their leaders felt was in the best interest of their national economy. Some of the East Asian countries - in varying degrees - represent this model. Another model is represented by countries which accept the right of individuals and groups to air their differences and provide legally sanctioned methods and institutions within which the conflicting claims can be resolved. In these countries, while economic development has been at a slower pace, political and social institutions have been created which provide durable and known structures for handling different viewpoints and interests.

Harmonization of these different viewpoints through open debates, dialogues and discussions is a key function of true democracy. An individual or a group or a political party which is not prepared to allow others to speak out or present their points of view, even thought unpalatable, cannot be branded as democratic. An essential attribute of a democrat is his unwavering belief in the freedom of speech and expression of others including his opponents. A true democrat believes that if he has the right to express his own opinion, others equally also have the right to ventilate their views and that the former has no right to interfere with the right of the latter. He will uphold, in letter and spirit, the words (attributed to Voltaire): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Here lies, I believe, the essence of democracy.

In a democratic society there are certain essential values which need to be sincerely cherished, cultivated and nurtured by the people. These make a democracy work and help the democratic process grow, advance and mature. These norms and practices, in fact, are the warp and woof of the fabric of democratic life. The most important of them are freedom of thought, speech and expression, tolerance, respect for law and human rights.

In many countries including ours, many are seen to be preoccupied with the form of democracy in operation. Without underestimating the importance of this concern, I may venture to observe that a democracy derives its real strength more from its 'substance' rather than its mere form. The 'substance' stems from 'awareness and observance of democratic principles and practices. In their absence a democracy is a mere body without its soul. A country will have only a facade of democracy, if the democratic principles and practices are non-existent. To voteries of democracy, the situation is nothing but an anathema. I believe, the combination of democratic principles and practices acts in real sense as a propeller that makes democracy operate and move forward.

These values do not emerge in a society all of a sudden. Nor can we introduce them just by law. They are basically matters of faith and mental attitude. They are disseminated through a process of awareness, continuous cultivation and practice. The promotion of these values has to start right from the grassroots level, right from the family. What brand of democratic culture can we expect at the national level, if we do not practice democracy within our own families, within our own organisations or within our own political parties? It is my firm conviction that democracy cannot take firm root in our society if democratic culture is not fostered through concerted efforts of all stake-holders at different levels of our socio-political life.

Freedom of expression is sometimes misconstrued as a licence to say 'whatever one chooses' in total disregard for accepted norms of civilized behaviour. A civilized man is expected to observe these norms while articulating his views. Any statement made out of sheer malevolence or any statement not based on facts or based on wilful distortion of facts, or a tendentious report is, I believe, a veritable abuse of freedom of speech and expression. That is why this freedom is not unbridled; it is subject to reasonable restrictions, as enshrined in our Constitution (Article 39).

The democratic system derives its elixir from the system of regular opportunity provided to the electors to choose their representatives or to pass opinion on important matters of state. The systems of election, recall, referendum etc. energise the democratic process and reinforce citizens' belief in democracy as an institution. Various systems of election have evolved over time. Each country follows the brand it thinks best-suited to itself. Simple majority (first-past-the-post), proportional representation, run-off to choose the most preferred candidates, and blending of more than one method of election etc. are usually practiced throughout the world. In some countries, reservation in representative bodies in provided for women and disadvantaged groups.

Apparently, choosing people's representatives should be a simple task. But in real life it is not so. Elections are reportedly fought in some places not only with programmes and policies, but also with guns and bullets. We, in our country, are not totally unfamiliar with such scenario. These are formidable roadblocks for free and fair elections. Building up a healthy political culture based on respect for democratic rights of the people can reduce substantially the need for the existing unavoidable practice of mobilising heavy security forces to forestall or deal with these undeserable occurrences.

Photo: SK Enamul Haq

Then, there is the issue- in many changing socieities - of the role of money power. For the practice of democracy, in true sense, the influence of money has to be curbed in an effective manner. In some countries campaign finance laws are in place: some of these are inadequate and some do not have any enforcing mechanism. Attention needs to be given to develop an effective system of campaign finnace regulations. The subject deserves serious consideration in Bangladesh.

For effective working of democracy, the pursuit of healthy politics is an imperative. Not power, but people's welfare, being the ultimate goal of politics, the conduct of the political parties, specially the ruling party and the opposition, is expected to be constructive and responsible, and to conform to standard norms. In fact, for a successful democratic polity, responsible government and responsible opposition are both crucial as they together help the constitutional machine operate effectively. Opinion polls conducted by independent agencies, tragically, indicate that impolitic conduct, irresponsible activities and lack of mutual trust and tolerance on the part of political parties are eroding people's confidence in politics. Signs of this disenchantment are visible even in some countries which have practiced democracy uninterruptedly for long years. This crisis of confidence portends an ominous future for democracy. This should be a matter of grave concern to any person who advocates the cause of democracy and its future development.

Modern democracy has become synonymous with multi-party political system. Party nominees are elected by voters to represent their respective constituencies in parliament. Over the years as political parties became central to public life, they also came under increasing public scrutiny. In response to this situation, many countries have evolved strict rules guiding political fund-raising and campaign finance. In the western world, political parties remain under pressure to avoid association with 'dirty money' and foreign funding. There is again the concern expressed in some countries about the criminalization of politics. Some of these countries are engaged in devising methods of keeping out criminal elements from their parliaments. As a measure of improving transparency, some countries have established the system of registration of political parties and/or provision of public funding, while some have adopted different combinations of these measures. These issues are important for the growth and sustenance of democracy and each country has to debate their merit and suitability in the context of its own culture and goals.

I would like to re-emphasize that democracy is neither a 'free-for-all' system nor the rule of 'brute majority'. Freedom of the individual citizen can be best ensured when the rule of law is upheld: when equality of opportunity is embedded in law and when law is applied practically to all citizens-equally and rigorously. One can find that this structural framework of democracy operates successfully in a culture that practices tolerance as an essential value.

In Bangladesh, we have covered long and difficult ground - at considerable cost - to embrace parliamentary form of democracy. Let us not forget the supreme sacrifices our people have made for the birth of this nation. Imbued with the spirit of the liberation war, let us all "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right" strive on to make our fledgling democracy take wings, our freedom find meaning and our future radiate hope and promise.

The writer is retired civil servant and former Chief Election Commissioner.