Democracy is the best guarantee of political security for everyone

by Afsan Chowdhury

03Democracy is not a monolithic being and it has many levels and layers. Sometimes in some places, some parts of it functions like economic democracy but political and social democracy fails or falls short. We know that in Soviet Union and other socialist countries, there was some degree of economic equity but as it was not backed by political democracy, the system collapsed. The transition period caused great harm to many people and damaged lives. Being there at that time I saw first hand the horrors of a brigand economy that emerged after the collapse and its helpless victims as wives of Professors begged in the subway and young women turned to prostitution while their mothers hawked food on the streets. These may be extreme cases but the general collapse was obvious to all. Side by side grew extreme and ruthless wealth making.
Soviet socialism was killed by the flawed dream of Leninism applied to a Marxist state which did not understand the balance between the two or many other democracies that are required in governance. So when there is no political democracy, there is no need of intellectual democracy either and ultimately free thinking dies. What happens when that happens is on display for all not only in the death of Soviet Union but the lack of democracy in today’s Russia and the other SU countries where corruption and militancy reigns as autocracy has become the norm. That vodka is not a substitute for a parliament is not appreciated by the powers that be there creating the space for possibly the next turmoil. This prognosis can be rooted to the lack of democratic institutions.
In China where conventional socialism has also died, the situation is conflicted as capitalism-driven economic development is happening under the Communist Party which is not an open institution. As a result, there is an explosion of corruption and abuse and even politburo members have been accused and arrested. Obviously, the conflict between free market capitalism and arbitrary and unaccountable secretive powers of CP governance cannot exist together. Each such situation creates conflict potential and it cause disruptions and ultimately defeats the purpose of state making. There are many realities of governance objectives but an improved social economic and cultural betterment are the givens. No society has achieved that for long without participatory democracy.
The ailment that socialist societies suffered in the past and do so now is about accepting the ideas of pluralism. That several types of ideas and even conflicting ones can exist together and have a right to do so is not in their book. But history shows this has been the best arrangement. The Nazi Germany — mono ethnic — and Soviet Union — mono political — are good examples of such an attitude.
During a sojourn in that area — the erstwhile Soviet Union — I met a doctor whose work once involved certifying dissidents as ‘mental patients’. I asked her why she did so. ‘Well, we thought this was a great system so anybody opposing it must be mentally unwell.’ I asked her what she thought now…  She was quiet for a while and then said, ‘You have to understand that we didn’t know what other systems there were. We had no idea of anything else other than the Soviet system.’ She herself had suffered much after the collapse and felt that ideology and medical science should never be mixed.
That same level of intolerance exists in our society in almost every sphere. And we have not even given anything to the people in return. The problem lies in developing institutions that supports multiple democracies. Of these problems, the most elusive to grasp is electoral democracy. This is because it is possible to have great elections but low democratic content in politics. This was the case in Bangladesh from 1990 till now. I carried out a study in 2007 just before the elections and found that people were very happy with the elections held after 1990 but thought that it had delivered very little. Nor could the elections be linked to poverty reduction since the function of the parliament had almost nothing to do with this activity. Worse, the parliament rarely sat making elections an action without any purpose.
While the 15th amendment has greatly damaged electoral politics, the fact remains that under every government, the parliament has been pretty much useless since it rarely meets, rendering it purposeless. In terms of results, the parliament before and the present one is not any different. The opposition is usually absent any way.
So where can we look for democracy in Bangladesh? Political democracy is more or less absent and the present government is stuck with a political life without an opposition. This sounds ironic but it is the responsibility of the party in power to bring all other parties to the table. It did not and in fact made a politically immature party like the BNP fall into its trap and stay away. The AL correctly assumed that the people do not care enough about politics and would not take to the street for elections nor would it try much else afterwards which too proved to be true.
But what are the dangers of such a victory. For the moment, whatever resentment, complaints, difficulties etc are not being aired in the parliament but in media which has become the alternative for social, political and cultural discourses necessary for continuation of the formal state. But as it appears, media seems to have become the target of high level ire and steps are on to make sure that media doesn’t criticize beyond a prescribed limit.
This was inevitable as every institution needs a counter to contest and challenge. The absence of any significant political opposition has meant that media has begun to occupy that space. The result is a clash with a foretold conclusion. By coercing media, it will drive protest underground and like any other place, controlling that protest may actually be more difficult. But it is inevitable also.
What will happen is another matter but democracy at all levels is the best guarantee of political security for everyone. No state has survived without multiple democracies. The entire socialist system collapsed due to its shortage. How far can Bangladesh run without wearing the garments of a functional democracy is a question which only the future can answer.
Afsan Chowdhury is journalist and researcher.

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