Across the globe, democracy is in crisis. Nevertheless, amidst uncertainty and confusion, the US presidential election is over with Joe Biden becoming the 46th president of the United States of America. It seems that the American people are going to see democracy – weakened and undermined by Donald Trump in the last four years – once again.
However, the weaknesses of liberal democracies are becoming increasingly evident in terms of falling voter participation rate and unhealthy exercise of power of the political parties. Ideal democracy is dying around the world because the ruling political parties (those in power) are found manipulating the electoral systems to win the elections leaving the voters to choose on the basis of poor or wrong information.
Besides, many of the voters are hugely influenced by a diet of hyped-up statistics and social media propaganda ahead of elections. Currently, in many democracies, most of the voters are not better-informed citizens and do not access objective information – subject to scrutiny and minimum standards.
According to Georgetown University's political philosopher Jason Brennan, we would be better off if we replaced democracy with a form of government known as "epistocracy". In his controversial book, Against Democracy (2016), he says, "Epistocracy is a system in which the votes of people who can prove their political knowledge count more than the votes of people who cannot. In other words, it's a system that privileges the most politically informed citizens."
He also argues that democracy is overrated and is not necessarily more just than other forms of government. Besides, it doesn't empower citizens or create more equitable outcomes.
On 23 July 2018, in an interview taken by Sean Illing (writer for an American digital media Vox), Brennan says, "We know that an unfortunate side effect of democracy is that it incentivizes citizens to be ignorant, irrational, tribalistic, and to not use their votes in very serious ways. So this is an attempt to correct for that pathology while keeping what's good about a democratic system." In fact, political division has become so dysfunctional and ugly that it's crippling the democracy.
He says, "Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive." He also points out that newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticise the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realise what is happening. Many people continue to believe they are living under a democracy.
On 21 January 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt jointly wrote an article in The Guardian titled "This is how democracies die". In that article the authors have aptly described how democracy is dying: "Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended – by political parties and organised citizens but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be."
It continues, "Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and 'weaponising' the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents."
"The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy's assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it," the article concluded.
Democracy is the antithesis of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. When there is dearth of democracy visible in any state, people's freedom is hampered; press is gagged; and judiciary is also controlled by the party in power. Absence of functional democracy ultimately leads to a kleptocracy.
Kleptocracy is defined as a government with corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth. Such a government remains unaccountable to its nation and tries to silence the voices of its citizens.
Bangladesh seems to be experiencing a "managed democracy". This is happening because good governance is absent, and the rule of democratic law is yet to be established institutionally. People perceive that corruption is rampant in all sectors; bribery has become a way of life in government offices.
Citizens of Bangladesh urgently need a written charter which must be made public and accessible so the public servants (government officials) can be held accountable for the service they provide. Now, it seems, we are in a tangle of kleptocracy because many of our institutions lack accountability and transparency.
Notwithstanding, we want to believe the present government will take stern actions against the corrupt; establish effective democracy; let the constitutional institutions work independently; make development sustainable by curbing corruption in all sectors; and enhance efficiency of bureaucracy by introducing reward and punishment system in public sector.
The government should also manoeuver to face many challenges and stop politically motivated violence. And establishing good governance in all sectors – both public and private – should be the top priority for the government in the "Mujib year".
Professor Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate for Economics, identified four essential components for institutionalising democracy. He puts stress on four Ds – debate, discussion, democracy and development. But, unfortunately, in our society debate is regarded as disobedience; discussion is often discouraged; development is synonymous with democracy; and democracy is practised only through the holding of national election every five years.
Our democracy is at risk, and it requires eternal vigilance and protection. We hope the government will not let democracy wither and take a backseat.
To conclude, I want to quote Professor Amartya Sen: "Throughout the nineteenth century, theorists of democracy found it quite natural to discuss whether one country or another was "fit for democracy". This thinking changed only in the twentieth century, with the recognition that the question itself was wrong: A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy." Now the choice is ours!
Sheikh Nahid Neazy is associate professor and chair, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh. Email: email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.