Democracy Dynamics: Time And Change, And Relevance For Bangladesh – OpEd


The second U.S. President John Adams once said, “Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”

John Adams, a fervent nationalist, a leader of the American Revolution, and a remarkable political philosopher, when describing democracy was warning against absolute power — if controlled by just a few people tends to become corrupted. In this sense, democracy always changes, and shapes into new forms to maintain its inherent dynamism through time and space.

The transformation of democracy occurred in Greek city states, where states or polis were to be governed by the city people, especially male citizens. The Athenian democracy was run by male citizens, free slaves, and native people. The idea of citizenship was simple, and so was the voting. However, modern democracy is a product of thousands of years of political evolution, legal amendments, and civic participation. Now, we call it a democratic process that includes ideas such as liberty, equality, justice as well as equal decision-making participation. 

In the 21st Century, the key idea of democracy such as the rule of people, individual liberty, and accountability becomes critical in supporting a democratic system. The modern idea of a democratic system or process has not come from a single diluted evolution. Moreover, the idea of the struggle for democracy has also come through evolutionary stages.

Take for instance, eighteenth-century Europe observed an emergence of republicanism which greatly influenced the representation in the parliament and the application of the equality principle- that is every individual is endowed with a decision-making power and no minority can have an upholding power over any majority rulings.

At present, the idea of democracy has transformed into ‘equity’ from ‘equality’.

Democracy does not only mean political freedom, rather it has taken new forms to include such ideas as economic freedom or climate freedom. For example, the 1970s climate action renewed the debate on the nexus between climate change and democracy. The green democracy or the environmental performance of the democracies became critical to maintaining a counter-hegemony against eco-authoritarianism. Similarly, the economic freedom linked with development in the global South region became a neo-liberalism program particularly run by the IMF and World Bank. The regions in Latin America and Asia joined the program and it was understood that economic liberalization could be best achieved under certain political reforms that would lead to democracy.

Similarly, the struggle for democracy also changes its course today. Black Lives Matter (BLM), Me Too, We Are the 99%, Indian Farmer’s Protest, and various social movements demonstrate the increasing social mobility and movements in realizing democratic rights around the world. For example, BLM, an international activist movement, campaigns against systemic racism and violence against black people, and primarily arose out of the police brutality and killings against African-American people. Similarly, in Paris, the Yellow Vest protesters are known by their gilets jaunes gathered around their unsustainable livelihood for excessive fuel price conditions. Denouncing Macron’s Green Tax policy, the demonstration turned into a political crisis. Occupy Wall Street also provided a similar case where Americans realized that the traditional ‘work hard, play by the rules, get ahead’ wasn’t actually working, hence culminating into protests of “We are the 99%.”

Interestingly, all of these protests and demonstrations had no hierarchical decision-making body and were merely organized through social media and people-people connections. Nonetheless, despite having a short-term effect on political authority, they could not bring their attained outcomes out of these protests. Instead, most of the protests ultimately turned into violence and anarchism that affected society and the state. The world witnessed the violent phases of BLM, Yellow Vest, Occupy World Street, and the recent protest in France over killing of Nahel Marzouk, and many more protests. All these protests ultimately met brutal crackdown by the police in the name of maintaining ‘law and order’. Interestingly, the coercive power of police control over public spaces also increased vehemently in recent decades, a fact that has paradoxically increased the vigor of such social movements.

It seems the evolving idea of ‘protest’, the anarchic nature of individuals and mobs, and the complex interdependence between society and state are now making street protests less effective, yet more destructive. Therefore, street protests are often turning violent and inviting anarchy and vandalism. The Capitol Hill riot and the ongoing Manipur ethnic pogrom are some of the examples that fit such a claim. Hence, street protests are gradually becoming a ‘relic of the 20th Century’ in democratic societies.

Like the rest of the world, similar facts could be observed in Bangladeshi politics. The long traditional Awami League vs. BNP contests seem to be a mere political show for years. The upcoming elections and the BNP vehemently denied any such electoral participation without a caretaker government. Now, the party calls for a massive demonstration demanding the resignation of the current ruling prime minister. It is expected the protests will continue till December. On the other hand, the Dhaka-17 election also has been marked by the attack on Hero Alam by the corresponding party cadres. Unsurprisingly the election was won by the Awami League candidate. These suggest political developments in Bangladesh around elections though getting violent in nature is less likely to bring any desired outcomes for any opposition party or independent candidate.

In our time, dialogue has become a more pertinent theme in the idea of democracy. As the nature of civil and political movements has changed rapidly in this 21st century, the nature of democratic process also changed. Democracy itself is adopting the politics of dialogue as its core method of transition. Previously, the transition was not always peaceful, rather often entangled into blood affairs as in Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Chile, etc. The bloody affairs on political grounds are becoming more infrequent than the establishing the agenda of having political dialogue with electoral parties. 

In future decades, democracy will take a more vibrant form through new urgencies of political inclusion, political space and dialogue. The critical linkage here will be how governments will adapt to the new changes of democracy struggles of the general people. The mass is not willing to shed blood on the grounds anymore, even though coercive actions of police are getting record bar high. Undoubtedly, the paradoxical transition will shape democracy to have its new course for its evolution in future time. To maintain relevance and practice contemporary democracy, political parties in Bangladesh should also focus on dialogue ahead of the election to avoid political deadlock, which will be detrimental for all.

Shafiqul Elahi

Shafiqul Elahi is a retired government official of Bangladesh and is enjoying retired life in reading, writing and travelling. Elahi contributes on contemporary issues of Bangladesh and South Asia. He is also currently writing his first book on Institutional Development and Bangladesh.

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