• Monday, October 20, 2014

Voting for Parliament

A tale of two countries

Ziauddin Choudhury

Elections to the Parliament in the largest democracy of the world are over; a new government has stepped in led by the party that received an overwhelming majority in the new parliament. Although the results were forecast by political pundits long before the elections were actually held, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic leader Narendra Modi are now basking in the adulation of their exultant supporters and voters of India. And they should, because the success of the party and its leaders is not confined to the work they did, it is also a tribute to the system that allowed its citizens unfettered exercise of the right to vote. A total of over 600 million (69%) out of more than 814 million voters exercised their rights to choose from a list of 8,251 candidates representing 22 political parties. The choice was unlimited, but people chose who they trusted more. This is democracy of the people, for the people, and by the people.
Only five months before, Bangladesh also had a parliamentary election for its 92 million voters. As in India, it was a chance for them to choose a party and a leader of their choice through ballot box. But instead of an election what we ended up with was a virtual selection. Instead of a long list of choices, majority of the voters ended up with no choice at all except a sole candidate who would face no contest at all. We ended up with 153 members of the parliament out of 300 hundred who the voters did not have to vote for; those members faced no opposition.
In India, the winning alliance won 336 seats out of 543 (BJP alone 282 seats) an impressive win under any circumstances. These votes were not rigged nor obtained through manipulation either by the party or the agency that oversaw the elections. The votes that were cast were an outpouring of support for the candidates of people's choice. In Bangladesh, the winning party reportedly received 74% of the votes, but then more than half of these votes did not need to be cast. This is only a statistics to account for all voters irrespective of whether they actually cast their votes or not. In India the voter turnout was 69%; in Bangladesh the official report stated the turnout to be 48%, but it did not clarify whether the statistics included voters in areas of no contest.  
Many people may observe, and rightly so, that this comparison between India and Bangladesh is pointless. For starters, the last Bangladesh election was in reality more technical than real. The elections were held purportedly to fulfill a constitutional requirement to avoid a vacuum in government. But these were held against both internal opposition and external disapproval. It was boycotted by several political parties including the major opposition that had secured around 35% of votes in the previous (2008) elections. Why compare?
A comparison between India and Bangladesh becomes necessary if at least to show the essential difference between having a democracy that is truly functional and a democracy that is nominal. India has a democratic tradition that actually that goes back before independence of 1947. Even under colonial rule undivided India had elections for provinces that were fought by domestic political parties. These traditions were carried into India after independence and were nurtured and strengthened for decades. These traditions and the institutions that went along with them let democracy flourish and prosper in India. But even though we are different countries now we also had inherited these traditions which we have unfortunately squandered away.
Fight for independence of Bangladesh was not only for political and economic freedom, but also for establishing a truly democratic country. Democracy is one of our four state principles. Unfortunately, this country had seen from time to time stifling of democracy by rulers who were modeled after Pakistani traditions. Yet, our people have fought and brought back democracy, sometimes with their lives.
India may not yet have the most ideal democratic society, but it has a functional democracy that allows it to have successful elections every five year with unfettered participation by all.  We may be a long away from India but we can at least move away from nominal democracy if our leaders have the intent. We cannot claim we have democracy in the country when democratic traditions of free and fair elections are denied. We cannot claim we have democracy when institutions that guard democracy are stifled, politicised, or rendered dysfunctional.
Democracy is a state of mind that is reflected in words and practices of those who believe in it. Law alone cannot sustain it unless people at the helm and those around them believe and practice democracy. Otherwise, we will continue to have selections and no election.

The writer is a US based political analyst and commentator.

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, June 01, 2014

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