Ailing Democracy: Rx Intensive Care
In about two months, on the second Tuesday of November, as is the tradition, mid-term national elections in the United States will be held – mid-term because the current Presidential term will run up to January 20, 2025. The November poll will be observed intently across the globe because it will determine if the two houses of the US Congress – as well as all 50 state legislatures, at least 36 state governorships, and other important state level offices – will be controlled by President Joe Biden's Democratic Party or the Republican Party, in which former President Donald Trump wields great influence.
The contrasting stance and postures of two dominant parties in the US have global consequences for international economy, trade, security, super-power relationships, climate change issues and the future of democracy.
The conventional wisdom is that, in the mid-term polls, the incumbent president's party is at a disadvantage. The expectation is that the current razor-thin margin for the Democrats in the Senate and a stronger majority in the House would be lost to the Republicans. But a recent Supreme Court Ruling issued by Trump-appointed conservative Justices that seriously limits abortion rights established half-century ago in 1973 has energised opposition to the Republican Party.
The revelations of the Congressional enquiry of January 6, 2020 invasion of the Capitol building by protestors and Trump's role in it as the sitting president brought home again to many non-partisan citizens the threat to democracy that Trump supporters posed. They persist in justifying the insurrectionists' cause of over-turning the 2020 presidential election. The FBI raid in August on Trump's Mar-a-Lago ocean-front resort in Palm Beach, Florida to retrieve hundreds of secret and sensitive state documents that Trump squirreled away in the basement added to the sordid drama.
Democrats, therefore, have picked up some momentum this election cycle. Opinion polls suggest that the possibility of Democrats holding on to their narrow majority in the two houses of Congress and improving their position in the states cannot be ruled out.
President Biden, on September 1, delivered an unusual prime-time nationally televised speech from the steps of the Independence Hall in Philadelphia (where the debate on framing the American Constitution was held two and a half centuries ago). He declared that MAGA Republican extremism and its influence throughout the country were a threat to democracy in the US. MAGA stands for Make America Great Again, the jingoist rallying cry of Trump and his followers.
"I believe America is at an inflection point," Biden said, "One of those moments that determine the shape of everything that's to come after. And now America must choose to move forward or to move backwards." If the President's message reaches a large enough number of citizens and they turn up at the November polls, there may be a push back on the assault on democracy and democratic institutions in the country.
I wrote earlier on July 4, on the independence anniversary of the US, about democracy being on life support around the world – in the US, South Asia, and Bangladesh. To stick to the metaphor, we may say that intensive care for democracy has to continue.
Biden's "inflection point" applies to Bangladesh, too, as the preparation and strategising by the ruling party and the opposition begin for the 12th parliamentary election in about 16 months.
I had written that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, thinking about her legacy for the next generation, can consider four steps, including nominating candidates for their honesty, competence, popularity and record of public service, rather than the money and muscle power; shunning the use of mastaans, muscle power, intimidation and violence by the ruling party and its candidates; supporting the Election Commission to conduct a free and fair election; and strongly discouraging factional, communal, sectarian, and religious divisions for political gains and reclaiming the liberation ideals of justice, inclusion and human dignity for all. These steps would lead to Bangladesh being a model of liberal democracy in the region and also secure election victory for the ruling party. But it has to prove its bona fides through action, not just words.
The signs do not look promising. PM Hasina at the BCL event on August 31 complained about the media blowing out of proportion any infraction of the student wing of the ruling party. It is reported that BCL is set to establish its presence in private universities, so far protected from partisan politics. This would be a recipe for disaster, further aggravating the already looming crisis in higher education in the country.
The Election Commission has not shown any indication so far of taking a firm stance against potential transgressions of fair election practices. One example is its equivocal position on the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) without a paper trail, thus subjecting it to undetected manipulation.
Police and law-enforcing agencies have continued suppressing opposition gatherings and protests, leading to injuries and fatalities, despite government undertaking to the contrary.
We must not miss the opportunity to halt the slide down the slippery slope of oligopoly and authoritarianism before it is too late. Nurturing democracy in good faith is the only way to secure a future for the nation to be marked by genuine progress and peace.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University.