Some Thoughts on Democracy

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Kazi Anwarul Masud [1]


(Ideally democracy and the rule of law should reinforce each other. However this has not always been the experience of developing societies because the elected majority often betrays the trust reposed on them by the people. Unbridled power exercised by politicians can degenerate into “brute majoritarianism” and result in plunder and anarchy necessitating the proclamation of emergency. The author believes that the challenge for emergent democracies lies in finding “the correct intersection between electoral democracy with constitutional and liberal democracy.” Editor). 

“Democracy is the best revenge,” lamented a grief stricken Bilawal after the assassination of his mother, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. Rarely has an utterance from so young a mind had so profound an impact in shaping the immediate future of a country.  “Democracy,” writes Francis Fukuyama, “is the right held universally by all citizens to have a share of political power.”[1] It is the bedrock of liberalism and is closely associated with the historical evolution of democracy.

Thomas Jefferson asserted, while framing the American Declaration of Independence,   the right of the people to alter or abolish a government and to institute new government. It is said that the essence of a constitution embodies neither the national government nor even the supreme law but the sovereign right of the people to alter their government or supreme law at will. Given the success of democracy in India since independence, for example, former colonies regaining freedom from colonial rule were naturally attracted to the democratic model that, at least in theory, gave power to the people. Some countries in our neighborhood have been more successful than others. In Bangladesh people are currently as anxious about the inflationary spiral as they are about the opportunity to cast a vote every five years. Undoubtedly people do not want “guided democracy” foisted on them by a “moderate oligarchy” unfettered by any accountability as in Pakistan till recently according to South Asian expert Stephen Cohen.[2]

In developed countries the electorate is acutely conscious of their incomes, taxes, holidays, health facilities, educational opportunities for their children and national security in choosing their representatives to the legislature and presidency. This awareness of the material well-being of the people could be seen as mercantile and bereft of idealism. Professor Adrian Leftwich  quotes G. Kitching’s observation that “materially poor societies cannot produce the democratic life which is an essential prerequisite for the creation of socialist democracies.”[3] Only economic growth, insists Leftwich, through industrialization can provide the platform on which democratic values, institutions, and process can be sustained. This argument is furthered by S.M.Lipset that democratic political development is dependent on a combination of economic, social and cultural factors which are unlikely to exist in underdeveloped economies.[4] In such analysis one can find a close relationship between modernity as a precondition for democracy because in the Max Weberian sense politico-administrative arrangements of modernity being legal-rational is distinct from political traditionalism such as patrimonialism where power and authority are personalized and unaccountable.  One can also discern in this thought process the validity of the  preconditions for democracy that Francis Fukuyama thinks are necessary for sustaining the democratic  process, the most important being a reasonably high level of economic development. Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea are cases in point. But then, these countries represent only 2 percent of the total population of the south and one commentator observed that while they turned into tigers by adopting structural adjustment programs and the orthodox perspective of development, the generation of economic growth through promotion of free-market principles; most of the followers of these principles turned into turkeys instead of tigers. At the same time Fukuyama’s claim of the end of history occasioned by the collapse of the Soviet system has been criticized as astonishingly arrogant inasmuch as it ignores other possible modes of social and economic organization that may better serve humanity.

Religion and Democracy

One may question whether religion can act as a barrier to the spread of democracy. Skepticism has been expressed about Samuel Huntington’s [5] “fourth wave of democracy” in the Greater Middle East spurred by President Bush’s promise to do so in the light of a democracy deficit in many member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Western skepticism about sustainable democracy in the Muslim countries is not only due to the comparatively low level of economic development that Francis Fukuyama considers as one of the essential ingredients of democracy but also due to their suspicion that Islam does not preach the principle of giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. In other words the separation of the church and the temporal power is blurred in Muslim countries. Beside historical rivalry between the Muslims and the Christians, a thesis successfully propagated by Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis,[6] that the struggle between the Muslims and the Christians started from the first Arab incursions in the eighth century to the final Turkish retreat in the twentieth century is referred to by the Muslims as war against the infidels. Therefore, writes Lewis [7] the American President is the successor in the long line of rulers from the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople, the Holy Roman Emperors of Vienna and all who represent the “land of the unbelievers.” Samuel Huntington appears to agree with Lewis’ thesis that the West is “facing a need and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations, the perhaps irrational but historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, on secular present, and worldwide expansion of both.”  It is doubtful that in the absence of the terrorist attacks of 9/11    the writings of Bernard Lewis and of Samuel Huntington would have received the width of attention of the western policy makers, particularly of the Bush administration. One can safely assume that these attacks had expedited Bush National Security Strategy of  2000 (NSS) and its follow up on Afghanistan.   .

The NSS document declared that President Bush’s foreign policy aims would be: (a) to promote human dignity through political and economic freedom; (b) to provide security against terrorism and weapons of mass destructions; and (c) to engage in conflict areas and with allies. While the aims were laudable the most worrisome aspects of the NSS were the concepts of American exceptionalism and the doctrine of preemption. The document declared “the US National Security Strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.” The American unilateralism that followed was not reassuring to its Atlantic partners. Europeans found arch-conservative Robert Kagan’s [8] suggestion that the real division of labor should consist of the Americans “making the dinner” and the Europeans “doing the dishes.” In Robert Kagan’s view World War II destroyed European nations as great powers and the subsequent relinquishment of European colonies denoted “perhaps the most significant retrenchment of global influence in human history.” Added to these was Europe’s loss of strategic centrality due to the end of the Cold War. To the dismay of the American policy makers the end of the Cold War did not see the emergence of a European superpower but instead saw a declining Europe which chose to be indolent in place of taking the advantage provided by the disappearance of the Soviet Union. It appeared that Europe thought the brutal laws ruling the Hobbesian world were matters of the past and the Kantian world of perpetual peace was just round the corner.

End of the Cold War could have triggered American isolation as there was no great enemy to defeat or any antithetical ideology to confront.  The world was confronted with the worrying aspect of the Bush NSS document i.e., the doctrine of preemption. Bush’s doctrine has expanded the relatively noncontroversial concept of true preemption, allowed under the UN Charter which could be legitimized if undertaken against an imminent, specific, near certain attack. The most basic reference to the legality of any war under the UN Charter is under articles 42 and 51 i.e., either one is acting in self-defense or with the authority of the UNSC. War in any other form would be illegal and unjust. Professor Michael Walzer of Princeton University[9]and the author of the seminal work “Just and Unjust War”   expounded six propositions while discussing his theory of aggression. His propositions included the existence of an international society of independent states; the international society has law establishing rights of its members particularly rights of territorial integrity and sovereignty; any use of force or imminent threat of force by one state against the political sovereignty or territorial integrity of another state constituted aggression and would be a criminal act; aggression was justified by two kinds of violent response: a war of self-defense by the victim and any other member of the international society; nothing but aggression can justify war; and once the aggressor has been militarily repulsed  it can also be punished. Walzer argues that as with domestic crimes, use of force would require actual or imminent boundary crossing, invasion and physical assault. Otherwise resistance to aggression would have no determinate meaning. He emphasizes that a wrong must be received by the victim for him to take recourse to force. The Walzerian concept presupposes war between states which was also in the minds of the framers of the UN charter. They could not have foreseen the devastating role played by non-state actors; the problem of failing and failed states; and the technological nature of the threat.

Critics of the Bush doctrine have asserted that it represents a major redirection of policy and a radical revision of existing security rules. It has been argued that preemptive military actions reflect policy failures and not triumph of superior values or virtues. Besides, repeated usage of military might where the responsibilities of being the judge, jury and executioner remain with a single country then one has to be aware of the warning sounded by former Russian President Vladimir Putin of “the danger that the current system of international security will collapse… If we allow international law to be replaced by the law of the fist according to which the strongest has the right to do whatever he wants and is not limited by anything in choosing means to achieve his goals, then one of the basic principles of international law will be called into question, the principle of the inviolability of the state’s sovereignty. Then nobody or no country of the world would be safe.”  The basic argument remains that terrorism cannot be fought by terrorist means because it would more likely serve the interest of the terrorists who depend on the victim’s instinctive impulse to retaliate and thereby compounding the problem and changing the complexion of the original scenario for the worse.   Europeans were concerned over America’s drifting away from the post- Cold War system of international rules and institutions. European unease was not lessened when President Bush announced: “America has and intends to keep military strength beyond challenge thereby making the destabilizing arms race of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits.”  As opposed to such hegemonic intentions, the Europeans favour a globalist approach to foreign affairs relying on international cooperation as a means to deal with multiple challenges. The essence of Europeanism is to subject inter-state relations to the rule of law which is disparaged by Robert Kagan as reflective of European military weakness and Europe’s fear that American unilateralism will perpetuate the Hobbesian world in which Europe becomes increasingly vulnerable. This foray into US-European differences was necessary to explore whether democracy as we understand is possible should its practice by some be considered as a threat to the US. Democracy, after all, denotes independence of actions according to the perceived interest of the nations concerned. US ire with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is a case in point though the US has reasons to be angry with Chavez’s description of President Bush as the “devil” in the UNGA and with Iranian Ahmednijad for walking over the US flag on his way to vote in the elections under which he became the president of Iran.

Failed States and Democracy

Any discussion on democracy would be incomplete without also examining the question of failed states because they are the antithesis to a democratic way of life. Helman and Ratner    described failed nations as “utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community.” William Olsen expanded the definition by including states facing serious “internal problems that threaten their continued coherence” or “significant internal challenges to their political order.” The events of 9/11 have brought the problem of failed and failing states into sharp focus as they are vulnerable to ingress by non-state actors, warlords and terrorists. It is, therefore, important to understand the dynamics of the nation-state’s failure as being central to the war on terrorism. Robert Rotenberg[10] finds failed states as tense, deeply conflicted and marked by intense and enduring violence against the government or the regime. Such instability is caused by appalling living standards, decaying infrastructure,  greed of rulers, patronage-based system of extraction from ordinary citizens etc .Effectively failed and failing states are unable to deliver political continuity, security, education, health services, economic opportunities, law and order,  a judicial system and infrastructural facilities to its citizens.

It is often fallaciously assumed that failed states are generally asphyxiated dictatorships like the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Mobutu’s Zaire or Barre’s Somalia. Though these were undoubtedly failed states, some are adorned with democratic institutions though flawed. As Robert Rotberg explains, if legislatures exist at all they are rubber stamp machines. Democratic debates are noticeably absent. The judiciary is derivative of the executive rather than being independent and citizens know that they cannot rely on the judicial system for redress or remedy especially against the government. The bureaucracy has long lost its sense of professional responsibility and exists only to carry out the orders of its political masters. Indeed promotions to higher positions or transfers to coveted posts largely depend on passing the DNA tests for loyalty to the party in power.

Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw [11]enumerated some of the characteristics of failed states. In general terms, Straw said, a state failed when it was unable : (a) to control its territory and guarantee security to its citizens, (b) to maintain the rule of law, promote human rights, and provide effective governance, and (c) to deliver public goods to its people (such as economic growth, education and health care etc.). In Straw’s analysis it is possible to identify indicators of each of these elements of failure. For example, the security criteria can be assessed by determining whether there are areas beyond the control of the government or where there is a presence of significant ethnic, religious or inter-group conflicts. On governance, the indicators could include the ability of the government to implement policies; the extent of corruption able to distort optimum implementation of decisions; the ability of the people to influence governmental decisions without resorting to violence; and, the presence of institutions to facilitate peaceful transference of power. As regards the economy, the indicators could include the stability of the state’s economy; its dependence on certain industries or on the agricultural sector; effective economic management; per capita GDP; literacy; life expectancy etc. Apart from the horrific events  like that of 9/11, Jack Straw believes that  “continual fear and danger of violent death,” in Hobbesian terminology, is fuelled by the fact that over the past decade wars in and among failed states have killed about eight million people and have displaced another four million, most being civilians.

Since failed states by definition denote un-governability, the consequent rampant criminality gives rise to sweeping despair and hopelessness. But when national un-governability becomes global it starts to adversely affect the neighboring countries and, as 9/11 demonstrated, even powerful distant lands. The Oslo Conference on the root causes of terrorism found, among others, failed or weak states leaving a power vacuum for exploitation by terrorist organizations to maintain safe heavens, training facilities, and launching terrorist attacks. Because of the direct causal relationship between failing states and terrorism having been established long before 9/11, Boutros Ghali in 1992 addressed the issue of reduced significance of sovereignty in the post-Cold War world and the concomitant possibility of UN intervention in the domestic affairs of member states. He suggested that such intervention would be appropriate in the face of a collapsed domestic governing authority, displaced populations and gross violations of human rights or when developments in failed states threaten international peace and security.

More often than not state failures are man-made. Leadership decisions and leadership failures have destroyed states and contributed to the fragility of existing institutions. Mobutu’s kleptocratic rule and Robert Mugabe’s obduracy are two such examples. But since Robert Kagan’s prescription of military solution to security issues does not have universal appeal, one could heed Jack Straw’s advice [12] to take recourse to a range of tools “some developmental and some diplomatic” to strengthen states prone to failure. Doing so is far less expensive than reconstructing states after failure. Because prevention of state failure is imperative, it hoped that the UNSC debates and the Madrid conference on Iraq had impressed upon the high and mighty that the multilateral approach rather than display of muscularity held the key to real peace and prosperity of the world.

New Sovereigntists and Democracy

Democratic order is also threatened if the leaders of the international community remain disdainful towards the rule of law being supreme in the conduct of inter-state and intra-state affairs. The increasing influence of a group of people in the US policy making apparatus has caused concern particularly among the developing nations who are unable to maintain the newly emerging concept of sovereignty as enunciated in the principles of the responsibility to prevent and the responsibility to protect.

This group of people described by Professor Peter Spiro[13] as the “new sovereigntists” consists of highly credentialed academics who have developed “a coherent blueprint for defending American institutions against the alleged encroachment of international ones.” One of them, Jeremy Rubkin [14] ,of Cornell University, advances the deterministic argument for safeguarding the sovereignty and security of the American constitution on the ground that the US is fully sovereign. The argument is advanced that US sovereignty is absolute, illimitable and non-dissipatory as opposed to sovereignty of most countries of the world that are now pooled, e.g., in the EU, or circumscribed by international agreements/covenants. The “new sovereigntists” do not apologize but, on the contrary, fully endorse the US rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court, and the administration’s failure to submit the Kyoto Protocol on global warming for Senate ratification. They find most international laws as too amorphous to warrant US consent, too intrusive on domestic affairs as well as unenforceable while the international law making process is considered unaccountable. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of “new sovereigntism” is the notion that the US can opt out of international regimes because of its unquestioned power and its duty to uphold the US constitution. That these arguments smack of arrogance and can be proved to be invalid have not impressed their proponents. They are convinced that the wealth and the might of the US offering, as it does, markets and other cooperative arrangements would compel the rest of the world to conform to American positions even if the US were to remain aloof from various international undertakings.

Though the opening salvo of the new sovereigntists was fired during the early days of the Clinton administration, they gained power and influence when George W Bush became president and appointed many of them as members of his administration. Though the new sovereigntists and their supporters might have succeeded in launching the Iraq invasion, the global opprobrium generated by the illegal war removed the veil of inherent contradiction in the concept of “new sovereigntism.” While the new sovereigntists demanded American exception from subordination to international law, there has been an increased awareness both in the West and the East of transformation from the Westphalia concept of sovereignty through greater interdependence among the countries of the world. David Held [15] of the London School of Economics observes   “our mutual interconnectedness and vulnerability has grown so rapidly that we no longer live in a world of discreet national communities. Instead we live in a world of overlapping communities   where trajectories of other countries are heavily enmeshed with each other.” David Held further asserts that any assumption of sovereignty being indivisible, illimilitable, exclusive and a perpetual form of public power is now defunct. Accordingly states can be judged, along with the communities they embody, by generally accepted standard of civilized behavior. They can be scrutinized if the states were to claim shared membership of a political community for which curtailment of the abuse of political power is an essential prerequisite. The territorial integrity and inviolability assured by the UN Charter was not absolute and was made conditional by the UN Charter which provides for intervention. Though Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was advanced as the pretext for its invasion, the real reason for the attack, as President Bush later publicly admitted, was regime change. Though the brutality of the Saddam regime is not contested, the Iraq invasion has proved that external and domestic behavior of a government is now a determinant for the exercise of sovereignty. If it violates internationally accepted norms, other states can intervene.

Paul Taylor, [16] of the London School of Economics, analyzing the dialectical quality of sovereignty in the post-Cold War period, observes that sovereignty is increasingly being seen as conferring on states the obligation to be accountable to the international community. Being licensed to practice as a state, Taylor adds, carries with it the condition of the government being prepared to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the international community, continued adherence to the terms under which it holds the license. In other words, the rights and obligations of sovereignty are vested in a government which is the ultimate guardian of the popular interests and which cannot renounce these interests because it is sovereign. This concept is coterminous with Tony Blair’s[17]doctrine of international community containing explicit recognition of mutual dependence of states in pursuit of shared goals and values, “democracy and human rights being core goals and values.” Though Blair recognized the centrality of the UN in a world ruled by law and international cooperation he called for reforms particularly of the Security Council and advocated the need for humanitarian intervention because “acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter, and human rights abuse resulting in massive flows of refugees into neighboring states” threaten international peace and security
9/11 terrorist attacks and democracy

The terrorist events of 9/11 described by Condoleezza Rice as “the violent expression of a global extremist ideology, an ideology rooted in the oppression and despair of modern Middle East” gave Islam, basically a religion of peace, a bad name in the West. France is believed to have about five million Muslims and twice as many reside in various West European nations. Though many of these foreigners were invited to come by the host countries to shore up the devastated economies after the Second World War, the process of integration of these heterogeneous elements, particularly of the second and third generation immigrants, has been painful and often conflictual. The race riots in France that spread to other West European countries resulted in some political parties calling for the expulsion of the rioters to   their “native” lands that these children of immigrants had never seen. The tension from the failure of racial integration was fuelled by the murder of Theo van Gogh at Amsterdam and the unfortunate speech by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Germany.  Whatever might have been the object of the Pope’s speech its timing coupled with the publication of an unsavory cartoon of Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper did not help bridge the widening divide between the Muslims and the people of other faiths living in Europe.

Although united in the war on terrorism, the world was against the invasion of Iraq. In the UN Security Council, France, Russia and China opposed the attack. They wanted the US’s “unipolar moment” to be replaced by a multipolar world in lieu of the bipolar geopolitical global architecture that had ceased to exist after the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The question many posed in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion was the extent to which the US move was influenced by religion as it has been said that “religion has always been a major force in US politics, policy, identity, and culture. Religion shapes the nation’s character, helps form America’s ideas about the world and influences the ways Americans respond to events beyond their borders.” Yale Professor Paul Bloom [18] had concluded that religion was bred in the bone and was intrinsic to human psyche contrary to Marxian analysis of religion as the opiate of man and the Freudian interpretation of religion as an explanation for the pains human being undergo on earth and their ultimate defeat in death to an unseen entity. Walter Russell Mead of the Council of Foreign Relations has demonstrated the influence of the different strains of Christianity on US politics including during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.  One must, however, keep in mind that politics in the west is not propagated on grounds of religion and the recent religious underpinning that one can see in the west is a response to the horrific events of 9/11.

In underdeveloped societies where the  political community is fragmented into opposed religious, ethnic, racial, and ideological groups, more familiarly known as “identity politics,”, and the democratic structure  is fragile,  religion-based politics  can invite instability. In Bangladesh, it is believed, that corporations run by religious fundamentalists make an annual net profit of twelve billion takas of which ten percent is used by them for organizational purposes like carrying out regular party activities, providing remuneration and allowances to about half a million party cadres and running armed training camps. The number of primary schools since the liberation of Bangladesh has doubled while that of dakhil madrasas has increased eightfold. Concern about the possible rise of Islamic extremists who look for areas of   weakness has been expressed by western countries. The Delhi based South Asia Intelligence Review in a report linked “increasing activities of Islamist extremists with the then ruling coalition” in Bangladesh.  Analyzing the state of sectarianism in Pakistan, the Brussels based International Crisis Group observed that sectarian conflict in Pakistan was the direct consequence of the pre-democracy state policies of islamisation and marginalisation of secular democratic forces. Cooption and patronage of religious parties by successive military governments have brought Pakistan to a point where religious extremism threatens to erode the foundation of the state and society.
Secularism and democracy

This brings in the question whether secular politics can be practiced in developing countries without people being dubbed as atheists or agnostics.  The modern guru of secularism, George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), described secularism as a quest for development of the physical, moral and intellectual nature of man to its highest possible degree as an immediate duty of life. In this quest, Holyoake contended, theology was inadequate, unreliable and unbelievable.    Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life and is capable of being tested by the experiences of this life. In India, while Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad spoke of secularism from the perspective of religion, Pundit Nehru was the first in the sub-continent to accept the western concept of secularism.

Democracy and corruption

In some developing countries politicians are more vocal about various rights and freedom enumerated in national and international laws and conventions that may, if misused, be counterproductive to improving the economic condition of the country. It is possible that these politicians, once they have acquired power, become aware of the existential financial limitations that providing the basic needs of the people is not possible with the limited means at their disposal. Besides lacking the commitment and the dedication of politicians of the golden age, they indulge in the conduct of public affairs for private gains. Consequently a nexus built around the politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen breeds corruption. This, in turn, distorts the free market mechanism now universally accepted as a better way to achieving not only economic progress but also the consequent development of a democratic system for which the people are believed to be so eager. The corruption thus generated by the unholy alliance between big business, the bureaucracy and the politicians puts the poor at a disadvantage in seeking justice .through the legal system. In effect, justice becomes for sale and the poor are unable to pay the price. The rule of law so essential for democracy is, therefore, non-existent. In Marxian analysis, the impoverished majority have nothing to sell but themselves in contrast to the ever burgeoning   wealth of the few. .Inevitably the process of accumulation of wealth is corruption-ridden. Yves Menay [19]ascribed four invariant characteristics of corruption: (a) violation of social rules and norms; (b) secret exchange among political, social and economic markets; (c) illegal access given to individuals and groups to the process of political and administrative decision making; and (d) the resultant tangible benefits to the parties involved in the transaction. By any definition corruption is illegal and, in the first instance, results from collusion between political and money elites, the former abuses public positions of trust for private gains by both parties.

Unfortunately the return of democracy in some developing countries in the 1990s saw no effective steps taken to control corruption. It is well known that Transparency International, Business International, Political Risk Services and the World Economic Forum have consistently labeled one LDC as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The World Bank devised a formula to describe corruption: c=m=d-a-s where c stands for corruption, m for monopoly, d for discretion, a for accountability and s for salary. Thus corruption tends to flourish where poorly paid public officials have a lot of discretion to perform monopoly functions with very little accountability. Aminur Rahman, Gregory Kishunko and Kapil Kapoor prepared a background paper[20] for a World Bank report on corruption  in which they agreed with Gunar Myrdal that “speed money” (money paid to speed up administrative decisions) not only distorts the mechanism of efficient allocation of resources through the establishment of perverse patron-client relationship between bureaucracy and the private sector but also encourages corrupt officials to delay the process of decision making in anticipation of more bribes thus effectively practicing blackmail. They argue that corruption also diverts foreign investment from sectors like health and education to infrastructure because the scope of corruption in the latter area is more. In any case as successive World Bank officials and donor representatives have pointed out time and again, pervasive corruption reduces the flow of foreign investment.      The GDP loss should be seen in the context of global interpersonal inequality in which the rich become richer and the poor, poorer.

In most underdeveloped societies the corrupt inevitably prevail because they have the money to buy influence while those in power have no compunction about plundering the state resources that they had pledged to safeguard. One has seen in some developing countries rich in mineral resources total anarchy in administrative and financial management only to benefit the few. The people were astounded at the scale of kleptocracy indulged in by the “rich and the powerful” while the gap between the rich and poor both in rural and urban areas continued to widen. When some of these reckless plunderers were put behind bars or were publicly named, people on the streets rejoiced not because of class conflict as a Marxist would like to believe or due to acrimony they felt  against the so-called rich per se, but as an expression of satisfaction that the rule of law had finally prevailed. The corrective measures against corruption in most countries has also highlighted the fact that the societal hierarchy that had been established between the rich and the poor was not entirely based on honest hard work but on theft. Except the type of explosive agitations that caused the fall of Bastille or the Bolshevik revolution, in the modern age democracy takes ages for  the corrective actions  necessary for nationwide peace and prosperity to take root.

Understandably no one has questioned the legitimacy of the governments that took the corrective measures. Interruptions of the “democratic process to serve the interests of the people” have happened many times in the past. As an example one can recall that early in 1861 during the American Civil War, President Lincoln received credible information that Maryland was moving towards secession. Though the American constitution did not authorize the president to impose either martial law or suspend various constitutional rights, President Lincoln, against the advice of the leading legal authorities of the day, authorized suspension of habeas corpus in the event that Maryland moved towards rebellion or secession. The crux of the argument was that preservation of the union overrode otherwise binding constitutional and democratic requirements. In other words, the welfare of the people is the supreme law that justifies even what Professor Michael Byers [21]of Duke University calls “exceptional illegality” that can be justified on the basis of political and moral legitimacy. The breakup of the Soviet empire, democratization of Eastern Europe, and the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia did ensure the welfare of the people and all these events occurred with the explicit consent of the people concerned. James Baker’s and the European Union’s conditions given to the breakaway states for recognition as independent states that included peaceful separation, mutual recognition of old state boundaries etc., were aimed to forestall illegal secession and consequent anarchy. One may recall that Bangladesh was recognized as an independent country only after it became apparent that the people of then East Pakistan wanted separation from then West Pakistan as “people” alone and not ethnic or linguistic groups can secede. That was the reason, besides African orthodoxy, that only former colonies could claim independence, and why Biafra was denied international recognition in terms of its reedom from Nigeria. The crux of the argument here is the supremacy of the welfare of the people which under no circumstances can be subverted.

Non-elected governments and democracy

One may, however, question as to how and who will decide what constitutes “welfare of the people.” The answer will be different under different circumstances. In some developing countries, providing basic needs to the people at affordable prices would have higher priority than political rights as is generally understood. But then again political rights may have to be given precedence because of the need for accountability by the people entrusted with providing basic necessities. Modernization theorists are deeply interested in social justice because they believe that democracy accompanied by extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth gives rise to flawed democracy. It would, perhaps, be relevant at this point to define the term “development.”  Generally it encompasses economic growth and the level of affluence or even social development. Many political sociologists believe that democratic political development depends upon a combination of economic, social and cultural prerequisites.  As mentioned earlier, the supply of economic goods may satisfy some people deeply mired in poverty and, therefore, can be justified as having assured welfare of the people. Examples of successful command economies can be given in its defense. But this “bureaucratic-authoritarianism” or “development dictatorship” the terms coined by G. O. Donnell and A.J.Gregor can hardly satisfy the theorists engaged in the political aspect of modernization who insist that equality is the ethos of modernization.

Democracy at all times must ensure democratic accountability in the sense of obligations of the office holders to the electorate and constitutional accountability in the sense of being accountable  to others in similar position. Developmental democracy is a stage of evolution in liberal democracy in which self-development is to be considered as a universal right. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen considers development as a fundamental right as does another Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz [22] who advocates policies that can promote what he calls “moral growth…growth that is sustainable, that increases living standards not just today but for future generations as well and that leads to a more open, tolerant society with more social justice and solidarity rather than one with deep rifts and cleavages.” He is uncomfortable with Simon Kuznet’s argument that inequality is inevitable at the early stages of development and that of Arthur Lewis (both are Nobel laureates) that inequality is necessary to generate savings to fuel economic growth. He, however, agrees with Benjamin Friedman that democracy is less sustainable in poor countries and he argues that if President Bush is sincere in his advocacy of spreading democracy in the Greater Middle East, then the US should honour the commitment made by the developed countries to provide 0.7 percent of GDP as development assistance to the needy countries.

But the western promise of loans/grants is closely associated with the practice of market economy by the recipient country which may not automatically guarantee growth, social justice and efficiency.  The multidimensional development process till the 1990s had two broad schools: orthodox or mainstream perspective and critical alternative perspective.[23] The orthodox view of development advocated for the south to proceed along the path followed by the north emphasizing industrialization and adoption of scientific technology. The success of development was measured by the increase in gross national product. US economic historian, Walt Rostow, argued that the development process would start with traditional society that would be mainly agrarian and would culminate in modern industry-based society. The critical development perspective disagreed with the orthodox approach and put more emphasis on holistic human development in contrast to the acquisition of wealth by a minority at the expense of the majority of the population. No wonder poverty has been defined not only in terms of money but has also included the insecurity and the voicelessness of the poor. The critical alternative perspective received encouragement from a contribution of the Dag Hammarskj Foundation whose model of development included: (1) need-oriented (2) endogenous (3) self-reliant (4) ecologically-sound and (5) based on structural transformation development. This brings in the question of political egalitarianism that is seen as “the ideal of equal political influence to mean specifically the insulation of political influence from differential wealth or social rank.”  The search is not only for deliberative democracy but also to ensure justice so that all individuals have political equality in the sense that they have equal resources to influence decisions regarding the collective property of the society.

Forms of Democracy

Electoral democracy is defined as any “regime in which governmental offices are filled as a result of contested elections. Only if the opposition is allowed to compete, win, and assume office is a regime democratic.” Scholars have put three preconditions essential for a regime to be called electoral democracy that are ex- ante uncertainty, ex- post irreversibility, and repeatability. In other words self-inflicted coup d’etat, even if supported by the people at its initiation, poses the possibility of becoming a democracy without “demos.” When Peruvian President Fuji Moro had a presidential coup d’etat then US Secretary of State James Baker rebuked him by saying that one cannot have democracy by destroying it. Another American politician in the 1920s had advised that democracy deficit can only be rectified by more democracy.

The question, however, remains whether the verdict of the people received through elections is to be given supreme value and is to be regarded as the arbiter of decisions taken by those elected. If so then one has to judge rigorously the quality of democracy and of the demos in any given country. One has to ensure whether minimalist expression of democracy through electoral democracy should not be improved to the maximalist version by including liberal and deliberative democracy as well. While the centrality of elections is recognized as the principal agent of democracy, the liberal democrats would prefer a political system “as democratic when it allows the free formulation of political preferences, through the use of basic freedoms of association, information, and communication, for the purpose of free competition between leaders to validate at regular intervals by non-violent means their claim to rule.” Liberal democrats, writes Professor Maxwell Cameron, go beyond electoral democracy through insistence on the establishment of liberal rights to guarantee free flow of information before the elections; and as political scientist Giovanni Sartori put it “he who delegates his power can also lose it; elections are not necessarily free, and representation is not necessarily genuine.”  Liberal democrats, therefore, would not like to lose freedom.

Since the rule of law is integral to any democratic setup and is indispensible for safeguarding fundamental rights, a constitutional state must ensure the subservience of all citizens, without discrimination, to the law. But then such a situation may give rise to tension between constitutionalism and “majoritarianism.” In Bangladesh, for instance, plunder and anarchy as a result of the brute “majoritarianism” exercised by the alliance government, resulted in the declaration of emergency. Under these circumstances, the supremacy of the rule of law becomes preferable. If one were to look back to the US presidential elections of 2000 then one would notice the respect shown by Al Gore and the American people to the Supreme Court’s decision declaring George Bush as the winner in the presidential elections. It is, however, undeniable underdeveloped societies lack legal culture. The decisions of the courts are not always regarded as supreme and primordial loyalties, as invariant characteristic of tribal societies, are more preponderant. In these societies, particularly where poverty is endemic and corruption is pervasive, caution has to be exercised in giving unfettered authority to those elected.  Giovanni Sartori’s observation that elections may not be necessarily free and representation may not be necessarily genuine, therefore, has merit. Furthermore, elections are not the only aspects of democracy. Deliberations outside the parliament should also be heeded.  Unfortunately the institutions that would support liberal and deliberative democracy are still fragile in Bangladesh and strengthening of these institutions have a long gestation period.


The challenge for democracy, particularly in developing societies, is to find the correct intersection between electoral democracy with constitutional and liberal democracy.  In the case of Bangladesh, one hopes that the people will not again be confronted with broken promises and that there will not be a return to the “ice age” of a political system where the old game of plunder will be played out as before. One hopes that the lessons of history will not be lost on the politicians and they will devote themselves to the task that the people entrust them with.

[1] Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former secretary and ambassador of Bangladesh.

[1] Fukuyama, Francis; The End of History and the Last Man.

[2] Cohen, Stephen; The Idea of Pakistan.

[3] Leftwich, Adrian; On Primacy of Politics in Development.

[4] Lipset, S.M., The Political Man.

[5] Huntington, Samuel; The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of World Order.

[6] Lewis, Bernard; The Crisis of Islam.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kagan, Robert; Power and Weakness.

[9] Walzer, Michael; Just and Unjust War.

[10] Helman and Ratner.

[11] Willam Olsen.

[12] Rotenberg, Robert, “New Nature of National State Failure,” The Washington Quarterly, summer, 2002.

[13] Jack Straw’s advice, “Failed and Failing States,” 6 September 2002.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Spiro, Peter; “The New Sovereigntists,” Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2000.

[16] Rubkin, Jeremy.

[17] Held, David; “Violence, Law and Justice in Global Age,” article in a publication of the Social Research Council.

[18] Bloom, Paul; “God’s Country – Foreign Affairs,” International Crisis Group.

[19] Girling, John; “Corruption, Capitalism and Democracy.”

[20] Rahman, Aminur,; “Estimating the Effects of Corruption – Implication for Bangladesh.”

[21] Byers, Michael.

[22] Stiglitz, Joseph; “The Ethical Economist,” Foreign Affairs.

[23] Thomas, Caroline and Reader, Melvyn; “Development and Inequality” Issues in World Politics, 1997.