Bangladesh: ‘How Democracies Die’ – Column by Mahfuz Anam

The Daily Star  December 04, 2020

Column by Mahfuz Anam: ‘How Democracies Die’

There is much to learn from this book

Winston Churchill’s comment in November, 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried before” remains as pertinent today as it was when he stated it in the immediate post war period. The fight against fascism in the Second World War led to a vigorous, enthused and genuine commitment to democracy that was soon to be, first diluted and later perverted, by the Cold War. As the ideological battle captured the centre stage ethical and moral ones—like democracy and removal of inequality —retreated into the background and later was all but forgotten.

An important side effect of the global conflagration was the triggering of the decolonisation process. Where the colonial powers dithered—like the French and the Dutch in the Indo-China arms struggle ensued and where the process was by consent, like in our subcontinent—the transfer of power was peaceful, although the human cost of partition was incalculable.

Compared to many other decolonised countries, the partitioned South Asia got off to a democratic start. Pakistan stumbled for its internal weaknesses while India and Sri Lanka moved on. As its eastern part, Pakistan’s overall failure, especially its military dictatorships, deeply constrained our development and affected us in every way till we chalked out our own future in 1971, in search of freedom, democracy, and cultural and economic advancement.

Next year, we will be celebrating 50 years of that search in which we seem to have done brilliantly in the economic front. For us to have moved away from the “Basket case” imagery to that of a “model of development” is a leap of immense consequence, not only because it made those who stigmatised us so look like fools, but also because it brought a desperately needed self- confidence that is a crucial pre-condition for a country like ours to overcome the development challenges that we face.

Economic development aside, freedom and democracy were the other two dreams of our independence struggle. How have we done here? The first shock was BAKSAL. But what followed, in 1975—the murder of the founder of our state Bangabandhu along with most of his family and the coming of the military into our politics—was the most brutal and beastly act that we could imagine that launched us into a nightmare of unfathomable proportion and brought upon us 16 years of direct and indirect military dictatorship from which we are yet to fully recover.

So how has our second attempt to build democracy fared?

For an answer to the above question, I would like to refer my readers to a book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt titled How Democracies Die, published in 2018. The book mainly focuses on the US and how its democracy is being threatened. But there is a lot to learn for countries that aspire to build democracy for themselves, like Bangladesh.

The authors make a vital point when they say that democracies do not always die at the point of a gun as they did in the heydays of the Cold War, when three out of every four instances of destruction of democracy were caused by military coups, and more recently as they happened in Egypt and Thailand. “But there is another way to break democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders.” “The electoral road to breakdown of democracy is dangerously deceptive” the authors say, and “unlike in the case of brutal coups in which leaders are killed in a violent change of power and constitutions are suspended or used in their emergency mode, on the electoral road… there are no tanks on the streets… Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”

“Many governments’ efforts to subvert democracy are ‘legal’ in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as attempts to improve democracy, making the judiciary more efficient, combatting corruption or cleaning up the electoral process”.

“Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off a society’s alarm bell. Those who denounce the government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”

The above quotes from the book are not only brilliant and incisive but also relevant for many countries, including ours. The authors cite numerous examples from South America, including Venezuela and Peru, and from former members of the Soviet Union like Hungary, Poland and the Czech republic. We note populism stimulated authoritarian tendencies in Italy, France and especially in the US under Donald Trump.

From a wide range of examples, the authors formulate four indicators of how elected authoritarians subvert the very process through which they came to power. They are:

1.     Rejection of democratic rules of the game.

2.     Denial of legitimacy of political opponents.

3.     Toleration or encouragement of violence.

4.     Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

Each of these indicators can be elaborated and traces of their existence found in many of our countries. Sudden amendment to change the caretaker system of election can definitely be termed as changing the rules of the game. Castigating political opponents as “enemies” is an attempt to delegitimise opponents. Nothing can exemplify attempt to curtail civil liberties and media freedom more than the Digital Security Act that has been enacted.

The authors write: “How do elected authoritarians shatter the democratic institutions? Some do it in one swoop. But more often assault on democracy begins slowly. It takes place piecemeal. It is imperceptible. Each individual step seems minor—none appears to threaten democracy. Enjoy a veneer of legality. They are approved by the parliament or ruled constitutional by the supreme court. Many are adopted under the guise of achieving a laudable public goal”.

The authors offer an interesting illustration of death of democracy by comparing it to a football game. Before the game starts your need to “capture” the referee, then the lines men, and finally you change the goal posts. After all that have a game of “fair play”.

So is democracy dead or dying in Bangladesh? The answer will differ and, as it is our lot to be extreme, some will say it has never been as vibrant as now and for others is it not only dead but buried deep. We think this can be said with certainty, that it is not in any healthy condition. The soul of democracy is freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, both of which presently exists only in our dreams. The time tested system of check and balance in governance is now a system of “cheque and bank balance”. Parliament, which is constitutionally tasked to make laws, makes those that shackle rather than those that free. The justice system, the ultimate refuge of those who seek freedom and justice, stands as a mute spectator as people die in police custody and disappear.

To repeat, democracy is not always killed by a bullet, it can also be killed by a wrongly placed ballot. No, our democracy is not dead, it is Covid infected. It cannot breathe.

Post script: A warrant was issued last Wednesday against a Baul singer, Rita, under the Digital Security Act for hurting “religious sentiment”. She was participating in a “Pala Gaan”, a traditional form of musical debate centring on spiritual topics using symbolism and metaphors. It has existed as a highly intellectually stimulating musical form for centuries in rural Bangladesh in which village poets exhibit their creativity and linguistic excellence. This one warrant and subsequent legal entanglement risk the destruction of this art form through such intimidations. There has been a silent assault on Sufi and Lalon music that is gradually throttling our literary and artistic creativity.


Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.