“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. ”
Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947
A quick skim through dusty history or political science books will tell you of a time when democracy was the new kid of the playground. Democracy was conceived as a noble concept of governance. Yet, historically, its practice has been frequently flawed. Democracy’s embrace must be thus accompanied by safeguards against its susceptibility to abuse and distortion.
Too frequently we see democracy falling prey to populist impulses. In ancient Greece, populism unleashed the Peloponnesian War. Many of the Roman Empire’s unending wars were fought to quench its citizen-mob’s thirst for glory. Thucydides, an Athenian historian, pioneer of collecting data of Peloponnesian War, states, “such a regime can be effective only when led by a strong, wise, competent, unselfish leader. Without such guidance, a true democracy is likely to go astray and follow the advice of unfit, irresponsible and selfish demagogic leaders who will lead the state into disaster”. This dichotomy between a system that promises popular rule but must depend on a good leader to function points to the further complications of democracy that soon became too closely attached to its practice.
This insight is still extremely relevant to our modern world and it remains inescapably crucial to the understanding and conduct of human affairs, especially on the face of the global rise in populism and authoritarianism. The UK’s disastrous Brexit was decided by ill-informed populist in an ill-advised referendum. In Europe, the ghost of fascism and racism has been resurrected by the economic recession and the influx of African and Arab refugees. Italy, Austria, and Hungary are now governed by elected authoritarians, who are also gaining electoral strength in Germany, Holland and several Scandinavian states. America has elected Donald Trump with his promise to “Make America Great Again”. His anti-immigration policies and trade protectionism together with a whimsical and impetuous or impulsive foreign policy threaten to trigger another slump and exhaust the structures of global cooperation. The electoral victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP in India was also propelled by a slick electoral machine playing on false promises of prosperity combined with an appeal to the base sentiments of national chauvinism and religious hatred. Pakistan, a country often “named and shamed” for its erratic tantrums with democracy, is always in risk of falling into the palms of its military, especially after the win of Imran Khan’s PTI. In Bangladesh, democracy was installed after the long fight against military dictator General Ershad, but democratic rights are still in peril, ranging from claims of human rights abuses and election fraud. It seems, from these examples, that the democratic project is far from over and a new method of practicing democracy needs to be found that is more insulated from the troubles that have plagued it in this century.
In a separate speech in December 1944, Churchill opined that “the plain, humble, common man…is the foundation of democracy” and it is vital “to this foundation that this man or woman should be able to choose his or her elected representative without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization.” The democracy of today is a lot less shiny, quite a bit furnished with the scum of being subjected to too much, and not polished quite enough. But the question is, then, for those who will take time out, who should take time out- to stand in line and wait in the heat to cast their vote is a complicated one. Can this democracy of now, which carries the burden of Wars and sacrifices, of failures and detriments, be loved by the those whose stake in the system it seeks to protect from themselves, from the sum of many selves?
Beyond the vote, democracy can’t serve its purpose in an environment of pervasive corruption and normalized abuse of power. Accountability, adherence to the rule of law and checks and balances on the executive, legislative and judicial powers are essential to the proper functioning of a democratic government. Thus our tryst with democracy is still far from over. The elusive quest for finding a representative popular government that is not populist or elitist must be continued until a more practicable method for establishing a better performing democratic system can be found.
Author: Nymoom Sakib, Currently studying Law at Bangladesh University Of Professionals