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Autocratic governments are gaining ground in various countries of the world. In many countries the governments are doing away with democratic norms despite coming to power on public mandate. There is also a move to promote the idea that democracy has no hard and fast definition or principle. But is that actually so? Ali Riaz discusses the position and the pertinence of democracy in the long search for a universally acceptable and most just system of governance, dating back to the ancient times of the Greek city-state. This is the second installment of the three-part series on the topic.

The assault on democracy by those donning masks of democracy is now a global problem. On one hand they claim themselves to be democratic, yet on the other they raise questions about the fundamental principles of democracy and the democratic system of government. The discussions of political scientists on democracy, autocratic systems and issues of government from around 400 years ago, have highlighted four basic principles of democracy – people’s sovereignty, representation, accountability and freedom of expression. But democracy is not just a couple of ideological principles, it is also a system of governance. What attributes are required to consider a system of governance democratic?

In the 20th century when many countries took democracy as the ideal, the main question posed by political scientists was how to determine whether the basic principles were being implemented. Their main concern was how democracy was being practiced and how it should be practiced. Their focus was on democracy as a system of governance. Prominent among these political scientists were Joseph Schumpeter, Samuel Huntington, Adam Przeworski, Giovanni Sartori, Juan Linz and Robert Dahl.

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Schumpeter defined democracy as “that institutional method for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”

Even if two essential attributions of democracy – ensuring the right to vote and holding elections – are fulfilled, but if the elections are not free and participatory, then this will not lead the country to democracy, but take it in the opposite direction

Huntington defines democracy "[as a political system that exists] to the extent that its most powerful collective decision makers are selected through fair, honest, and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes and in which virtually all the adult population is eligible to vote.” Przeworski and others claimed that “democracy is a system in which parties lose elections,” and so it is characterised by i. uncertainty, ii. irreversibility and iii. repeatability. In other words, we do not know who will come to power, that once the elections result is determined, this cannot be reversed, and that is cycle of uncertainty and process of determining results will be repeated continuously.

According to Robert Dahl, there are seven prerequisites for a system to be considered democratic. These are, elected officials, free and fair election, universal voting rights, the right to contest in the elections, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information and the freedom of association. Dahl asserts that democracy is not just “free, fair and competitive elections, but also the freedoms that make them truly meaningful (such as the freedom of organisation and freedom of expression), alternative sources of information, and institutions to ensure that government policies depend on the votes and preferences of the citizens.”

Based on such research, three attributes can be taken as essential to democracy. These are: 1. Universal voting rights, 2. Regular, free, competitive, multiparty elections for legislative and chief executive offices, 3. Respect for civil and political rights including freedom of expression, assembly and association. Added to this is the rule of law under which all citizens and representatives of the state enjoy true legal equality. So of any country is to be called democratic, it must have these three criteria. If any one of these criteria is absent, the presence of others becomes impossible.

What has been noticeable over the past few decades is an increase in elections being held in various countries. In the various phases of democracy, elections have been given such importance that many undemocratic countries in the 90's have been holding regular elections to show that they are practicing democracy.

Samuel Huntington depicted elections as a test of democracy being consolidated or not. He said that to determine whether a democracy has taken permanent place in a country can be determined by whether the country has been able to hold two consecutive peaceful elections or not. That’s the ‘two turnover test’. The test of democratisation is to see whether the defeated accept the results and whether the victors change the democratic process and take up an authoritarian rule.

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Even if two essential attributions of democracy – ensuring the right to vote and holding elections – are fulfilled, but if the elections are not free and participatory, then this will not lead the country to democracy, but take it in the opposite direction. It is to be seen of these elections consolidate democracy or serve to consolidate the power of the rulers. Those in power have devised various ways of rigging the elections, some overt and some covert. It also must be kept in mind that an election is not just a matter of one day. Voters vote on one day, but the preparation for the election starts for long beforehand. If steps are taken from back then to manipulate the results, the voters lose interest in voting. The essential factors of democracy are citizens’ rights to speak, express their views, to assemble, and, above all, to be ensured of legal rights and not be subject to extrajudicial harassment for this.

The people can well determine the state of the three factors of democracy in Bangladesh. Freedom Houses 2021 annual report indicates a steady deterioration in Bangladesh’s ranking. In 2021 Bangladesh’s score was 39, same as in 2020. In 2019 it was 41 and in 2018 it was 45. Similarly, there has been a deterioration in political rights and citizen’s liberties. With the highest score of political rights being 40, Bangladesh scored 15, which even in 2016 was 21. Freedom House terms Bangladesh’s system of government as ‘partly free’. The use of the Digital Security Act indicates how restricted freedom of expression remains. According to the research institution, Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), from January 2020 to February 2021, 873 persons were accused under this act and over 13 per cent of them were journalists.

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University in the US.

*This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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