Does election foster democracy?

Supad Kumar Ghose | Published: November 25, 2018 21:20:59 | Updated: November 25, 2018 21:26:25

Election has turned out to be the most popular instrument for changing government and thus ensuring democracy in the history of the world. Those countries which hold free and fair elections for the change of government periodically are considered democratic. On the other hand, countries that do not hold election for the change of government periodically are not regarded as democratic. People in those countries crave for election to ensure democracy. History has many instances where people shed their blood to change government through election. The right to vote in a free and fair election for the change of government is regarded as one of the most fundamental of human rights.

However, some people have questioned the correlationship between election and democracy. According to them, election is simply a procedural matter, and does not mean any substantive requirement for democracy. They point out that while many countries hold regular elections, but in reality their governments practise authoritarianism. They regularly hold multi-party elections but violate the minimum standards of liberal democratic rule.

At the end of the Cold War, elections held in many countries did not ensure minimum democratic norms. In his classic 'The Rise of Illiberal Democracy', journalist-cum-academician Fareed Zakaria has diagnosed this problem comprehensively and shed light on how elected governments have violated both constitutional norms and fundamental rights of citizens. Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Kenya, etc. have held regular elections. But such elections failed to ensure democracy in these countries.

Recently, this problem has taken a serious turn with the intensification of market-driven globalisation. Since many countries have allowed the market to decide who gets what at the expense of the state, elections in those countries have failed to ensure democracy. In fact, this has been the major plank of neoliberal democracy that has been gaining dominance since 1980s. Countries hold free and fair, multiparty elections. But having surrendered most of the issues of governance to market forces, those elected cannot keep their pledges to the people. Rather, market forces decide who gets what. This has been an inbuilt flaw of electoral democracy in this age of globalisation over the last three decades. As a result, people are losing faith in electoral democracy. It can be regarded as the single most important factor, prompting people to lose faith in liberal democracy. Even developed democracies in the West are not free from this problem caused by the dominance of market over the state.

Since people are losing faith in liberal democracy, they increasingly prefer populism which promises to right the wrong done by the market forces amid globalisation. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, Brexit politics, and authoritarian trend in Central and Eastern Europe are regarded as the spill-over effect of the failure of liberal democracy amid globalisation.  However, something more serious may happen in future and the world may increasingly prefer the Chinese brand of authoritarian politics if liberal democracy cannot solve this problem. This dilemma facing liberal democracy has been well-articulated by Dambisa Moyo in her book Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth - and How to Fix It.

What is the way out of this crisis facing electoral democracy in this age of market driven globalisation? Sane people should rethink the limits of electoral democracy and go beyond election to find a middle path between electoral democracy and statism that became dominant in the Cold War period following the end of the World War II.

Rethinking electoral democracy means that there are other several pre-conditions that must be met to ensure viable and sustainable democracy amid globalisation. A minimum economic equality should be ensured among the citizenry to foster democracy in any country. At the same time, strong democratic institutions such as free and independent media, an independent judiciary, a vibrant civil society, informed electorate etc., are necessary to foster a culture of democracy in any country. Similarly, a high literacy base among people, a middle class that forms the majority of people, responsible party politics, etc., are also equally necessary to ensure democracy in addition to electoral democracy in any country.

Supad Kumar Ghose teaches at the University of Information Technology and Sciences, Dhaka.

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