Crises in democracy put national elites in the dock

Crises in democracy put national elites in the dock

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February 5, 2014, 8:56 pm

THAILAND, Bangkok : Thai soldiers stand guard at the Government’s temporary office in the permanent secretary for defense suburb of Bangkok on February 4, 2014. Thai anti-government protesters vowed to press on with street rallies aimed at ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after a disrupted election failed to cut a path through the kingdom’s political crisis. AFP

In contrast, millions of voters in Thailand have been prevented from voting by opposition political forces in the recent general election in that country. These political forces may or may not be right in opposing the country’s present rulers but nothing could justify their preventing balloting on election day. Whereas these opposition forces should have taken their issues to the electorate and got a mandate from the people on the changes they desire, this was not done and voters were, reportedly, physically obstructed in some areas from using their vote. This is vote-robbing and anti-democratic in the extreme.

The political crises in Thailand and Bangladesh help focus on the fact that parts of Asia are still to go some distance in stabilizing democratic institutions. In both countries, the democratic process has failed to materialize in a trouble-free manner and the indications are that not all the political forces in these countries are willing to work consensually and on the basis of agreed upon rules and principles of democratic governance.

In contrast, the pre-election political process in India has turned somewhat acrimonious in tone but one cannot see even a semblance of a threat to democratic institutions in that country. This is attributable to the stability of India’s democratic institutions and practices.

There is no reason to believe, for instance, that sections of the Indian polity would subvert the democratic process by massing on the highways of India in a show of force against the coming to power of this or that leader, if his or her election is seen as legitimate. Nor is there a possibility of unarmed, democratically-oriented dissident forces derailing the democratic process in India by disrupting the casting of ballots.

India’s success as a democracy is attributable largely to the general consensus among its democratic political forces on how its political system must be run. Such consensuality is not easily found in other countries of the Asian region, which claim to be democratic in nature.

On the other hand, Bangladesh’s ruling party was in a position to win unopposed in some electorates, it is said, because the main opposition parties chose not to participate in the poll in the said areas. Thus, is the democratic process in Bangladesh too open to criticism and to the extent to which these strictures are found to be valid, to the same degree could the democratic process in Bangladesh be described as flawed.

The totality of the peoples of Asia are yet to see the democratic process itself as a way of debating and ‘discoursing’ on the issues facing their countries and of arriving at a consensus on them. Whereas this mechanism could be used to influence public opinion constructively and obtain popular mandates on policy issues, this is hardly being done by the majority of political forces in our part of the world. Instead, force and coercion are used by even professedly democratic actors to bring about political outcomes favourable to them.

That said, one would need to concede that the political issues facing these troubled states are highly complex in nature. Admittedly, there are no simple answers to their issues. For instance, one would need to find out why undemocratic methods are favoured over democratic ones by some of the political forces in question in resolving the problems confronting them.

While it is clear that the lack of a long tradition of democratic rule could hamper some of these states currently in political turmoil, it is also plain to see that the ruling elites of these countries are regularly accused by their opponents of being corrupt and not prone to practise accountable governance.

The political observer would need to probe whether the increasing military might of many of Asia’s ruling elites is preventing the relevant opposition forces from having any hope in their ruling circles adopting and practising accountable and truly representative governance. Besides, the formidable coercive capability of these elites could very well be compelling the opposition to shun democratic methods and making them prone to take to undemocratic means to achieve their ends.

So, the role of these power elites in precipitating political conflicts in the developing world in particular would need to be probed for the sake of arriving at a balanced point of view on the political turmoil gripping these regions. National elites in the developing world are prone to be parasitic and repressive and they are certainly a factor in our political conflicts and wasting wars. We in Sri Lanka could witness to the veracity of this statement because successive Lankan governments have proved to be repressive to a greater or lesser degree. They have all ‘done their bit’ to dismantle democracy.

It was not so long ago, that graphic reports were splashed in the media about the vast wealth amassed by some Bangladeshi politicians holding responsible public office. Likewise, in Nepal, former guerrilla chief Prachanda is reported to be in the possession of a palatial residence and in this respect is a close match, apparently, for South African President Jacob Zuma. There are quite a few Lankan politicians too who could boast of rags to riches glory. These disclosures could very well be the tip of the proverbial ice berg.

Therefore, it is the national political elites too which compound the degeneration of many polities of the developing world. The issue which arises from this situation is whether these elites would ever be prone to substantially democratize their polities, because accountable, democratic governance could end the self-aggrandizing existence of these elites.

Are we, then, faced with a hopeless situation? Is armed conflict bound to be the lot of most developing countries? There are no simple answers to these posers too. Perhaps, the ravages and savagery of conflict and war would compel the political forces of the developing world in particular to give serious thought to the crucial importance of democratic development. The alternative is national ruin.

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