A Viable Alternative to Democracy?

Bangladesh has long been lauded as an example of a Muslim democracy.  A poor and corrupt Muslim democracy, but democracy nonetheless.  Earlier this year, a new military-backed government took control, promising the clean up the country and rid Bangladesh of the title as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  Now

[n]early every morning, Bangladesh wakes up to reports of more politicians jailed overnight, and more stories of their bank accounts, mansions and fleets of SUVs.  After years of rampant graft, Bangladesh’s military-backed government is trying to crush corruption in one of the world’s most corrupt nations – and weaken the two powerful politicians whose bitter rivalry has brought this poverty-battered country to the edge of political anarchy.

It seems that many are welcoming the moves to clean up the country.  What’s frustrating to some, however, is that this is driven by a military-supported government, not democratic institutions.  Still, there is another side to the story.  The WSJ takes a closer look at the ongoing crisis in Bangladesh, suggesting that despite starting an anti-corruption drive

…the once-bloodless coup is turning into something more sinister. Since January, an estimated 200,000 people, including hundreds of leading politicians and businessmen, have been jailed under emergency rules that suspend civil rights and outlaw all political activity. According to human-rights groups, scores of others, seized by the troops in the middle of the night, have been tortured to death or summarily executed.

The ends, it seems, are more important than the means, at least according to one of the Ministers, who defends the government’s actions:

Mr. Hussein adds that he’s particularly “fed up” with Westerners bringing up human-rights abuses in his country. “Bangladesh is going through a huge crisis,” he says. “Is this the time to discuss individual cases? Individuals are not important!” 

The blame is being placed on democracy for breeding corruption in the country, and it seems like there is no looking back.

We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption is all-pervasive…and where political criminalization threatens the very survival and integrity of the state,” the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moeen Uddin Ahmed, explained in a rare speech in April.

Yet, while Bangladesh had elections, it was simply an electoral democracy – which is not the same as having good democratic governance.  As WSJ notes, two of the country’s top political figures have

…built their political parties through patronage networks and dynastic allegiances rather than well-defined ideologies. The two parties sold parliament seats to deep-pocketed businessmen, used criminal gangs to silence critics, and funded election campaigns through extortion…

So, while the military continues to move forward and punish individual politicians for widespread corruption (which is important in its own right if done in accordance with key laws), it might consider paying a little more attention to the institutions that breed corruption in the first place.  And the best way to reduce opportunities for corruption?  Experience suggests that it much to do with transparency, accountability, and fairness – something that countries with good democratic governance do provide.  Coincidentally, this is also something countries without democratic institutions lack. 

So is military rule really an alternative to democracy in Bangladesh?  It seems that what the country needs is more democracy, rather than less of it, in order to combat corruption and extend economic opportunities to tens of millions of poor living on $1 a day. Otherwise, it seems, poverty reduction may get a little more challenging:

This crackdown, along with daily detentions carried out directly by the army, has caused a panic in Bangladesh’s business community, frightened by the seeming randomness of many arrests. As a result, inflation has spiked, and economic growth is expected to slow down this year. 

2 Responses to A Viable Alternative to Democracy?

  1. The situation in Bangladesh is certainly a very troubling example of the lack of good governance, but it also illustrates a broader, rather ominous point: growing tendency around the world to define the term “democracy” based on its most incomplete or distorted forms. Countries where elections are rigged or purely procedural are not really democracies. Countries where no freedom of speech, association or representation exists are not really democracies. Countries where there are no mechanisms for transparent governance are really not democracies. And yet, that’s what they continue calling themselves and are frequently called by others, giving democracy a bad name.

    If consequently in such countries democracy starts to be associated in the common consciousness with corruption, lawlessness, and political instability, it is no wonder that the calls for “strong leadership” are more likely to lead toward authoritarianism than true democratic reform. That is happening in Bangladesh under the military rule. But it is also happening in many other places that purport to pursue some sort of “alternative” democracy (such as Venezuela’s “socialist democracy”). What was the quote from Gorbachev that you brought up a few days ago? “Democracy is a good thing, no doubt about. But the government should satisfy the basic needs of the citizens – that’s a top priority. If authoritarianism is required to do the job, I’m ready to give my full support to this kind of authoritarianism.” Case in point.

  2. Pingback: » Military Takeover: A Questionable Panacea for Democracy’s Ills