Dissolve the people, elect a new one?

 Published in: The Daily Star on January 11, 2024
Dissolve the people, elect a new one?

Men walk past a wall writing urging people to vote in Dhaka on January 6, on the eve of Bangladesh's 12th parliamentary election. PHOTO: AFP

Bhutan held the second national election (globally) of the year on Tuesday. Threatened by melting glaciers, boomeranged by Gross National Happiness, the young citizens of Bhutan are migrating to Australia and beyond in search of a better living. But in spite of all the economic challenges, Bhutan went to vote, elected the People’s Democratic Party, and rejected the governing centre-left Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa party, even ahead of the election. So, despite 35 countries experiencing decline in political rights (as per a 2023 Freedom House report), there are countries that are attempting to move towards democracy. It may not be a sprint, but it certainly is not a limp either.

In 2024, a “tumultuous year” as termed by Bloomberg, 83 national elections will be held in 78 countries around the world, including in India, Mexico, Senegal, Ukraine, and the United States. Many nations will face geopolitical volatility as the biggest risk of all, and countries with economic woes will potentially have all their props exposed to the global stage of war-mongering. Quite understandably, economic prosperity is the principal discourse of our times. Here, instead of a robust moral infrastructure, we continue to fight for wealth and seek power to enhance it. Most countries, including many that we love, live in, and work from, have by now turned into private companies sustained by oligarchs. In these lands, complacency has become the name of the game. So, while the country (also known as the private company) runs, it evaluates its employees (also known as citizens) based on the barometer of loyalty and rhetoric.

One could, of course, also call these countries “fictional.” Since, in reality, these countries resort to extreme imagination to estimate reserves, calculate GDPs, and report exports, your columnist will happily refresh your memory of novels and take you back to the Nobel prize winner José Saramago’s Seeing.

The story revolves around an election day where 83 percent voters cast a blank ballot. On the ground, bureaucrats are appalled, members of the press are excited, and the government is hysteric. When asked why they had left their ballots blank, the citizens refused to respond, reminding the questioner that the question is illegal. It’s a satire where all characters are nameless except a dog, who goes by the name of Constant. The ministers lobby for power while the plague of blank votes continues. One member of the press calls it a “dissolute use of the vote.” This is not, of course, how the government sees it, and the press dutifully follows the government’s line. A state of emergency is declared, followed by a siege wherein the government and its services exit the city, and the city is sealed off. A railway station is blown up by the government itself, hoping that the blame will fall on the so-called terrorists and/or foreign agitators. The citizens see through it all. And yet, the ending of the novel goes down in the dark.

In this very year of a global vote-fest, in most countries, election results end up being more of a coronation in place of a real race, by use of a few powerful (soon to be powerless) tools, such as ruthlessly eliminating or exiling opposition.

Last month in Hong Kong, only 27.5 percent of voters turned up to vote in a “patriots only” district election, just because opposition democrats were barred from the ballot sheet amid a national security crackdown.

Apart from plain and simple rigging, the pre-election fevers will also see a dose of artificial intelligence producing deep fakes. Remember how Trump shared a doctored video of CNN’s Anderson Cooper? Similarly, in Slovakia last year, right before elections, pro-Kremlin social media accounts shared “audio recordings,” rather deep fakes of journalists and politicians allegedly talking about rigging the election. AI was also intelligently used in Pakistan last month, when the jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan (who has now been barred from the election) delivered a four-minute speech using an audio clip and a video, all a compilation of his earlier photos and speeches from previous rallies, made by AI. Khan addressed a virtual rally, the first ever in Pakistan.

Politics 101 today runs the risk of being solely authored by autocrats from all over the world, with special courses on oppression, corruption, profit, fakes, rhetoric, misinformation, illusion, and scriptwriting.

Then again, we also sense hope. Since Mandela walked to freedom and the Apartheid ended in 1994, the African National Congress now stands a chance to lose its overall majority and be punished by voters for years of corruption, leadership scandals, crime, unemployment, and power cuts.

We must remember that democracy is also a relatively new concept. Even the US, in the beginning, had only the White men with properties voting, and it was only in 1960 that it truly turned into a free democracy. Democracy, therefore, is rightfully expected to undergo a fair number of trials and tribulations before the erasure epilogues of the autocrats and the dictators are finally inked.

The world has come a long way. So has Bangladesh. We must make sure that we appreciate our incredible progress and acknowledge our failures only to turn them into intelligent ones. Let us also admit that our answer does not lie in lopsided, brutish criticism, but rather in being a part of a civil society that is neither blind nor deaf.

In a satirical poem, The Solution, written in East Germany in 1953, Brecht wrote that the people had lost the trust of the government and wondered if, perhaps, it would be easier “… for the government // To dissolve the people // And elect another?”

Let that not happen anywhere in the globe—least of all in Bangladesh.

Dr Rubana Huq is vice-chancellor of Asian University for Women.