Fifty years ago, in June 1972, the Watergate scandal broke. Former members of the CIA had broken into the office of the National Committee of the Democratic Party in the middle of the night at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. A Senate investigation ensued and President Richard J Nixon resigned two years later, on August 8, 1974, from the US presidency. Nixon had to resign not for the burglary itself, but for his attempt to deny and hide the existence of taped recordings of White House discussions about the planning of the crime. Republican Party leaders in Congress then agreed that the president must leave, because getting away with a palpable “obstruction of justice” at the president’s request would be a fatal blow to the institutions of democracy.
In June 2022, the US Congress is holding hearings to uncover the facts of the January 6, 2020, uprising when a rowdy mob stormed the US Capitol building, screaming Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to death. The protesters were trying to prevent Congress from proceeding with the required certification of the results of the presidential election, in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by a difference of seven million popular votes. The violent protest that left at least seven people dead was reportedly planned and encouraged from the White House.
In the Watergate affair, an incumbent president, who had been re-elected for a second term, was forced to face up to his responsibilities and pay the price of a shameful resignation for what was considered gross misconduct. Fifty years later, a former president is accused of having conspired for a much more serious crime: annulling the results of the presidential election and supporting a violent assault on the Capitol building, seat of the American Congress. But this time, the political establishment is so divided along the party line that the vast majority of Republican members of Congress and the Senate even oppose the inquiry, which they see as a political witch hunt.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s support base among the public holds, and he wields great influence in nominating Republican candidates for the November 2022 midterm elections for Congress and state-level offices. Political experts believe that public expectations of the morality and reliability of politicians are very low. Even the facts about the threat of an actual coup staged by Trump may not be enough to defeat Trump supporters in November’s midterm elections.
Two-thirds of US residents (64%) believe democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing, according to a survey by National Public Radio (NPR) and global market research firm IPSOS in January 2022. 7% of young Americans thought the United States was a “healthy” democracy, according to the Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll in December 2021.
Political observers say the midterm elections remain a toss-up and will be decided by voters’ views on the Biden administration’s handling of the economy and the danger of stagflation looming after the pandemic and the coronavirus crisis. war in Ukraine. Donald Trump is even considered by many to be a viable candidate for president in 2024, unless he is charged and sent to prison. Biden administration Attorney General Merrick Garland, who must make the decision to pursue the indictment, worries about the political repercussions of such a move rather than the merits of the case. He looks at what the congressional hearing reveals and how the public reacts to the hearing. This does not bode well for democracy in the United States. What does this tell us about the fate of democracy in the world?
A group of American academics have written about a clear and consistent pattern they see, which they call the authoritarian playbook (Protect Democracy, June 2022). Aspiring autocrats follow this manual with minor variations to achieve their goal. The manual lists seven basic tactics that authoritarian leaders employ in pursuit of their goal. These are:
1. They attempt to politicize independent institutions, such as undermining the independence of the electoral process.
2. They spread disinformation – control media platforms to spread disinformation and undermine trust in democratic institutions.
3. They expand executive power at the expense of checks and balances – influencing the legislature and judiciary so that they do not prevent the executive from exercising power corruptly.
4. They stifle criticism and dissent – authoritarian leaders and autocratic-minded state officials use the power of government to limit dissent.
5. They specifically target vulnerable and marginalized communities – rallying populist support by attacking vulnerable communities and defining them as outsiders.
6. They work to corrupt elections, such as efforts in the United States to overturn the 2020 election results, by passing new laws in states to limit voting rights and control the voting process.
7. They stir up violence – deliberately averting or even stirring up violence to provide political cover for the restriction of civil liberties and the suppression of opposition electoral participation.
Does this list sound familiar? If this list is about the global state of democracy, what about the emerging and more fragile politics of the developing world, including Bangladesh?
Bangladesh is in a neighborhood that is not particularly conducive to the flourishing of democracy. India, the giant, recoiling precipitously from its secular, pluralist and democratic ideology, is not a good example or influence. We can only be impacted, directly or indirectly, by what is happening in the region. But can Bangladesh be proactive in reclaiming its progressive, inclusive, egalitarian and just society vision that inspired its charter as an independent country?
The next parliamentary election in Bangladesh in 18 months would come at the end of the Awami League-led government’s third consecutive term. It was a period of economic growth and infrastructure megaprojects, but also a period of democratic erosion marked by two rounds of seriously flawed national elections in 2014 and 2018, and growing economic inequality, further compounded by the Covid pandemic.
Reversing the authoritarian tendencies and mindset that are deeply rooted in political culture cannot happen overnight. But a start in this direction can be the legacy that Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina can leave to the next generation. With the 12th Parliamentary Elections in mind, four steps can be taken: a) Ensure that candidates are nominated on the basis of their honesty, competence, popularity and public service, rather than money and muscle power they can muster; b) Committing to avoid the use of mastans, muscle power, intimidation and violence by the ruling party and its candidates, and to curb affiliated bodies such as Chhatra League, Jubo League and the Sramik League, strictly observing the rules of public performance; (c) Committing to fully support the Electoral Commission to organize free and fair elections, placing the machinery of government in the hands of the Commission for this purpose and encouraging it to exercise its full authority, including adjourning the ballot if necessary; and d) Committing to desist from fueling factional, communal, sectarian and religious divisions for political gain and to uphold the ideals of liberation justice, inclusion and human dignity for all – thus aspiring to be a model of liberal democracy in the region.
Convincing the citizens of the sincerity of these intentions will be the surest way to achieve victory for the ruling party at the polls, and at the same time to inject vital lifeblood into the democratic process. Words alone will not convince the audience. Actions will have to follow in the form of creating a level playing field for all political parties – without pushing for repressive laws and without using the power of government to punish dissent and protest.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is Professor Emeritus at the University of Brac, President of the Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN) and Vice President of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE).