Sustainable Democracy: Voting rights and role of education

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democracy
Democracy
Mir Mosharref Hossain Pakbir

MNA Editorial Desk: We often hear the word ‘Democracy’ uttered by both the politicians and our countrymen. We also hear the slogan ‘save the democracy’. It can sometimes confuse us as we take it as the only mean to ensure people’s rights in our beloved country. But it is really bewildering that if we really understand the concept of democracy. It gives us freedom, but does not free us from our liability to the society or to the country.

Democracy can be explained as a government system where citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives to form a governing body, such as a parliament. Democracy is sometimes referred to as ‘rule of the majority’.

Legendary British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill once said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

There are few basic criteria of democracy:  separation of powers among government, parliament and courts of law; freedom of opinion, speech, press and mass media; religious liberty; general and equal right to vote and good governance.

It is visible from the current practice that, no one actually knows the real meaning of democracy. Our countrymen understand democracy only as their right to vote though it is much more than that. Our politicians define democracy as a tool for gaining their power as the government. But it must protect our rights and interests; rights of not only the rich and powerful ones, but also that of all the general people. We must have freedom of speech as well as liberty in terms of religion and culture. But in reality, we know little about sustainable democracy.

The problem lies deep into the demographics of our population. The adult literacy rate in Bangladesh was measured as 72.3 per cent in 2016. Among them a major portion can only put on their signature or can write a simple letter, but counted as educated. However, there is confusion regarding how we should define literacy. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), in its report, defined that if a person can write a simple letter, he will be considered literate.

This clearly contradicts with the definition given by the UNESCO which declares that literacy incorporates three things; reading, writing and doing simple arithmetic and that is also a globally accepted. But that was not considered while preparing the adult literacy report in 2016.

The actual literacy rate by the UNESCO definition will not be even 50 per cent, we can guess. As many of these so-called literate ones cannot read or write properly and hence, they do not have proper access to the information required to learn their democratic rights.

Without education, it is very hard to know the welfare of selves. If we are not educated, we have to depend on whatever others say even if it is a rumour or a misconception. Their judgment will be biased and can be controlled or misdirected easily and this has been the case of our fellow countrymen again and again. They had been emotional in choosing their representatives several times.

The history of our politics roots long before our liberation from the establishment of Awami League in Pakistan in 1949. This party, under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has fought for establishing the rights of the people of the East Pakistan which was dominated by the richer, but less populous West Pakistan.

The rulers from the West Pakistan kept oppressing the East Pakistanis in several aspects including political control, economic policy and language. There was an outburst of protest when the Urdu was declared the only national language of Pakistan leading to the language movement of 1952. Many lost lives and finally Bengali, the language of the majority of Pakistani population was accepted as the second national language of Pakistan.

In February, 1966 Bangabandhu declared his six point movement to ensure the rights of the people of the East Pakistan. In 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, won an electoral majority in Pakistan’s general election on a platform demanding greater autonomy for the East Pakistan. At the same time Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gained a majority in the West. Despite Mujib’s victory, the Pakistani authorities prevented him from becoming prime minister of the State. These discriminations led towards the liberation war in 1971 which brought our freedom and gave us a new identity as ‘Bangladeshis’.

All these revolutions, protests and war were the result of the oppression of the rulers. The tortured and oppressed came out from their shells and demonstrated their anger and fought for their rights.

Democracy was not of much concern during that time. People were mostly driven by emotions rather than logic. East Pakistan’s literacy rate was only around 20 per cent during that time. Bangabandhu’s visionary leadership was their beacon of hope and his insights and intellect led us to our independence.

Since our independence, 10 national elections were held and among them seven elections were intended for actual democratic government. From 1975 onwards till 1991 election, Bangladesh was led by autocratic military leaders. And through 1991’s election, democracy was restored. But the real democracy is not in practice in Bangladesh as we actually do not understand the concept of democracy due to lack of education. The adult literacy rate was only around 29 per cent during the election of 1979 and around 35.3 per cent during the election of 1991.

From 1991 onwards, after establishment of democracy in Bangladesh, we observed very low emphasis on education and related budget. The manifesto of political parties also does not include improving literacy rate as priority.

The situation has improved much under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s leadership and adult literacy rate moved up from around 46 per cent in 2009 to 72.3 per cent in 2016. Though she declared on World Literacy Day in 2009, the target to achieve 100 per cent literacy rate by 2014, but we did not reach there yet.

It is exemplary that, Sheikh Hasina is working on so many development initiative pursuing the dream of Vision 2021 and 2041. But we hope that she will declare another deadline to take the literacy rate of Bangladesh to 100 per cent.

We are approaching the next national election approximately within a year. The political parties have started their movement to strengthen their positions. Our voters actually vote for the parties, not for the candidates. A democratic voter should judge which candidate will ensure his rights. But that is not the case with our fellow countrymen.

They are not effectively concerned about a candidate’s works and reputation. Many corrupt leaders, hooligans and political cadres got elected as member of parliaments because our voters cast their votes in favour of them.

Our voters get effortlessly swayed with the sweet talks which have no authenticity or representation. Voters are often bought with a little money prior to the elections. They are not wise and educated enough to judge a candidate over his works.

People often criticize candidates for their wrong doings, but when they enter the polling booth, they actually vote for them. Our voters are completely unaware that, even though they can be financially benefitted in the short run, electing a wrong representative can ruin the future of their next generations. Lack of education has taken away these judgments from our voters.

The perception is to ensure democracy, voting rights must be ensured. But voting for an anti-social candidate cannot help sustainable democracy. Vote for whomever we want — cannot provide us a strong democratic base rather we must know, on what basis we should judge a candidate; his education, his past social work, his commitment to the society, his corruption records, his criminal records, his contribution to the community etc. If a candidate succeeds in these aspects, then only we can vote for him.

Considering adult literacy rate as 72.3 per cent, we still have 28 per cent illiterate voters whose votes will matter in the upcoming election. With no education, they can be easily motivated to vote for terrorist backed parties which can destroy our beloved country. They will easily be trapped by political parties’ propaganda.

If we cannot use our voting rights for electing the right candidates, then we cannot ensure sustainable democracy in Bangladesh. We have to bring out the leaders who are committed to the people and the society.

Our emotions or greed should not lead our decisions because when we cast our vote, we vote for the welfare of the community, society and country. So, it is a big responsibility over our shoulders and we must focus on increasing the actual literacy rate so that our people can become more aware of their benefits and interests.

The writer is the Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA) and Chairman of Mohammadi Group of Companies.