Political Dummies Are Not Dumb, at Least in Appearance

Everyone believes in democracy. Yet hardly a day goes by without the appearance of a headline or the title of a program bringing together pundits wondering about whether democracy can survive the multiple threats it is now subjected to. On the score of elections, Bangladesh and the US have at least one thing in common.

Portrait of ventriloquist with two dummies © Everett Collection/ shutterstock.com

January 10, 2024 06:22 EDT

Establishing and maintaining continuity of policy in a democracy has always been a difficult task. Citizens in a democracy collectively decide who should be trusted with governing. This means that a duly elected official, or even an entire government in power today may be replaced tomorrow by new blood representing opposing policies and views because it is “the will of the people.” This means elections always have the potential to appear as traumatic events. Their results are capable of destabilizing the very principles of governance. At the same time, such unsettling events tend to weaken faith in democratic processes themselves.

Despite the very real fragility of democracy and a visible trend in many nations of an erosion of faith in political institutions, there is little doubt that democracy has become a default value in the eyes of populations where democratic institutions already exist. However criticized, they continue to function thanks to the ritual of voting and the media commentary that accompanies it. 2024 will be a record-setting year for democracy. This year 4.1 billion voters will be invited to the polling booths.

The year’s first significant election took place on Sunday in Bangladesh. It saw incumbent prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party (AL) register what would ordinarily be celebrated as a landslide victory, raking in 222 of the parliament’s 300 seats. But the real reason for the amplitude of AL’s success was less the incumbent’s popularity than an embarrassing problem indicating not only diminished faith in the electoral process but also a loss of credibility for the political class. The principal opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), boycotted the vote. 

On Saturday, Al Jazeera described explained how absurd the situation had become due to the absence of the only credible opposition. “The ruling Awami League has tried to give the election a competitive veneer by fielding a number of what they, themselves call ‘dummy candidates’ and running full-fledged election campaigns which ended early on Friday morning.”

In the aftermath of the election, Al Jazeera cited Shahidul Alam, a Fair Observer contributor. The “renowned Bangladeshi rights activist and photographer” described the events as the “bizarre outcome of a bizarre election. Dummy candidates in a dummy election will now lead to a dummy parliament.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Dummy candidates:

  1. Candidates in democratic elections who appear to represent an opposition but in fact exist only to create the illusion of democratic choice and serve instead to bolster a political order that brooks no real opposition.
  1. An epithet that increasingly applies to a majority of candidates in modern democracies who act literally as the ventriloquist’s dummy in their relationship with their donors.

Contextual note

In cases of extreme political or cultural polarization that may be due to differences in class, caste, ideology or religion, the practice of democracy can become delicate and the exercise of democracy chaotic. The rivalry between the Awami League and the BNP reflects in exaggerated form a division that is visible elsewhere in South and West Asia. AL adheres to secularist principles and projects a traditional left-of-center political orientation that stresses a strong government role in promoting social justice. The BNP is right-leaning and advocates nationalism with an Islamist bias.

Both parties officially proclaim their belief in democracy. Both have exercised power. In doing so, both have acquired the art of manipulating the levers of democracy to achieve their particular aims. Vote-rigging is an art practiced whenever possible in every democracy — though in some much more than others. Though some optimists may believe it is rare, just like cheating on taxes, it should be considered a normal human activity, something everyone will practice so long as they think they can get away with it. Only extremely naïve people would suppose that the procedures and, worse, the voting machines some nations rely on will guarantee pristine results at the polls.

Boycotting elections to destabilize an existing government occurs much more rarely. We have nevertheless witnessed it in nations as diverse as Venezuela, Egypt and Zimbabwe. Even in the US this election year, a country that is likely to see a contest between two unpopular, aging has-beens, campaigns to abstain that psychologically resemble boycotts are likely to have an impact on the result.

Does this mean democracy is dying?

Most people see the ritual of regular elections as proof that democracy is still alive and kicking. Though the numbers of voters may diminish in times of growing disillusionment, people continue to believe that voting is the one thing that may keep the politicians honest, by virtue of their incentive to do the will of the people in order to stay in power. And the theatrical drama of elections as it plays out in the media has become an essential ingredient of the hyperreality made possible by our techno-culture.

Historical note

Bangladesh as a nation has existed for a mere half-century and may need some time to develop the true habits of a democracy. India has had nearly a quarter century more to affirm its mastery of democracy. Despite an official decline in its democracy index rating over time and internal conflicts not dissimilar to those of Bangladesh, India offers a reasonable example of how democracy may work in South Asia.

But even in the US, that pioneer of national democratic institutions, democracy has never fulfilled its promise. And despite various cries of alarm, the crisis of democracy is not a recent phenomenon. It has simply become more visible.

The contemporary distrust of democratic institutions didn’t begin on January 6, 2021. It’s true that Americans like to have “kickoff” dates for their existential crises, as if none of them were preceded by tension and conflict. The media play their role in getting us to hold these fateful dates in our heads. December 7 — “a day that will live infamy” — 9/11, February 24, 2022, October 7, 2023; these all stand in our memories as a date at which a crisis was born.

President Donald Trump’s challenge to US democracy following the 2020 election and the events of January 6 certainly marked a moment of epiphany, but a Princeton study released in 2014 had made it clear that the US functioned as an oligarchy, or even a plutocracy, and that its democratic institutions played by the oligarchic rules, avoiding systematically to respond to vox populi.

Let’s return to Bangladesh. Dhaka-based political analyst Zahed Ur Rahman observed that Sunday’s election was meant “to show the world that even without the main political opposition in Bangladesh’s essentially ‘two-party politics,’ the turnout could be high. Rahman described the election as a “stage-managed mockery of democracy.”

What if future historians concluded that in the two-century span in which world history became dominated by the ideology of “liberal democracy” the rituals and practices of elections in almost every nation adhering to that ideology were precisely more about stage management than governance?

Since the US has always touted itself as the model of democracy, it’s worth noting that what the Princeton study demonstrated, and many contemporary commentators have noticed, is that, contrary to Bangladesh’s “dummy candidates,” the US has produced several generations of dummy legislators and executives. An actual dummy, after all, is the tool of a ventriloquist, who draws the public’s attention to the human-resembling prop and creates the belief that the puppet is acting and talking.

Bangladesh’s dummy candidates were there to make it appear the “real” AL candidate had defeated an opponent. But US legislators who, for example, can vote with near unanimity (311 to 14) to declare – as if they were the US equivalent of the French Academie that writes the official dictionary – that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” are literally the dummies of a ventriloquist who goes by the name of American Israel Public Affairs Committee which either finances their campaigns or threatens to finance opponents in the case that they choose not to conform. That is true even of the 92 Democrats who voted “present.”

The stage-managed theatre in both democracies respects the difference of style in both. But their political hyperreality appears to lucid observers such as Shahidul Alam, quoted above, or to anyone curious about the theory of democracy, as legitimately bizarre.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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