Friday, January 30, 2009

"No vote" is a not a solution

Over the last few years, there has been an effort to introduce an option - "None of the Above" in our ballot. The Election Commission of India too has endorsed this option.
But in a representative democracy, the 'No Vote' is not an answer to the problems that plague our democratic system.
Such an option was introduced in Bangladesh, during the recent parliamentary election there in December 2008. I was privileged to have been invited as one of the international election observers during that election. We found that only a fraction of 1% of voters cast their ballot in favour of the "None of the Above".
The reason is not too difficult to fathom. An astonishing 85% of the people had turned out to vote on December 29, 2008. Most of them were poor. And most of them turned out in hope that the election would throw up better leaders, better solutions to the their problems, better opportunities for themselves and their country. Voting "No" would have undermined the democratic process itself.


Following is an editorial in Indian Express (30 Jan 2009), calling for a rethink on the "None of the Above".
Double Negative
Indian Express - Editorial
The question posed in the Supreme Court for the Central Government was straightforward. Does the right to vote, the bench asked the government counsel this week while hearing a petition on the subject, include the right to not vote? The reference was not abstention from voting, but the demand by the petitioner that the election ballot have an option for the voter to register her discontent with the fray by hitting a “none of the above” button. The counsel duly registered the government’s reservations about the reform, and in due course other respondents will make their submissions.

Negative voting is an idea that catches the imagination every few years. But there is ample reason to ask whether it is a proposal that is not only problematic in itself, but also whether it is cited as a solution to a misidentified problem. The case presumably is that by being given an imperfect choice the voter is constrained to cast a positive vote for the best of bad options. The “none of the above” button would put the fray on notice that they are not up to standard. Put simply, the reform would capture the public mood. How can that be wrong?

It can. The point of electoral democracy is to get the best possible outcome for viable governance, that is a government that derives its legitimacy from the expressed will of the people. Certainly norms are necessary for candidature. Of late there has been reform like compulsory declaration of assets and criminal records. There needs to be more — importantly, on intra-party democracy, so that lists of candidates are not the reflection of purely backroom dealings. But even in the best case scenario, human nature being what it is, is there any guarantee that the voter will be satisfied with the fray? And if a substantial chunk of the votes cast are for “none of the above”, then what? Is that an inducement for that mythical perfect candidate to make an appearance? May it not instead deny the winning candidate the legitimacy needed to be an effective legislator? In any case, in a democracy, the people should never be fully satisfied with the legislatures they get. They must always be impatient to get the best out of their elected representatives.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The relationship between markets and democracy

I just had two very distinct experiences in Bangladesh and Malaysia. Both the countries are poised for democratic transitions. Bangladesh had perhaps for the first time in three decades a free and fair election last December that elected 300 new Members of Parliament, after two years of military backed caretaker government. Free and fair election is something that most of us in India take for granted.

In Malaysia, an opposition coalition is beginning to make in roads, and erode the dominance of the ruling coalition that has been in office continuously since Independence from Britain in 1957. It seems a very interesting parallel to our experience in 1977, when the first non-Congress government was elected to power in Delhi, following the general election at the end of the 20 month emergency.

In the last few years, I have been trying to grapple with the relationship between democracy and market. It seems that democracy and markets are two sides of the same coin, both empowers the citizens and consumers, by enhancing their scope of choice in politics and economics. In these turbulent economic times, I think this could be a critical issue to understand.
Another interesting corollary seems to be that historically, property rights had a very significant role in democratisation of societies. Only property owners could be full citizens in ancient Greece.

Democratisation of property ownership played a key role in gradually dissolving the absolute rights of kings, beginning with Magna Carta in UK. Only property owners could vote at the founding of US. In case of India, 60 years of political democracy seems to have started with socialisation of economics and nationalisation of property rights, but now there seems to be a better political recognition of the need to respect for property rights (land rights).

Would like to exchange views with anyone interested...

Barun Mitra

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

'No Vote' or 'None of the Above'?

Hi, There is not too much of a difference between "No vote" and "None of the above". The former is usually a short form for the latter. The no vote does not mean not going to vote, or boycotting the vote. I am opposed to this idea, unless proven otherwise.

  1. This is an elitist idea. People who can't get elected in the democratic way, are seeking a legal response to a political issue.
  2. This is also a futile attempt to depoliticise democratic politics and delegitimise political parties. Democracy cannot survive without electoral politics.
  3. If we dont like the candidates in our constituency, then we should either put ourselves as candidates, or join a party and persuade the party to put up better candidates, or form a political party and try and persuade the voter by putting up better candidates. Just because we may not be in a positition to undertake any of these options, does not mean the existing democratic process should be scrapped.
  4. This is not a practical idea. In the best case situation, if the No Vote, wins, what political alternative will it create, except prolong the political uncertainty. In the worst case, very few voters will exercise this choice.
  5. In Bangladesh, in the parliamentary election held on Dec 29, "None of the Above", was an option on each ballot. While the election saw a national turn out of nearly 85%, far less than 1% votes were cast for the "No" option.
  6. A vast Majority of people who vote, need an elected representative for various functional reasons, related to their daily struggle for survival. So when poor voters out number the rest, the 'no' option is not a practical option for the voters. This is exactly what happened in Bangladesh, where poor voters chose to ignore the "No vote".
  7. All of us would like to contribute to reforming and strengthening our democratic institutions. But for this initiative to have any chance of garnering popular support, a positive and practical alternative needs to be proposed. The "No vote" is an empty and meaningless gesture, and so will not find favour among voters.
  8. Democracy is not primarily about majority rule. That would be a snapshot. And a snapshot can easily be discarded, or get faded and forgotten. Democracy is a process which allows every one to renew and remake that picture of their dream. This means, much more than majority rule, democracy is about protecting the minority opinion of today, so that it may have an opportunity to peacefully persuade others and aspire to become the majority view tomorrow.
  9. Lastly, the option "none of the above" already exists, since we thankfully haven't made voting compulsory. Those who legitimately choose not to vote, are in effect not voicing support for any of those on the ballot. Having that option on the ballot would not only add nothing to the democratic process, it would also imply that someone else, the political parties or the candidates, need to clean up their act, while we can sit on the sidelines. That would not be a good omen for democracy. Democracy can only thrive when the demos participates actively as citizens. Inner party democracy, financial transparency, etc., will come when we the people not only demand it from others, but participate in the political process, and make these happen.

Barun Mitra

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Election Observation in Bangladesh

During the last week of December 2008, Barun Mitra was invited to join an International team of election observers proir to the Bangladesh elections. Below is an article on the same that was published in The Daily Star.

Dec 29 Election Fair, flawless

A 10-member foreign delegation that carried out a short-term observation of the December 29 parliamentary elections in a preliminary statement said it did not find any irregularities that might impact the legitimacy of the process or the results.

The delegation comprised of individuals from government and civil society organisations, from Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea, noted that the voting process appeared to be organised and calm, and election officials seemed to be generally familiar with the election laws and procedures, a press release said.
They urged the new government and all political stakeholders to work together to effectively meet the nation's challenges.

Under the auspices of Asia Pacific Democracy Partnership (APDP) and at the invitation of Bangladesh Election Commission (EC), the delegation observed various stages of the voting process at 88 polling centres in all six divisions of the country.

Prior to Election Day, the APDP observers were briefed by representatives of the EC, major political parties and domestic monitoring groups.

Based upon their observations, the observers felt that all stakeholders would work together to bring about the next phase of democratic governance, in which all political parties have constructive roles to play.

The APDP observers, however, recommended better dissemination of information on the electoral process to voters and improvement of the process within the polling centre to reduce the length of queues by adopting a simple and standardised procedure.
The Bangladeshi people have been without an elected government for almost two years and the high voter turnout and enthusiasm of voters is an indication of a great desire by the people to participate in the selection of their representatives to the parliament and the formation of a new government, read the press release.

The observers thanked the EC and all election workers and the staff at the International Republican Institute for facilitating this election observation mission.

(Asia Pacific Democratic Partnership, International Election Observation Mission for the Bangladesh Parliamentary Elections in December 2008.)