Op-Ed

The power of the 'little man' in democracy
Shakhawat Liton
21 Oct,2018

A comment made by Sir Winston Churchill more than seven decades ago beautifully sums up the importance of voters in democracy: “At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”

Churchill, then British premier who led the war cabinet during World War II, pronounced his “little man” theory in a parliamentary speech on October 31, 1944, while moving a bill to extend the tenure of the House of Commons by one year beyond its original term due to the war. He, however, regretted placing the bill which meant denying the voters the right to elect a new parliament through election on time. Yet he had no other alternative as it was not possible to hold the polls in a state of war.

His powerful statement about the philosophy governing a democratic election has been cited globally by academics and judges. In Bangladesh and India, the Supreme Courts in their many judgements quoted the “little man” remark to explain the significance of election in democracy and the power of the voters.

The Indian Supreme Court in an advisory opinion with a special reference to it in 2002 said that in a democracy, the little man-voter's role is crucial. The apex court states: “'Democracy' and 'free and fair election' are inseparable twins. There is almost an inseverable umbilical cord joining them. The little man's ballot and not the bullet of those who want to capture power (starting with booth capturing) is the heartbeat of democracy. Path of the little man [sic] to the polling booth should be free and unhindered, and his freedom to elect a candidate of his choice is the foundation of a free and fair election.”

Bangladesh Supreme Court in a verdict in the 13th Constitutional amendment case, which declared the non-partisan caretaker government system unconstitutional, in 2011 also referred to the “little man” remark and stressed the need for ensuring a congenial atmosphere for holding a free and fair election.

It stated: "Sir Winston Churchill's little man must be able to walk into the little booth with a little pencil to make a little cross on a little bit of paper freely and fairly. And if the little man cannot walk into the little booth with the little pencil to make his little cross on a little bit of paper to select his own representative, then democracy shall be a far cry and shall be in the Constitution only for the psychological satisfaction of the people of this country."

The apex court also stated that a win in any election of a particular candidate or party through unfair means such as manipulation, coercion, intimidation and exerting undue influence upon the government machinery, is actually a defeat for democracy, which is a fundamental requirement of our Constitution for which our ancestors have shed their blood with the hope that they would get a society free from all kinds of exploitation and that their fundamental rights would be ensured.

One thing is clear that the “little man” needs a congenial atmosphere to walk into the polling stations to exercise the right to franchise. It is the responsibility of the State to create such an atmosphere in which voters will have the alternative to choose from different candidates without facing any coercion. Parties contesting the election will have an equal opportunity to carry out their political programmes ahead of the election. Little man-voters will have a clear understanding about their representatives. 

Our Election Commission, in an electoral roadmap document a year ago, also focused on the “little man” expectation by saying: "Countrymen are waiting for a credible election." And for this, the EC led by KM Nurul Huda enlisted some issues representing people's hopes and expectations centring the next parliamentary election. Ensuring a level playing field for all political parties and holding a participatory election were among the issues listed in the document.

On July 16 last year, while unveiling the electoral roadmap, the CEC announced that the EC could do nothing to ensure a level playing field before the announcement of the election schedule. He made the remarks three days after law enforcers allegedly disrupted a meeting at Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD-Rob) president ASM Abdur Rob's Uttara residence where leaders of several political parties had met.

One year down the line, the situation did not improve. On October 15, Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar moved to place some proposals at an EC meeting including one to find out ways to ensure a level playing field for all political parties. But he walked out of the election preparatory meeting after he was denied an opportunity to place and discuss the proposals. The next day, the CEC made it clear that the EC is still waiting for the announcement of the election schedule to take steps to ensure a level playing field for all parties.

Will the EC be able to do so? The ruling party men are carrying out extensive electioneering across the country through meetings, posters, billboards, etc. while opposition activists are prevented from openly carrying out their activities due to harassment of police as many of them are facing numerous cases filed against them over the last few years. For holding any rally, they need to take police permission. Recently, the Jatiya Oikyafront, the newly floated alliance of BNP and several other parties, was denied permission by the police to hold its first public rally on October 23. If this situation continues, how will the EC ensure a level playing field after the announcement of the election schedule—which is only roughly two weeks away? How far will the situation change then, really?

A level playing field means a congenial atmosphere in which every parties and candidates contesting the polls will enjoy an equal opportunity to carry out electioneering. A congenial atmosphere allows the “little man” to walk into the polling station with the hope that he/she can vote freely and that his/her vote will have an impact on the election result. But frankly, what's happening today doesn't inspire much confidence.

The fact is, only in a free and fair atmosphere can the “little man” exercise the power of ballots. Churchill himself had experienced the power of the “little man”. The BBC in a report on February 17, 2011 said that between 1940 and 1945, Churchill was probably the most popular British prime minister of all time. In May 1945, his approval rating in the opinion polls, which had never fallen below 78 percent, stood at 83 percent. With a few exceptions, politicians and commentators confidently predicted that he would lead the Conservatives to victory at the general election held in 1945 after the war was over.

But the “little man” who walked into polling booths upset all predictions. Churchill's Conservative Party faced a humiliating defeat to the Labour Party that won by a landslide. Churchill, who saved Europe by defeating the Nazis in the World War II, was defeated in peace time by the “little man” in his own country. This is the power of the “little man” in a democracy. "The little man's ballot”, as the Indian Supreme Court says, “is the heartbeat of democracy."


Shakhawat Liton is Planning Editor, The Daily Star.