Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Bahá'í Approach to Democracy

On the subject of representative democracy, here's a little reminder that alternative approaches to the electoral process do exist...

(Taken from my Masters dissertation of 2009 — Nonpartisan Engagement in Public Affairs: A Critical Analysis of the Bahá’í Approach to Dialogue, Democracy, and Diplomatic Relations).

The Bahá'í Approach to Democracy

The Seat of the Universal House of Justice
© Bahá'í International Community
While the Bahá'í Faith clearly supports the idea of representative democracy and is correspondingly opposed to all dictatorial forms of governance, it is important to note that the Bahá'í approach is distinct for a number of reasons. Strongly committed to nonpartisanship and non-electioneering, and based not only on the principles of equality and freedom but likewise on the spiritual principle of dignity, the approach contrasts starkly with well-known characteristics of so-called liberal democracy (Effendi, 1974, 1977, 1990; Abizadeh, 2005).

As already implied in the previous chapters, it seems largely uncontested that a crisis of confidence is facing contemporary democracy as manifested in, for example, decreasing trust in societal institutions and the breakdown of social capital (BIC, 2009b; Effendi, 1977; Fukuyama, 1995; Putnam, 2000, 2002; Putnam and Feldstein, 2003; Halpern, 2005).

The crisis of modern day society is featured in both the authoritative writings of the Bahá'í Faith and in various texts written on the Bahá'í subject. It is fundamentally explained as a spiritual crisis with social issues prominently involved—related to ethical behavior, inspired vision, and mutualism or, rather, lack thereof (Bahá'u'lláh, 1976; ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, 1982c; Effendi, 1974; One Country, 2001; BIC, 2003, 2009b; Esslemont, 1980; Karlberg, 2004; Abizadeh, 2005).

From a Bahá'í point of view, however, a “viable alternative” can be found in the Bahá'í electoral system, as explained by political scientist Arash Abizadeh (2005), who offers an analysis of the Bahá'í approach to representative democracy and the electoral process.

Many critics bemoan the apparent shortcomings of multiparty democratic electoral politics. That such elections yield corrupt and morally bankrupt leaders; that they are meaningless without certain social or economic rights and conditions; that they fail to provide the electorate with any real political say or choice; that they are captured by powerful interest groups; or that modern electoral campaigns are too easily bought by money—these are all common worries. What is less common are viable alternatives to the competitive multiparty model of democratic elections.

The Bahá'í community claims to practice such an alternative. Because there are no clergy in the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'í communities are governed by regularly elected representative institutions at local, regional (in some areas), national, and international levels. For most students of democratic politics, the most surprising feature of Bahá'í elections is that they are conducted without nominations, competitive campaigns, voting coalitions, or parties. Indeed, Bahá'í elections are governed by formal institutional rules and informal norms that specifically prohibit such familiar features of the political landscape. The question is why Bahá'í elections are governed by these rules and norms. The answer lies in the distinctive values that are the foundation for the rules and norms. (Abizadeh, 2005, pp. 7-8.) 

In Abizadeh's analysis, these distinctive, interrelated values that govern the functioning of Bahá'í institutions are: nobility i.e. respect for the inherent dignity of human beings, the spirit of collective unity and solidarity, and the level of justice and fairness associated with the institutions. The performance of the institutions is thus linked to “selecting the most desirable representatives; legitimating Bahá'í administrative institutions; fostering virtues among individual participants; and fostering unity and solidarity in the community as a whole.” (Abizadeh, 2005, p. 8.)

Integral to the Bahá'í approach to democracy are likewise the principle of mutualism and the consultative process used in decision making, both subjects discussed in preceding chapters.

As to the accountability of Bahá'í administrative bodies, one distinctive feature here is the absence of responsibility toward the electorate for decisions arrived at. In other words, each elected representative is expected to vote on the basis of his or her own conscience as a human being and as a Bahá'í, not as a member of any specific party, voting bloc, or interest group. On the other hand, Local and National Spiritual Assemblies are elected every year through the Bahá'í election mechanism, which allows for the electability of any eligible individual.

At the local level, another important arrangement is that the elected representatives must associate directly with the members of their communities once every Bahá'í month at the so-called 19-Day Feast, which means personally facing the electorate on a regular basis in a devotional spirit and to socialize as well as to take notice of community or individual concerns for the Assembly to consider.

While the elected institutions operate under the guidance of those above them and within the context of the authoritative laws and ordinances already established by Bahá'u'lláh, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, the elected representatives are not responsible to the electorate for decisions, nor are the electorate privy to how individual members of an institution vote on any given matter or whether a decision was unanimous or passed by a single vote. A decision has the same weight and authority regardless of what rigorous discussion may have gone into the consideration of a course of action and regardless of how immediately or uniformly it was endorsed at first hearing. The minutes of the meeting, therefore, will reflect subjects discussed and decisions made, but not comments attributed to individual members nor the number of votes for and against a decision. Of crucial importance, in other words, is the freedom of expression of each member to express his or her heartfelt opinion, though even the manner of such opinions is ordained to be unembellished, unimpassioned, and rendered only after thoughtful consideration. This [consultative] process, this tool of decision making, is employed at every level of governance and by all Bahá'í institutions, appointed committees, families, or simply an informal group. (Hatcher, 2007, pp. 240-241)

Whether or not the Bahá'í election system might prove superior from a democratic viewpoint to the multiparty system, the latter has been questioned on the basis of its perceived performance, while the former is still relatively new. Perhaps the notion of a system with neither nominations for candidacy, nor election campaigns, nor even political parties may represent too radical change for some; the fact remains, however, that the Bahá'í alternative has been used for decades throughout the Bahá'í world with high degree of overall success—having “proved eminently practical, leading to a stable, peaceful, and corruption-resistant system of administration that draws the best into the community's public life” (One Country, 2001).

A Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) is responsible for overseeing the affairs of a Bahá'í community in a local area such as a city or village. Composed of nine adult local residents, the LSA is elected once every April in a simple process: The local Bahá'ís gather and, before the ballots are cast, recite prayers and passages from the holy writings to create an atmosphere of reflection and spirituality; the ballots are then cast by secret voting—with each individual having written down in private the names of nine persons from the community whom he or she deems as best qualified to serve as elected representatives. With tellers chosen by the gathered electors, the tallying takes place on the spot and the nine individuals receiving a plurality of votes are thereby elected members of the LSA.

The same basic principles are applied at the national level. Here, a national convention is held annually with the electorate consisting of delegates sent from all LSAs of the country and any of whom can be elected to serve on the National Spiritual Assembly; the nine who receive a plurality of votes are elected members of the NSA.

As to the international level, the supreme administrative body of the Bahá'í world, the Universal House of Justice, is elected by delegates of all NSAs in a similar process every five years at an international convention held at the Bahá'í World Centre, in Haifa, Israel.

Overall, a system of governance that encompasses the global level without losing touch with the national or even the local level, is likely to attract growing attention and is justifiably a subject of interest for students of democracy. Further research into its philosophical foundations could offer a basis for rethinking entrenched assumptions about democracy and elections (Abizadeh, 2005; BWNS, 2009f).

The apparent benefits associated with the system include the following: The absence of nominations or so-called candidates gives the electorate full freedom to vote for those perceived as best qualified; with the absence of campaign promises, party affiliation, and constituency demands, the elected representatives retain freedom of conscience in decision-making; the absence of corrupting financial influences in the form of e.g. campaign money; the absence of electioneering and nominations reinforces the emphasis placed by the voters on spiritual attributes and moral leadership, effectively blocking those who seek a political career for personal gain or privilege; power by arbitrary will or personality is made obsolete as decision-making rests with corporate bodies, and with the spirit of continuous learning and the centrality of the principles of the Bahá'í Faith (BWNS, 2005; One Country, 2001).

Taken all together, the Bahá'í system inherently seeks to draw into community service a new type of leader, one who has won the notice of his or her fellow community members because of his or her humility, penchant for quiet service, and moral and intellectual strength. (One Country, 2001)

—From "Nonpartisan Engagement in Public Affairs: A Critical Analysis of the Bahá’í Approach to Dialogue, Democracy, and Diplomatic Relations"



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