Can Democracies Ban “Anti-Democratic” Political Parties?

Though this blog usually focuses only on U.S. issues, I wanted to flag a story in today’s Wall Street Journal that might provoke the interest of many readers (since the WSJ is behind a paywall, see here).  In Bangladesh, a court has barred the country’s largest Islamist political party from participating in upcoming elections later this year or early next.  Although the party, Jamaat-e-Islam (JI), is relatively small, it could well be the tipping force in the struggle for control of the govern between the two major political parties; JI aligns with the opposition.

The court banned JI on the ground that the party’s charter acknowledges the “absolute power” of God and does not acknowledge the sovereignty of the people of Bangladesh.  This judicial action is a timely illustration of two central issues in the post-World War II struggles over what “democracy” means and entails.  The first is the idea of “militant democracy,” which is the view that democracies can and should be militant in taking measures to ensure the continued democratic nature of the state and to ban or contain anti-democratic forces, including political parties.  Though coined in 1937 by Karl Loewenstein, the idea caught on powerfully in Europe in the aftermath of WWII.  The second issue this recent court decision raises, of course, is what role religiously-based political parties should be permitted to play in democracies — an issue particularly acute right now in working out the appropriate relationship between Islam and democracy, surely among the most significant political issues of our era.  The decision sounds similar to earlier decisions of the Turkish Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld bans on Islamist parties that were judged to be anti-democratic.  For a survey of these decisions, see here.

Violent protests have been going on in the country since February, after the International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh sentenced leading figures in JI to death or long sentences for their role in the country’s 1971 war for independence (see here), when JI aligned with Pakistan in resisting the move for Bangladesh’s independence. The country became a democracy in 1991.



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