|Following a framework set down by Bahá'u'lláh,
Bahá'í communities conduct their business through a distinctive system of freely elected
governing councils that challenge commonly accepted ideas about the inherent limitations
To describe the
twentieth century in a phrase, it has been a single, long experiment in global governance.
Underlying the most dynamic movements,
conflicts and institutions of the last 90 years has been a key question: how shall
humanity govern itself?
By early in the century, absolute monarchy
had been rejected; the First World War dismantled its remaining institutions. The Second
World War settled the question of fascism and led to the end of colonialism. Now, the most
ambitious experiment of all, communism, has been equally discredited.
Only democracy remains. But what kind of
Although clearly superior to other systems
so far tried, democracy as practiced today is nevertheless undergoing its own convulsions.
In the West, despite its successes, the multi-party system seems increasingly to reveal
its limitations. In many countries, the corruption, mud-slinging, negative campaigning,
vote pandering and indecisiveness have lead to voter apathy on a scale that threatens the
integrity of the whole system.
In the East, new democratic experiments are
threatened by a host of problems and forces, including a lack of experience, ages-old
ethnic tensions, and varying cultural expectations.
Growing numbers of people today wonder
whether any form of government is really viable any longer.
On the periphery of this debate is the
extraordinary alternative suggested by the worldwide Bahá'í community. Following an
administrative framework set down by Bahá'u'lláh, the community
conducts its business through a distinctive system of freely elected governing councils
that challenge commonly accepted ideas about democracy and the possibilities for achieving
The system combines the best elements of
grassroots democracy with a facility for planet-wide coordination. It promotes the
selection of leaders with integrity and has built-in checks against corruption. Its
underlying principles strike a singular balance between individual freedom and the
Although many of its elements are similar
to other practices for democratic election, administration and governance, when viewed as
a whole the Bahá'í system stands in sharp contrast. The election process, for example,
excludes any form of campaigning, electioneering or nominations. Yet it offers every
individual elector the widest possible choice of candidates.
The decision-making process used by
Bahá'í councils in their deliberations is also distinctive; its method is
non-adversarial and seeks to build community consensus in a manner that unites various
constituencies instead of dividing them.
The Administrative Order
Indeed, the idea that there exists
a divine pattern for the continuing administration of the Bahá'í Faith is as important
to the definition of Bahá'í belief and practice as are the spiritual and social
doctrines of Bahá'u'lláh.
This governance system is called the
It is viewed as both a system for conducting the affairs of the Bahá'í Faith itself and
as a promising model that can be easily adopted by other institutions of administration
"In every country where any of this people reside, they must
behave towards the government of that country with loyalty, honesty and
truthfulness." -- Bahá'u'lláh
Founded on a common set of electoral and
decision-making principles, the system is organized around a set of freely elected
governing councils which operate at the local, national, and international levels. This
hierarchy devolves decision making to the lowest level practicable--thereby providing a
unique vehicle for grassroots democracy--while at the same time providing a level of
coordination and authority that makes possible cooperation on a global scale.
The local Assembly
At its foundation, the Bahá'í
administrative order rests on the local Spiritual Assembly, a community governing council
elected each year in every community where there are nine or more adult Bahá'ís. It is
worth describing in some detail the operation of the local Spiritual Assembly, as many of
its features are reflected at the national and international levels.
Typically, the reach of the local Spiritual
Assembly is defined by the municipal boundaries established by the government. In other
words, all Bahá'ís who live within the boundaries of a particular village, town, city,
parish, or governing district are considered to be within the jurisdiction of the local
Spiritual Assembly of that locality.
The local Spiritual Assembly is elected each
year by secret ballot. In April, all adult Bahá'ís in the given community gather for an
election. Those who cannot personally attend are encouraged to submit absentee ballots.
After a period of prayer and meditation, each adult then writes down nine names: the names
of those nine individuals that he or she feels are best qualified to administer the
affairs of the community.
The qualities such individuals should possess
are spelled out quite clearly in the Bahá'í writings. Those participating in the
election should consider "the names of only those who can best combine the necessary
qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of
recognized ability and mature experience."
Perhaps the most surprising aspect to this
process is the absence of a prepared ballot or of any system of nominations. Instead,
every adult Bahá'í in the community is eligible for election to the local Spiritual
Those elected to the Assembly need not
receive a majority of votes; rather, the nine individuals who receive the highest number
of votes are selected. Since everyone in the community is, in essence, up for election,
individual voters have the opportunity to vote according to their conscience with an
absolute freedom of choice. Accordingly, individuals with a recognized maturity,
experience and humility tend to be elected--instead of simply those who might be bold or
egotistical enough to run for office.
Although this system defies political
convention, it is surprisingly effective in practice. The whole emphasis of the Bahá'í
electoral system is to bring forth leaders who possess qualities of selflessness,
intellectual capacity and wisdom.
At the present time, local Spiritual
Assemblies oversee a wide variety of activities--activities that comprise the essence of
Bahá'í community life. These activities include the education of children, devotional
services, study classes, discussions, social events, the observance of holy days,
marriages, divorces, and funeral services. Many local Spiritual Assemblies around the
world also oversee ongoing small-scale educational, economic or environmental development
Local Spiritual Assemblies also supervise the
Nineteen Day Feast, which as noted earlier, is the cornerstone of community activity. [See page 12] And, although the Assembly is ultimately the final source
for authoritative decision-making in the community, the institution of the Feast provides
an important component of grassroots governance. continues