Democracy in Bangladesh: It’s Complicated

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Written by Arafat Kabir, Guest Contributor

If there were a medal for calling for labor strikes, colloquially known as hartal, Bangladesh would be the perpetual champion. Since their birth, the political parties of Bangladesh have regularly exercised their democratic rights more in staging hartal than working towards a truly democratic Bangladesh. Hartal often see people die in the street clashes and cause economic paralysis, while demonstrating how political leadership in Bangladesh has manipulated the core values of democracy with a view to eternalizing power by so-called ‘democratic’ means.

On November 13th, Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center conducted the seminar “Bangladesh on the Brink”, during which former U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh and country expert William B. Milam speculated about the emergence of an autocratic power in Bangladesh. In light of his recent trip to Bangladesh to gain firsthand experience of current political trends, he predicted three possible scenarios vis-à-vis the upcoming general election scheduled for late January 2014. First, he discussed the impossibility of an all-party election. Second, he dismissed a poll without the participation of the principal opposition, the BNP-led coalition. The last scenario discussed was the repetition of past—a long-term interim government to tackle the dire situation.

Ironically, the alarm that Ambassador Milam raised is the culmination of the almost carte blanche freedom allowed to the ruling party by the constitution. Bangladesh’s constitution has been crafted so that all power converges to the advantage of one person: the Prime Minister. Professor Ali Riaz, Chair of Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, argued in the same Wilson Center seminar hat three consecutive constitutional amendments made unilaterally by various ruling parties in the past seventeen years are responsible for this situation.

After the Awami League party appeared triumphant with an astounding two-thirds majority in the 2008 election, Sheikh Hasina, PM and leader of Awami League, abolished the caretaker government. Despite legal justification, Hasina’s prompt move to cull the neutral interim administration that oversaw the poll raised eyebrows. A court ruling that the government used as basis of the amendment, however, opined that the next three polls could be arranged under caretaker government considering the immature democracy in Bangladesh. Broader civil society and opposition parties alike welcomed the opinion. But, it seemed to fall on deaf ears as Hasina’s government vowed to not let any undemocratic people run Bangladesh again, no matter how briefly.

This is a remarkable shift indeed. Awami League, in particular, used to boast about its role in introducing this non-partisan administration, touting that it could be an effective model for rising democracies around the world. Since 1991, all national polls but one in 1996 was administered by such authority. However, the political landscape reshuffled when BNP tried to engineer this very institution to rig the election in 2007, and an army-backed caretaker government stepped in. It attempted to divest the two bickering begums of the politics sailing in the massive public exasperation against BNP’s wretched five-year-reign that earned Bangladesh the title of most corrupt country and yet another failure of the political parties to peacefully partake in a free election. Both of them were imprisoned and eventually released prior to the election.

Alas, they did not take lessons from the bitter past. Yet again, the two major political forces stand face-to-face. Ms. Hasina proposed an all-party government to supervise the election, but the opposition vehemently rejected this, as they say neutrality in the administration will be compromised. Rather, they demand to revert to the old caretaker system. It is not possible since, “There is a constitutional binding”, said a government minister. Interestingly, despite intentions otherwise, the Hasina administration has already provoked criticism. The cabinet submitted its resignation letter in accordance with Article 58(1)(a) of the constitution stating, “The office of a Minister other than the Prime Minister shall become vacant if he resigns from office by placing his resignation in the hands of the Prime Minister for submission to the President.” They continue to office nevertheless. Ms. Hasina further countenanced this as she is yet to submit these letters to the President. In the meantime, the Awami League has launched its election campaign by distributing nomination forms among the aspirant candidates. Apparently, Mr. Milam’s second prediction is likely to be true: an election without opposition. The election, while constitutionally legitimate, would be morally unacceptable. The Awami League seems to be nonchalant anyway as long as the constitution is defended, so is the democracy. Again, in the name of protecting democracy BNP will fight back fiercely since opinion polls suggest its comeback, enough to boost its morale.

As Professor Riaz observed, the country is facing as a choice between “unpalatable and disastrous”, and an election without the participation of all parties will be disastrous. Democracy is, indeed, made complex in Bangladesh since totalitarian power under the veneer of democracy is what the politicos seek here, apparently. The vicious cycle that Bangladesh is in cannot be broken until the leaderships apprehend the true definition of democracy.

Arafat Kabir is an observer of national and global politics, foreign policy and diplomacy. A native of Bangladesh, his works have appeared in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, the Diplomatic Courier, International Policy Digest, The Diplomat, and other publications. Multilingual, Arafat is a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Follow him @ArafatKabirUpol.

Photo: wongbikchee (cc).