The Challenge with Bangladesh Democracy
Professor Mahfuz R. Chowdhury
(The author taught Economics at CW Post Campus of Long Island University and State College at Farmingdale, New York. He has published numerous articles on issues concerning Bangladesh and developing economies, which are posted on various web sites)
The history of democracy in Bangladesh has been very tumultuous to say the least. This is primarily because the country’s politicians and military leaders only talk of supporting democracy or the democratic process when they see a chance to grab state power through elections. But after ascending to power they seem to bury democracy. The key objective of Bangladesh’s politicians and some of its military leaders has been to seize state power essentially to promote their self-interest. And once in power, either democratically or through military might, they ignore the promises they had made, embrace autocracy, practice all kinds of intimidation to suppress the opposition, and engage in systematic looting of the state’s treasure. When knocked out of power, the opposition party routinely resorts to hartals (or general strikes) and violence. It’s actually quite ironic how the leaders of Bangladesh’s two dominant parties either champion democracy or bury it depending on whether they are out of power or in power! The democratic process is seen not as a way for the people of Bangladesh to pick the policies they prefer but as a way of deciding which party would be in power.
The above would sum up the history of Bangladesh democracy, except for one important fact. The actual power within a party rests almost entirely with the party leader, whether the party is in power or in opposition. And the leader tends to stay in that position until death, at which time the leadership mantle usually passes on to the biological heir of the leader. Political power and position has become a hereditary matter for Bangladesh. At least this is what has happened in the case of the two largest political parties that are presently controlling politics, and this trend can be expected to continue unless there is of course a drastic change.
The two political parties that dominate Bangladesh’s politics today are the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Here’s how these two parties have come to assume their current positions.
Awami League came into existence in the early days of Pakistan when Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan. Later under the leadership of its dominant leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the country went to war and won its liberation from Pakistan. Following liberation, the whole country submitted to Sheikh Mujib for his leadership on governance and future direction. People were even prepared to take his words to be the law of the land. But the way he misused such a strong mandate of the people just about sealed his fate and the fates of many other members of his family.
After assuming state power, Sheikh Mujib having initially flip-flopped on what title to take – President or Prime Minister – began to consolidate his power over the government and the country. His commitment to democracy soon withered as he abandoned democracy in favor of autocracy. He created his own personal armed force and used it to brutally suppress the opposition, he banned newspapers that criticized his rule, and more significantly he declared Bangladesh a one-party state. Thus, by virtue of his authority, he killed the very democracy that brought him to power. Well, the freedom fighters who had fought in the liberation war and the people in general couldn’t stomach such actions by Sheikh Mujib even though he was the paramount leader of the country. So, after about three and half years of his dictatorial rule, he was brutally assassinated by army personnel in his own house along with all family members who were present. He was survived by his two daughters, who were outside the country at the time. It was by all means a great tragedy.
Immediately after his assassination, the country briefly experienced serious political turmoil. In the mayhem that followed, civilian and military leaders emerged who were either deposed or murdered. In the end, General Ziaur Rahman, a prominent freedom fighter backed by the army, emerged to assume state power. His rule, however, was supposed to be a temporary one and he was expected to arrange a national election and hand over power to the newly elected government. But the election that followed was not for others, it was a “yes or no” vote on him.
Having tasted supreme power, General Zia quickly proceeded to institutionalize his rule. By successfully luring many of the disgruntled political leaders of the country to his camp he formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He even gave amnesty to people who had opposed the creation of Bangladesh (including the assassinators of Sheikh Mujib) and installed them in key positions in the party and government. He felt so confident of himself that he once boasted that he would make politics difficult for the politicians. He was true to his promise! He made a real mockery of every democratic value by systematically dismantling the vital democratic institutions in the country. By openly rigging the people’s vote he created his own parliament, which he used to rubber stamp his policies. He ruled autocratically, and murdered many army mutineers including some of those who helped him to gain power. Legend has it that a person who lives by the sword dies by the sword. So General Zia too eventually had to sacrifice his life for his autocratic actions; he was assassinated by the army after about six years in power.
Following him it was General H M Ershad’s turn to grab state power. By using the experiences of his immediate predecessor and applying his personal wit, he succeeded in perpetrating his autocratic rule. He too proceeded to establish his own political party and ran sham elections. He proved to be a skillful master and was able to keep his opponents at bay for many years. He was also rumored to fake his own fatherhood to gain acceptance by the people. During his time, the democratic institutions in the country were further dismantled. In the end, after the country’s democratic forces finally regrouped and the two dominant parties joined hands and went on to mobilize a national movement, Ershad’s regime was forced to hand over power after a long nine years of dictatorial rule.
Finally, after a national election, democracy was supposedly restored in the country in 1990. In this election Bangladesh Nationalist Party captured power. But since then power has been alternating between Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League, though the former has been in power longer. The many other political parties that operate in the country were relegated to a supporting position. Nevertheless, the fundamentalist Jamaat e Islami party has emerged to be the king maker. It has in the past tilted elections for both major parties by throwing its support behind them.
Prior to the 1990 election, both Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the two emerging dominant parties, underwent serious transformations. The assassinations of their dominant leaders had put them in a clear shambles. The party elders distrusted each other and couldn’t agree on who would succeed the assassinated leaders. When there is no intra-party democracy, no leader can emerge from within the party as the popular choice of rank-and-file party members. And in that vacuum, a relative unknown such as a family member of the assassinated leader becomes the only viable alternative. So as a compromise, Awami League inducted Sheik Hasina to take her father’s position and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party followed suit by inducting Khaleda Zia to fill her husband’s position, even though both ladies were considered to be politically inept. But what followed after their induction to the leadership positions has dramatically changed the political landscape in Bangladesh.
As expected, the unscrupulous politicians in each party raced to line up behind the two ladies in order to achieve personal gains. This inevitably gave the ladies a chance to gradually consolidate their power within their respective parties. By utilizing their newly found authority, they then started to put loyalists in key party positions. Obviously, it didn’t take too long for them to assume dictatorial power within their parties, whether in power or in opposition. At the same time, their tolerance for the democratic process also waned. Few party members dared to question their authority. Those who did faced the sack almost immediately.
Here’s how the two ladies have come to exercise their authority. Prior to an election they would allocate parliament seats usually to those who had money and muscle, and when victorious in the election they would distribute ministerial posts to their loyalists. Before an election they might routinely promise to decentralize government administration or make the judiciary independent, which are indeed vital for proper functioning of a democracy. But once in power they would ignore those promises. In fact, both ladies appear to be grooming their young sons to replace them when the time comes.
When Khaleda Zia came to power, she spearheaded legislation to officially recognize her late husband as the architect of the liberation of Bangladesh (which literally infuriated her opponents), wrote the country’s history in a biased form, intimidated the opposition in parliament and harassed them outside parliament in every possible way. She effectively put her young son in charge of key governmental decisions, especially the lucrative ones. The opposition led by Sheikh Hasina, on the other hand, responded by promoting strikes, disruption and violence in the country with the ultimate aim of bringing down the government.
When Sheikh Hasina regained state power, her first order of business was to eliminate General Zia’s name from every important place in Bangladesh, such as the national airport, university and park. She quickly rewrote the history books in her way, proceeded to intimidate the opposition in the parliament and harass them outside, and even closed a newspaper that was critical of her administration. She initiated legislation to return to the 1972 constitution, to repossess the house that Khaleda Zia resides in and was bestowed on her by a rival government, and to persecute the people who had opposed Bangladesh’s liberation movement but had been pardoned. The latter may turn out to be a difficult move since Saudi Arabia, which provides employment and financial support to Bangladesh also backs those who opposed the movement. In any case, the opposition party of Khaleda Zia has duly reciprocated by calling a national strike, promoting agitation and promising massive violence with the same idea of bringing down the government. While these kinds of tit for tat fights between the two parties go on, the country and the people suffer.
The moral fibers of both parties are fundamentally same, but for personal and selfish reasons they continue to treat each other as arch enemies. They do not see eye to eye, and cannot agree on anything, not even on how to run an election. Earlier they had both agreed to an unprecedented procedure of appointing a care taker government to run elections, but later they got locked in a deadly fight over the formation and functioning of the proposed caretaker government.
Thus, the evolution of democracy or the democratic process has remained an elusive matter for Bangladesh even after 38 years of independence. At the center of all these controversies are currently the two ladies who are running the two dominant parties. They are bent on destroying each other at any cost with the sole purpose of grabbing state power. As could be imagined, the economic and human cost of their infighting has been tremendous. For example, while other developing countries like Malaysia leap forward with huge economic success, Bangladesh with its abundant resources still remains a poverty stricken country while corruption and crime continue to rise. However, neither leader cares to understand the repercussions of their actions. It seems they just don’t care.
Arguably, Bengalis as a nation are considered to be intelligent enough to produce several Nobel laureates, but when it comes to governing themselves, they have failed, and failed miserably. This was as true when the land first came under foreign domination many years ago as it is true today. It’s indeed very unfortunate. To paraphrase the great poet, philosopher and Nobel laureate of the land – Bengalis (Bangalees) don’t learn!
The quality of democracy of a country depends on the checks and balances among its executive, legislative and judicial branches. And the press plays a very unique role in keeping these branches on their toes. Bangladesh’s democracy has failed to properly develop because of the lack of independence of the legislative and judicial branches and the press. But even under such constraints there may be some hope that democracy in Bangladesh would slowly improve. One good sign is that the military seems to be unwilling or unprepared to grab power. Although the present system promotes autocracy, it’s no longer absolute. The two dominant parties are putting some kind of checks and balances on each other, and the people are becoming more conscious of their rights and obligations because of the rise of the satellite TV and the Internet.
The international community has a great obligation to help Bangladesh to strengthen its democracy. If Bangladesh, the seventh largest country in population, turns into a failed state as a result of a collapse of its democracy, it would only bolster fundamentalism. The rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh would create a bigger mess than the world would care to handle. Also, expatriate Bangladeshis could play an important role. The expatriates by unequivocally rising above Bangladesh’s party politics and by taking a firm and united stand to promote democracy in their homeland could expedite the process.