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Rethinking democratic practice in Bangladesh

Sunday 16 February 2014, by siawi3

10 February 2014

Source: Dhaka Tribune, February 5, 2014

by Rehman Sobhan

Tragically, after 42 years as an independent nation state, our democratic aspirations still remain frustrated
The unifying thread running through Bangladesh’s 65-year existence since the end of British rule in India is the frustrated aspiration to establish a democracy of the people, by the people, for the people. This aspiration of the Bengalis remained frustrated during the entire tenure of Pakistani rule because its ruling elite recognised that democracy would relocate the balance of power in the hands of the people, of whom Bengalis constituted the electoral majority.

The consequential exposure to a decade of martial rule under Ayub Khan was purposely built to frustrate rule by and hence for the people which accounts for the widening economic divide between the East and West Wings of Pakistan. When after 22 years Pakistan’s first national election held out prospect of rule by the people, the rulers could not come to terms with the possibility that a regime of the people may pursue an agenda for the people which would prejudice the monopoly of resources captured by the elite.
The people of Bangladesh paid a heavy price for their democratic aspirations which could only be realised outside the state of Pakistan through a bloody war of national liberation with a massive cost in lives.
Tragically, after 42 years as an independent nation state, our democratic aspirations still remain frustrated. I will identify, rather synoptically, the principal sources of our frustration and conclude with some suggestions about where both political scientists and our political leaders may engage in some rethinking about our democratic practices and prospects:

1. We have yet to work out a universally acceptable arrangement for the conduct of elections.
Whilst our constitution mandates that we must always be ruled by elected people we have established, right down to the present day, a consistent record where no incumbent government has ever been displaced through an election overseen by an incumbent regime.
This suggests that no precedents have emerged on how the integrity of the electoral process can be assured under a regime whose continuation in office is at stake.
Our melancholy experience from the 1960s up to the end of 1990 inspired the quest for elections supervised by a non-partisan caretaker regime which, by definition, was unelected. By chance, coincidence, or perhaps design, four such elections held in 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2008 under a non-partisan caretaker government resulted in the incumbent regime being displaced by a party previously in opposition.
Regrettably, revealed experience could not be reconciled with the interpretation of our constitution by the judiciary so we returned to square one through enacting the 15th amendment to the constitution, abolishing the caretaker system of supervising national elections. Unsurprisingly, on January 5 of this year, the electoral outcome of the national elections remained consistent with the pre-1990 historical experience by once again returning an incumbent regime to office.
Today, 65 years after British rule and 43 years after independence, we remain compelled to rethink an appropriate format for overseeing elections which can reconcile constitutional law with historical experience. Any such rethinking will also have to take cognisance of our practice of caretaker governance and the various ways in which our fertile political minds can misuse the system for political gain.

2. Ensuring a government “by the people” through a system of free and fair elections does not ensure that the elected government will be made up “of the people.” We have much research evidence emerging from Rounaq Jahan’s recent work at CPD on the state of democracy in Bangladesh and indeed by other political scientists, that our parliaments are increasingly dominated by business people who buy their way into parliament or use their tenure in parliament to transform themselves into business persons. Consequently, parliamentary politics has assumed an instrumental character where government for the people is superseded by government by and for the few as was the practice under Pakistan rule.
Within such an exclusionary political landscape the weak, whether defined by income, gender, religion, or ethnicity who constitute the numerical voting majority, remain severely underrepresented in parliament which, by definition, can no longer ensure government by the people. A government of the elite can therefore hardly be expected to prioritise policies “for the people.”
What political scientists may therefore attempt to rethink is how, even where we can ensure a genuinely fair and participatory electoral process, a parliament which is more representative of the democratic majority can be established through the electoral process. This quest will not be unique to Bangladesh but may extend across South Asia and even into the United States where government of the affluent, by the affluent, in the name of the people, remains alive and protected by its Supreme Court.

3. We need to rethink the implications of constructing a democratic society where our principal political parties remain undemocratic in their representation, leadership, and practices. While it is convenient to fault the leaders for their undemocratic practices, the critical issue to be investigated is why and how second tier political leaders, party workers, many with long exposure to politics so readily abdicate their democratic responsibilities and remain slavishly bonded within an elective monarchy.

4. We finally need to rethink one of the more unique features of Bangladesh politics, the tribalisation of our political society where the fissures run as deep as the divide between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda. This divide has led to the breakdown of normal dialogue between the parties. The perpetuation of the culture of boycott by the parliamentary opposition, has rendered parliament dysfunctional over the life of four elected parliaments. Above all it has established and sustained the winner take all culture where winning and losing elections has become an existential concern in terms of livelihood, personal security, and even life and death. The exponential increase in violence in our political life is the immediate manifestation of this form of tribalised politics.

5. Finally we need to address a question which has surfaced more recently in Bangladesh but which has bedeviled most of the countries of South Asia, the emergence of violence as an instrument of political expression, particularly in the service of party, identity, religion, and ideology. Here we need to learn not just from regional experience but from the experiences around the world as to whether such violence can be ameliorated through a more inclusive political process or has to be fought to a bloody end.

None of the fundamental problems which have compromised the practices of democracy and are now emerging as profound structural weaknesses which threaten the very foundations of our democratic order, are unique to Bangladesh and infect the political cultures of most of our South Asian neighbours. A regional conversation on the rethinking of democracy across South Asia may prove to be an educational experience for scholars as well as practitioners. However, as a Bangladeshi who has invested five decades of my life participating in the elusive quest for a more democratic political order, my primary concern is to seek redress to the malfunction of politics in my own country.

I, or my generation, have obviously not been overly successful in establishing a government of the people, for the people, by the people. I hope that within your dialogue, you could contribute serviceable answers to the unresolved questions of our generation, which could ensure that Bangladesh’s imperiled democracy should not perish from our soil which has been fertilised with the blood of the many who have already perished in its quest.