Quest for Democracy in Bangladesh

Dr. Tuhin Malik

Introduction

The quest for democracy in Bangladesh is moving in circles. The country gained its independence through both the democratic process and through war. During the four decades of its existence it has endured spells of military and non-military rules. Bang1adesh’s current debate of politics relates to the way the Caretaker Government (CTG), which started in 1991, raised issues of mistrust, suspicion, discord and enmity in politics. Such concerns have coloured Bangladeshi politics throughout the period to 2011, at which point the CTG was abolished.

Democracy in Bangladesh

Democracy is not a ‘yes or no’ question. It is complicated and changes with time. Bangladesh witnessed various types of governance including Parliamentary, Presidential, Caretaker Government (CTG) and Military form. Yet the country is in trial and error system of democracy. In Bangladesh, political organisations and government institutions are not following standard procedure. Country’s human Rights situation is a serious issue. Governance in Bangladesh lies with ruling party where opposition does not have a say. Always ruling party governed alone and opposition fights on the street. Both the parties demonstrate the same to meet their demand as opposition and oppose in same way while in the government. Bangladesh is a people’s republic, although people have only a say on the day of election every after 5 years. Bangladeshi people’s constitutional rights to practice democracy in each and every tier of the administration are yet to be achieved. After independence, democracy was buried by politicians and one party rule began. First leadership under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman amended the constitution to the one party rule with Presidential system in 1975. The authoritarian system curtailed people’s right, freedom and liberties with abolishment of democracy. Three main leaders Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhamrnd Ershad ruled the country from 1972 to 1990. Their founded parties Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Pary (BNP) and Jatiya Party (IP) are the mainstream parties in Bangladesh. Fourth biggest party is J amaat-e Islami. After Sheikh Mujib, Ziaur Rahman emerged as leader of the country and amended the constitution. In the backdrop of the political scenario of Bangladesh, country has been divided into two blocks. Although all the parties are more or less agreed that Bangladesh should be governed based on majorities opinion, value, belief and culture, still there is confusion on nationalism and belief. Awami League maintains relations with secularism and Islam as well as Bengalee and Bangladeshi simultaneously for mere political benefit to win over the voters. In Bangladesh democracy has been restored in 1991. Simultaneously, it is threatened by confrontational politics since then. To ensure neutrality and fairness in elections political parties agreed to introduce CTG system constitutionally in 1996. Bangladesh lacks parliamentary or joint ministerial responsibility. Rather it is termed as Prime Ministerial type of democracy which was inherited from earlier Presidential system. Parliamentary Standing Committees are almost non-functional. Constitutional bodies including Judiciary, Anti-Corruption Commission, Public Service Commission and Human Rights Commission became government tools instead of independent bodies. These institutions became more problematic in recent days. From 1991 to 2006 Under CTG Bangladesh made gradual progress in respect to participatory elections, peaceful power transfer to majority party and continued civilian rule. Within this period, the country organised three elections in 1991, 1996 and 2001 respectively. International elections monitors and observers certified them as free and fair polls. Then many factors including army and international involvement ensured peaceful transfer of power. Present political crisis started on 28 December, 1994 when after walk outs and long boycott as well as observing hartals and street agitation. Awami League led opposition parties MPs resigned from parliament. Followed by the election, the demand came from then opposition parties to incorporate CTG in the constitution. To solve the deadlock situation then there was a mediation effort from Commonwealth Secretary General, which failed finally. Then as the special envoy of the Secretary General former Governor General and Justice of Australia Sir Ninian Stephen came to solve that political crisis in vain. In that situation, opposition parties did not participate in the parliamentary election in 15 February 1996. Under the pressure from opposition, ruling BNP passed 13th amendment of the constitution on 26 March 1996, which introduced the Caretaker Government system during parliamentary election period. Under new system of non-party CTG the next election was held on 12 June 1996, where Awami League won. In the following elections of 2001 BNP and its allies gained a landslide victory. Awami League again started observing frequent hartals, agitation, boycott the parliament. AL was absent in parliament session of 2005 for 61 days out of 62 days. Main issues of that political movement were who will be the next CTG chief, who will be Election Commissioners and who will have the defence ministry during CTG period. Awami League and their allies organised countrywide blockade and violence with country made arms and weapons called ‘Logi’ ‘Boitha’ (indigenous stick and paddle used as weapons on the street) on 28 October which day was the last day of the BNP government’s tenure. Finally, army chief and his group took over power on 11 January 2007. Army chief failed to become the President of Bangladesh and had to go back to barrack after made a mess in Bangladesh governance. They tried to minus two top leaders, arrested hundreds of thousand leaders and made themselves involved in corruption instead of organise drive against this. Military-backed government ruled Bangladesh for two years and handed over power to Awami League through election. After two years of unconstitutional rule, missing, disappearance, abduction and killing of opponent are everyday picture. Thus Bangladeshi process of democratic consolidation has again in a critical juncture. A simple issue of free and fair election created this situation. The issue is the centre point of historical forces. It shaped the present politics of the country. Development partners are concerned for free and fair elections in Bangladesh and urged to have a mechanism to hold neutral and impartial administration to run the country during general elections and to stop human rights violation as well as political violence.

Fifteen Amendment of the Constitution

The two major parties have been at loggerheads over the nature of election- time government since the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment by the Parliament on June 30, 2011, which abolished the system of Caretaker Government (CTG) from our Constitution. It is clear that the Fifteenth Amendment is the source of the present political crisis. However, the amendment’s legitimacy is seriously in question. On May 10, 2011, the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court declared the CTG unconstitutional. The split decision also observed that the Parliament could, for the safety of the state and the people, keep the CTG for two more terms. It further recommended the abolition of the Parliament 42 days before the election. But the Awami League Government did not comply with that directions. Our Constitution, according to its Preamble, is ‘the embodiment of the will of the people of Bangladesh.’ Unfortunately we cannot say the same thing about the Fifteenth Amendment. It does not even reflect the will of the Committee members, all of whom belonged to Awami League or its allies, rather it is the result of the dictate of one person -the PM. Thus, the legitimacy of the Fifteenth Amendment is highly questionable. Even the legality of the Fifteenth Amendment is doubtful. Article 7B makes about 52 Articles out of 150 of our Constitution made unamendable. Though it is true that ‘No Parliament can bind the successor Parliament to amend the constitution’.

Prime Minister’s Unlimited Power

It sounds surprising, but truth is that the constitution has given the Prime Minister to stay in power unlimited time. Article 57(3) of the Bangladesh Constitution says, ‘Nothing in this article shall disqualify the Prime Minister for holding office until his/her successor has entered upon office’. As per Article 123(3) of the Constitution if voting takes place under the present government, newly elected MPs will have to wait for three months until their counterparts leave office on completion of their tenure. There will be two MPs in the same seat at the same time. Even during and after the election period, deputy commissioners, police supers and UNOs will hold their respective offices under this government. The election will be held by the present administration of all tiers. The Election Commission will have no scope to avoid the government’s directives. So, state partisanship is inevitable during the polls. On the other hand, the party other than the ruling one winning the polls will not be able to go to power unless the prime minister leaves the office willingly. It now seems that the government is cautiously treading the same path with the same formula for the yet-to-be held Dhaka City Corporation election. If anyone lodges a case with the Supreme Court, the schedule of the national election may get caught in the quicksand like the Dhaka City Corporation poll. Due to this complication, the court may issue a stay order over the election. As the PM will stay in power even after dissolving parliament, she can easily rule the country employing 10-15 unelected advisers at that time. In this way, the premier can keep a tenacious hold on power for some years or even till 2041 as her desire. If any question arises or even the matter comes to the court, it may be legalised as the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ by the court as the long-held last 1/11-time government (Army Backed Government during 2007-2009) got legitimacy in the same way. As there is no mention of the caretaker or interim administration in the constitution, and if there is no dialogue is held or a general consensus reached, certainly the government may follow this constitutional system. In this regard, the government can cash in on the existing constitutional method to avoid any election.

In 1975, the then Awami League government declared all the parliamentarians elected for next five years without holding any elections through the 4th amendment of the constitution. On this viewpoint, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was made life-time President sans polls. All those happened after amending the constitution.

When the 15th amendment ensures usurpation of power year after year without holding any elections, who cares about going for a democratic election?

Historical legacy

People of Bangladesh are almost homogeneous. The country has colonial legacy and the legacy of the war of secession. Bangladesh does not have any sectarian, ethnic or communal problems. But the society and its culture are politicised. Politics is based on grievances. There is no cooperation between rivalry political parties.

Awami League finds it difficult to recognise BNP as a legitimate contender. On the other hand, BNP observed that AL buried democracy with introduction of Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BKSAL) and BNP reintroduced multi party democracy with new birth of AL in Bangladesh politics.

Authoritarian governance

The ruling party undertakes repressive measures to opponents in the form of legal and police repression. Debate, discussion, compromise, understanding and accommodation between ruling and opposition parties are absent In Bangladesh. Moreover, a relationship of hatred in cyclic order between the political parties is manifested in Bangladesh politics.

Crisis of identity

Nation is divided on nationality issue. Awami League believes in Bengalee nationalism, language based nationalism. While BNP, JP and other parties believe in Bangladeshi nationalism, territorial nationalism. Basically, this created an identity crisis.

Enmity

The thoughts of Bangladesh’s top leadership have been dominated by a range of arrogance. Violence became one of the characteristics of the country’s politics. Enmity began with proclamation of independence in 1971. BNP has been observing that Major Zia declared independence when Sheikh Mujib was in Pakistani jail while AL does not want to give credit Zia. It made permanent division in political arena.

Violence

The hatred of political parties instigates violence in politics. Human Rights organisations often complain that the government is using state apparatus to repress opponents. Disappearances, abduction and killings added new phenomenon in Bangladesh politics. Using state machinery this sort of occurrence continues despite constant criticisms of the human rights organisations, donors and international organisations. Extortion and murder are also manifestation of violence. The former British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Stephan Evans stated, the politics of confrontation is the biggest threat to Bangladesh.

Hartal (General strike)

Hartal (General strike) is one of the major factors in Bangladesh politics since British period in India (1757-1947). This turned into violent shape in recent years. It causes confrontation between the parties. During various regime hartal has been a successful tool in ousting government. President Jimmy Carter of USA was assured by Bangladeshi political parties in 2001 that elections result will be accepted whatever the result would be and there will be no hartal. But later the thing went to the other direction.

Corruption

Corruption is another major problem for Bangladesh and an impediment towards development. Bureaucracy and judiciary are also affected by this. Reason of absence of rule of law in Bangladesh is massive corruption. Successive governments used Anti-Corruption Commissions for partisan interest. World Bank stopped a major project of Padma Bridge in Bangladesh recently for alleged corruption of government.

Politicisation of administration

Bureaucracy’s neutrality and faceless position has been questioned. Politics divided Bangladesh bureaucracy. Promotion is based on political loyalty. Opponent officers are made OSD (Officer on Special Duty) for political reason. Quality of bureaucracy and accountability has been affected by these malpractices.

Politically biased judiciary

Ruling party has controlled over all government machinery. Its excess influence over judiciary is another obstacle of good governance.

Unopposed Election

The unique nature of 10th national parliament is this: that more than half of the members were elected unopposed. The election was highly controversial and its credibility was questioned by national and international media and experts. More than half of the voting population could not vote in this election. The vote was boycotted in many places. Even where people did show up, the turnout was laughingly low at 5% only. So, the legal support for this parliament might be perfect on paper, but the real picture is different. This parliament does not have the vote of the people.

Illegitimate Opposition

Another reason why this parliament is unique is the absence of a legitimate opposition. It is customary for the head of the party to become the leader of the opposition. But the former president happily accepted an inferior post of ‘special ambassador for the prime minister’ while his wife became the leader of opposition. There are concerns that Ershad participating in the government might unfairly influence the Manjur murder case, in which he is an accused. Several government ministers are sitting in opposition. At the same time some of opposition members are ministers as well. Therefore, they work directly under the Prime Minster. Parliamentary rules don’t allow crossing floor, i.e. leaving one party on whose behalf a member was elected and joining the rival party in the parliament. It has become difficult to presume who will vote for which side; with one part of their allegiance to the Jatiya Party and the other to the government. JP MPs cannot be allowed to have two votes. This creates legal and procedural complexities and paradoxes.

Human Rights Violations

The future of Bangladesh is at a critical juncture. Gross injustices and human rights violations have engulfed the people of Bangladesh, led by the ruling Awami League. Under the government’s watch, democracy has merely been a facade for the real system of manipulation, pressure, violence, and entrenched authority. Around this time, the government also began to crack down on media critics. The government increased its control over all print and electronics media including online news websites, social media, and blogs. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission began shutting down opposition news outlets, charging editors with sedition and unlawful publication. Under the Cyber Crime Tribunals lots of peoples are convicted in recent time for expressing their thoughts and believe against Government. The Awami League has also orchestrated massive campaigns to destroy any opposition through unwarranted arrests and extrajudicial killings, utilizing the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The RAB is an anti-terrorism division within the Bangladesh Police that has carried out numerous illegal killings and unlawful acts, primarily against political opponents. It has been reported that 151 people were killed while protesting or responding to protests during the general elections. The subsequent sub- district elections also resulted in many deaths, and peaceful anti-Awami League protests were violently suppressed during elections by Bangladesh police forces in cities across the nation. Disappearances of opposition leaders orchestrated by the government have been denied and even blamed on the opposition parties themselves. It has been reported that Awami League supporters forcibly took over polling stations and prohibited pro- opposition polling agents from entering the facilities during multiple phases of sub-district elections, with security forces and local administration officials complicit in their activities. Political violence in Bangladesh accounted for the deaths of ensure the validity of new elections, international observers must be allowed to monitor the proceedings. Reforms must be made to the electoral system and judicial system as well. Furthermore, the Awami League needs to go beyond their electoral promises of bringing the RAB into check.

Conclusion

In the globalisation of politics, Bangladeshi political problems are now an international issue. Development partners and international agencies are concerned for Bangladesh’s democratic development, good governance and corruption issues. The international community must come together to urge for institutional and political reform if true democracy and good governance are to be realized.


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