Sunday, August 7, 2011

How democratic is Bangladesh?

The Independent
As I See It Column
August 6th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

If length of struggle is a major factor for establishing democracy in a society and country, then surely we should been at the top of such a list of democratic countries. We started this struggle to get rid of British colonialism and establish Pakistan in the 1940s. We then struggled against the Pakistani regime to establish democracy in what was then East Pakistan. In 1971, we created the independent nation of Bangladesh through a bloody war of liberation to achieve a democratic state.

Independence hardly helped the cause of democracy because in the last 40 years, we have continued this struggle. There were military regimes to fight against that made sense. What did not make sense is even when governments have been elected democratically, the opposition rejected the electoral verdict and have continued to fight against democratically elected governments to establish democracy! In fact, the struggle is still going on. The opposition BNP is leading this struggle, fighting to overthrow the ruling Awami League that has been elected freely and fairly.

Surprising as BNP’s struggle to establish democracy by overthrowing a democratically elected government may appear, it is not doing what has not been done in Bangladesh before. In fact, the BNP is merely carrying forward a tradition established by the Awami League that had carried out “democratic struggles” under both the last two BNP Governments that were also elected freely and fairly by the people. In between, the BNP also “struggled” for democracy when the AL was elected in 1996 in an election that too was held freely and fairly.

There has to be an explanation to this paradox. Indeed there is although it is very surprising that our civil society that has a major responsibility in explaining such matters has not tried to explain how it is possible for a country to struggle for establishment of democracy for so long and still be as far away from such an objective as it was when it started the journey many decades ago. More importantly, the civil society and researchers of our politics and governments have also failed to explain how there can be a fight for democracy against a government that is in power with people’s approval given in elections that have been free and fair.

The explanation lies in the nature of our politics. Take for instance the recent amendment brought to the constitution, the fifteenth amendment. The opposition parties that carry with it the support of half of the people of Bangladesh if not the majority have not been a part of the process of the amendment. The argument that they were invited but did not come is not one that will serve the cause of democracy because one fundamental principle of democracy is that it must reflect majority will. In constitutional maters, the majority is absolutely indispensible to give credibility.

Yet the ruling party went ahead and amended the constitution. When the opposition criticized it and rather bluntly and crudely, there were demands from the ruling party to try the critics on charges of treason because the 15th amendment incorporated such a provision. This provision makes our constitution unique because no constitution anywhere has anything like it. By this unique provision, the 15th amendment has taken away the right of criticism and dissent that are fundamental to establishing democracy. Those supporting to stop criticisms of the constitution an act of treason should spare a moment and think that poor England, that has given democracy to the world, does not even have a written constitution!

Over the last 2 decades, the two mainstream parties have shown zero tolerance to opposition and its views on any issue concerning the nation and its politics when it has been in power. In power, the ruling party has played the zero-sum game, rejecting any claim of the opposition parties to be a part of the process of governance. The absence of tolerance and the preference in the ruling party for the zero-sum game takes away from our politics two fundamental requirements for achieving democracy namely tolerance and the spirit of sharing.

The nature of politics is thus a major obstacle to the establishment of democracy in the country because it has also impacted adversely upon the building of institutions that are integral to making a democratic system sustainable. For example, as a parliamentary democracy, it is the parliament that should have been the most important institution for a democratic government in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, because of the nature of partisan politics, this institution that is the heart of parliamentary democracy is becoming weaker with successive elections.

A weak parliament that is getting weaker is driving politics to the streets in Bangladesh’s eternal struggle for democracy. To reverse the trend, the urgent focus should be to find a way out of the controversy now current in our politics about holding the next election. The two mainstream parties must find out a system of conducting the next parliamentary elections that does not allow partisanship to breed and in which the opposition parties have their concurrence. The ruling party’s prescription for next parliamentary elections to be held under it as an interim government has been rejected by the BNP. If the ruling party goes ahead with elections under an interim government, the country will have a lame duck parliament; a government without legitimacy and the country’s pursuit for democracy further away.

Therefore the parliament must be made functional by ending the controversy over the caretaker government versus the interim government. At the same time, serious and urgent consideration must also be given to change the system of elections. In a country where the two mainstream parties are divided almost half and half in their support among the people, the present system of once past the post is totally out of tune with the times and helps sustain the conflicting nature of our politics in the streets. For example, in 2001, with less than 1% difference in votes cast, the BNP won nearly 200 seats while the AL about 64! Likewise, with 34% of the votes cast in its favour in the last elections, the BNP just won 34 seats.

It is time for introducing a system of elections where the seats in parliament would allow the parties a proportionate number of seats. In our political culture, it is not a good idea at all for democracy to send a party to power with 2/3 or a 3/4th majority. It makes the winning party lose track of reality; that the parliamentary majority is nothing more than a virtual one; that amongst the people, the two mainstream parties are evenly supported. A proportionate number of seats would give the opposition a much larger number of seats to encourage them to use the parliament instead of the streets for the rights of the people and make the party in power responsible. For sake of democracy, we need to introduce some form of proportional representation to bring reality to the virtual nature of our politics.

Unfortunately, in the struggle mode for establishment of democracy, no one is concerned that the factors that would establish and sustain democracy do not exist here. Hence our struggle for democracy does not look like to end in any foreseeable future. Till then we would be fooling ourselves if we claim that we are a democratic country.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

1 comment:

omara said...

a very compelling argument for proportional representation. take heart, even in developed countries, changing the electoral system proceeds at a glacial pace. only recently have the lib dems in the UK managed to get a finger on the levers of power achieve PR. i can imagine the obstacles vested interests in BD will put up on the path to PR.