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Bangladesh: 'Home-Grown' Democracy

With the military takeover of the country in 1975, liberal democracy saw an early death in Bangladesh. Since 1991, successive phases of the country's own "home-grown" version of democracy have been unhappy political experiments, with the two main opposition elements forming alliances with marginal and more radical parties. Even as violence increasingly mires the electoral process, democracy itself has had limited success in Bangladesh, choosing to benefit and "empower" a select few.

BANGLADESH

‘Home-Grown’ Democracy

With the military takeover of the country in 1975, liberal democracy saw an early death in Bangladesh. Since 1991, successive phases of the country’s own “home-grown” version of democracy have been unhappy political experiments, with the two main opposition elements forming alliances with marginal and more radical parties. Even as violence increasingly mires the electoral process, democracy itself has had limited success in Bangladesh, choosing to benefit and “empower” a select few.

MOAZZEM HOSSAIN

I
n present-day Bangladesh, the term “democracy” has lost almost all of its liberal characteristics and has been bestowed with some new names: moderate Muslim, predatory, home-grown and so on. It is, however, as a liberal democracy that the nation began its journey as an independent state in 1971. After 1975, liberal democracy completely disappeared from Bangladesh following the many military coups and counter coups, when military-cum-civilian politicians grabbed power. The military-led rule, ended when people power toppled H M Ershad from government in 1990. In 1991, the nation once again embraced liberal democracy with the adoption of a Westminster style parliamentary form of governance. With the exception of the current government (since 2001), 1991 onwards the nation has witnessed two democratically elected governments led by the two major parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL). In the 2001 general elections, the BNP formed the government with an alliance of three minor parties. In this paper, the aim is first, to examine the term “democracy” in the present context of Bangladesh, and secondly, to argue how major political parties deliberately or otherwise have humiliated and mutilated the rules of “liberal” democracy in the last 15 years.

Before addressing the aims of this commentary as mentioned above, let us define the meanings of “democracy” in Bangladesh’s current context: Liberal democracy: Grugel (2002), provided a minimalist definition, “Democratisation is the regular holding of clean elections and the introduction of basic norms (for example, the absence of intimidation, competition from at least two political parties, and an inclusive suffrage) that make free election possible. A slightly more inclusive definition would also encompass the introduction of liberal individual rights (freedom of assembly, religious freedom, a free press, freedom to stand for public office and so on).” If one takes this theoretical interpretation of a liberal democracy into consideration, by all measures it is evident that at present, Bangladesh is nowhere near to attaining all these democratic values. Moderate Muslim democracy: Former president of the US, Bill Clinton, paid a state visit to Bangladesh in 2000. During his visit Bill Clinton dubbed Bangladesh a moderate Muslim democracy (MMD). Conceptually, there is no place for such a term in the literature of democracy, except that the US awarded this so-called honour to Bangladesh because, as a Muslim majority nation, the country has had two women leaders (Islam does not recognise female leadership), who in turn have served as prime minister and opposition leader from 1991. The US sees both Turkey and Indonesia as moderate Muslim democracies since these countries have, in the past, had female heads of governments. George W Bush’s current administration maintains a similar view on MMD. Predatory democracy: According to Robison (2002), predatory democracy is designed to preserve the existing power structures. In Indonesia, he observes, “[t]he new democracy is dominated by the same broad alliances and coalitions of state power and social interest that dominated the Suharto regime”. One could also argue that Bangladesh has been following in Indonesia’s footsteps. The predatory form of democracy has made Bangladesh politics one for elites. It appears that almost four-fifths of the nearly 300 members of the current parliament come from an established business and military background. In the past, this figure was approximately three-fifths. The major reason for such a transformation has been due to the keenness on the part of both the BNP (to a greater extent) and the AL (to a lesser extent) to nominate those candidates in the general elections who have the capacity to spend large sums of money in the electioneering process. ‘Home-grown’ democracy: The literary meaning of this term is obvious to all; some things that are grown on home soil or produced without copying or influence from outside. It can, however, safely be said that Bangladesh is no longer either an MMD or a predatory democracy. It has cultivated its own style of democracy, brought in progressively by the BNP government between 1991 and 1996, the AL government (1996-2001) and the BNPalliance from 2001 to the present.

In the next section, an attempt has been made to illustrate Bangladesh’s homegrown democracy based on a politics for the elite, which the country has witnessed in the last 15 years.

Home-Grown Democracy

Let us identify first the major features of the home-grown democracy that has evolved out of the so-called democratic practices since 1991: parliamentary democracy has been largely ineffective; religion has become part of the democratisation process under the present BNP-alliance government, compromising and, in some cases, destroying the liberal process; power has been concentrated in the hands of the prime minister due to the incompetence of some ministers; civil and police administrations have been politicised, creating a major crisis in maintaining law and order; the armed forces have a role in keeping election-related violence under control; and minorities and political opponents have been persecuted and stripped of their rights and in some cases even assassinated [Hossain 2003]. With these non-liberal features becoming normative in Bangladesh’s democracy, one sees that this style of democracy has grown out of Bangladesh’s own soil.

How has the nation arrived to this point? The major sources are not difficult to identify; one has to examine the three democratically elected regimes that came

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006 into being after the 1990 people’s power movement: the BNP regime (1991-96), the AL regime (1996-2001) and the BNPalliance regime (2001-present). BNP regime (1991-96): The people’s power of 1990 brought the BNP into government after the general elections held in early 1991. The first five-year term of Khaleda Zia as prime minister was marred by unprecedented political unrest and chaos after the BNP was elected to power. The unrest was triggered by the government’s unnecessary manipulation of a by-election outcome at Magura. The first government of Khaleda Zia was also at loggerheads with opposition AL, on the outcome of two more by-elections held at Manikgonj and Mirpur. By this time, the AL realised that the incumbent BNP was not genuine in its resolve to institute a liberal electoral process, and thus the opposition resorted to violent protest and general strikes (numerous hartals) against these undemocratic gestures by the incumbent government. Magura, Manikgonj and Mirpur byelections have been considered as signalling the beginning of the end of liberal democracy in Bangladesh. As a result, seeds were sown of Bangladesh-style home-grown democracy. It remains a mystery, why the BNP as a popular party in 1991 made such a move to crush the opposition. Even if these by-elections were lost, the party in no way would have lost its majority in parliament. AL regime (1996-2001): Khaleda Zia’s government, however, paid a heavy price in the next general elections held in 1996. The BNP was thrown out of office and the AL came to power with the support of two minor parties (those of former president H M Ershad and civil politician A S M Rob). The AL government led by Sheikh Hasina, although did make some progress in bringing political turmoil under control, her government behaved in exactly the same way as the BNP in rendering the whole by-election process farcical. Again, it has remained a mystery why a popular and relatively democratic party such as the AL needed to imbibe its predecessor’s undemocratic actions. BNP-alliance regime (2001-present): In the 2001 general elections, the AL faced much the same music as had the BNP in 1996. The BNP-alliance unseated the AL from office by bagging a two-thirds majority in parliament. It was an unprecedented defeat for the AL. In the present term (2001-06) the alliance has introduced a new dimension to home-grown democratic practices. It is now well known that the so-called ‘hawa bhaban’ (incumbent PM’s political office) plays an important part in the affairs of the alliance government. The opposition even claims that this bhaban (run by the kith and kin of the PM Khaleda Zia and her associates) allegedly runs a parallel administration. This has been, however, denied by the BNP.

Role of Radical Islam

Although the present government is regarded as a four-party alliance government, in practice, the BNP and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) have been in the seat of power over the last four years. In the cabinet, JI has only two members but it has two very important portfolios. Without doubt, due to its so-called vital vote banks and a strong network of workers, JI has been rewarded generously by the BNP after 2001 election.

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Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

Given the recent spate of suicide bombings and the suspicions of the JI’s alleged involvement, an influential quarter within the BNP demanded severing all ties with the fundamentalist party for the greater interest of the nation.

In democracy, liberal or otherwise, coalition of like-minded parties is not new. In this regard, the world’s largest democracy, India, immediately comes to mind. One sees a parallel in Bangladesh since 2001. The coalition government of the NDA led by Atal Behari Vajpayee had Hindu fundamentalists (MPs from Shiv Sena, for example) in his cabinet. Perhaps, the BNP taking a leaf from the rise of the BJP formed a coalition with Bangladeshi Muslim fundamentalists, JI, to win the Bangladesh election of 2001. The present crisis created by the JMB (a fundamentalist splinter group in Bangladesh), however, raises a question: like BJP, is the BNP-JI coalition destined to collapse after one term? Before addressing this question, we need to revisit the issue of the JI’s gaining legitimacy in the politics of Bangladesh, as it has been seen as an antiliberation Muslim fundamentalist since group 1971.

Needless to say, the JI came to prominence in the political radar of Bangladesh during the movement against the autocratic regime of president H M Ershad in the late 1980s. One does not forget that both the BNP (to a greater extent) and the AL (to a lesser extent) gave JI recognition as one of the partners in the people power movement. However, it is the BNP which came close to JI politics after the 1991 general elections when with the support of this party, Khaleda Zia first won power in 1991. The BNP-JI affinity between 1991 and 1996 did not survive since JI sided with the opposition movement against Khaleda Zia’s the then government in boycotting the “voterless” elections of February 1996. What does this mean? Through direct participation in the two popular movements (1990 and 1996) over 10 years, JI had cultivated and won the hearts and minds of so-called secular leaders. Eventually, Khaleda Zia honoured JI by inviting them as a major coalition partner in the 2001 election.

The warm-up for the next general election has already begun in earnest. The two major parties have been wasting no time in forming a coalition of like-minded people to fight the 2007 election. The AL has already formed a 14-party coalition and the BNP-JI alliance has declared that they are going to expand their own coalition further. The second largest opposition party, Jatya Party (JP Ershad), appears to be the likely beneficiary of such an expansion. In other words, if elections take place as scheduled in early 2007, the nation will be divided into two major political camps: a coalition led by the AL and an alliance led by the BNP.

Having said that, there is a new deadly equation that has surfaced in the political arena with the recent virulent campaign waged by the Islamists and the PM taking a hardline position against the opposition as seen from her recent public speeches. Under these circumstances, it looks like 2006, is going to be a violent year in the history of the nation. On reflection, already much blood has been shed in Bangladesh in the last half a century so that there is no parallel in any other part of the subcontinent.

The last 15 years of democratic rule has taken more lives than the preceding 15 years of authoritarian rule (1975-90). So is H M Ershad having the last laugh now? He may be even aspiring a come back since he can see now that the nation is in such a mess through the hands of democratically elected leaders that the electorate might have a second thought about the future. Moreover, he knows well that of the last 15 years of so-called democracy, the last four years have been the worst. The nation saw a violent retaliation by the winning alliance against the voters from minority groups and opposition immediately after the 2001 election. Next, statesponsored initiatives like “Operation Clean Heart” (so-called victims of heart attacks), RAB, Cheeta, Kobra (so-called victims of crossfire) have been institutionalised to gag criminals but also to punish opponents.

Future of Democracy

Outside these operations, there have been sporadic deadly incidents involving bomb and grenade attacks against leaders and workers of the main opposition party as well as a Bangladesh born UK diplomat. And, the campaign of Iraq-Afghan style suicide bombings for no apparent reasons has been orchestrated allegedly with the support of an arm of the JI.

Why does violence persist in democratic practice? It has been argued elsewhere that crime, cadre and corruption (the “triple-C”) are synonymous with Bangladesh’s democracy [Hossain 2005].

Under this democracy, a minister never loses his/her job even when caught redhanded as a godfather in disguise or as looter of the nation’s wealth in broad daylight. For ministers, and government party law-makers, the world appears as “free for all”. No wonder, the Germanbased Transparency International (TI) has branded Bangladesh as the world’s top corrupt nation for the last consecutive five years.

This was not why the people fought a liberation war in 1971 or protested for the removal of the authoritarian rule in 1990. After all these sacrifices, what the nation gets is more and more political godfathers, their bloodthirsty cadres and mindless corruption. It is not inappropriate to say that the politicians have been treating the people in contempt for too long and a deadly game of politics has engulfed the nation.

In conclusion, this time next year, if the general election is held as scheduled, the nation will see either a new government led by the AL or a re-elected one led by the BNP. The second largest opposition party, Ershad’s, Jatiya Party (JP), is unlikely to lead an alliance that is capable of winning the election in its own right. It, however, cannot be ruled out that the JP could play a major role in forming the next elected government. What has happened in the last four years to ensure democracy’s end has been unprecedented. It is now clear that Bangladesh has to live under the rules of civil politicians, a “sort of democracy” currently enjoyed by Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf. The liberal democracy dream has been dashed at least for the time being.

EPW

Email: m.hossain@griffith.edu.au

References

Grugel, J (2002): Democratisation: A Critical

Introduction, Palgrave, London, p 5. Hossain, M (2003): ‘Development Through

Democratisation and Decentralisation: The

Case of Bangladesh’, South Asia: Journal

of South Asian Studies, Vol XXVI, No 3,

pp 297-308.

  • (2005): ‘Coalition in Crisis?’, The Daily Star (a Dhaka based daily), December 11, Dhaka.
  • (2006): ‘Deadly Game of Politics’, The Daily Star, January 2, Dhaka.
  • Robison, R (2002): ‘What Sort of Democracy? Predatory and Neo-Liberal Agendas in Indonesia’ in C Kinnvall and K Jonsson (eds),

    Globalisation and Democratisation in Asia: The Construction of Identity, Routledge, London, p 93.

    Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

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