Monday, January 18, 2010
Democracy Needs a Firm Footing
After many tempestuous years, democracy in the new millennium has gained a firm footing in the country. Analysts and politicians expect politics in the next 10 years to be different from what it has been. They think good governance and rule of law is the key to establishing a truly democratic Bangladesh.
Parliament must be the centre of all political activities.
Democracy in the last nine years has gone through many phases. There have been violent confrontations in the streets that led to the declaration of the State of Emergency and the rule of a non-elected caretaker government, which held power for two years. Even though power has been changed twice through elections, misgoverance and politicisation of the bureaucracy by the ruling parties have been rampant in the last 10 years. Bangladesh is still far away from establishing rule of law.
The biggest strength that democracy in Bangladesh can boast of is perhaps the huge support of the masses that it wields in its favour. In the last four general elections there have been a huge turnout of voters who waited patiently at the polling stations to exercise their right to vote. In all cases, anti-incumbency factor has been crucial for in all these four polls the voters have overwhelmingly voted for the party in opposition in the last parliament.
It also shows the disappointment that the masses have felt in their elected representatives. "In the last 10 years Bangladesh was in the process of democratisation, but we cannot say that the process had produced 100 percent successful return in so far as democracy is concerned," says Dr Syed Anwar Hossain, professor of History at Dhaka University.
Awami League MP Suranjit Sengupta agrees; he thinks the impediments that the country's beleaguered democracy faces now go back to the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. "I think our War of Liberation is an unfinished revolution," he says, "We were supposed to take the path of non-communal democracy, which was laid down in the constitution of 1971."
He thinks Bangabandhu was misdirected, deceived by the defeated forces of the war who eventually killed him along with his family members. "Since then our politics have been divided into two groups--pro and anti-liberation forces," he says, "Before 1975, the nation dreamt of a bright future, a non-communal democratic country free from exploitation, but with the murder of Bangabandhu, the country had moved towards the path of becoming a mini-Pakistan."
It is indeed heartening to see the Awami League government start the process of trying the war criminals along with bringing the perpetrators of all previous political killings to book. Having said that, it must adhere to the principles of rule of low and justice, without which it will be difficult to bring the country back to the track of good governance.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader MK Anwar does not see a bright future ahead as he thinks no one in the political establishment has the right mindset to run the political institutions in a democratic fashion. "There is no denying that our democracy is still in infancy," he says, "there are many things that need to be done to make democracy functional and I do not see them coming."
He says that during the first few days of the last caretaker government's regime, he saw some sense of optimism, but later, "within a very short time I was disillusioned." The reason he says, "Either they (the regime) could not identify their real task or they had some hidden agenda."
Anwar thinks political parties should practise internal democracy, which Suranjit says "a must to establish democratic values in all walks of life". He says that the country must reinstate its first constitution: " In the last elections there has been a mass upsurge and a verdict has been given to the Awami League to go back to the constitution of 1972. If we stick to the constitution of 1972 and step into the new decade, people will be reunited, economic emancipation will come. If the killers of Bangabandhu are hanged, it will be a fall of post-1975 politics, and if we do not lose our way, I think, we will be able to march forward because we have enough potential as a nation," Sengupta says.
Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of Dhaka University, however, considers intolerance the biggest enemy of democracy. "Both the political parties believe in 'if you are not with us, you are against us’ kind of ideology, and this harms good governance and rule of law dearly," he says, "and because of this culture of intolerance many a time dubious forces have cropped up to play a determining role."
He thinks true democracy is yet to take root in the country. "Whenever we want a complete functioning democracy, our politicians tell us that Bangladesh has its own version of democracy and we have to make do with it. I think this idea is flawed, democracy is a universal political idea, there can never be a 'different democracy', which is practised only in Bangladesh," he says.
Professor Anwar Hossainalso thinks some of the politicians are not capable of rising up to the challenges of the new millennium. "Some of the politicians are not at all attuned with the tenets of democracy and rule of law," he says, " The common people are democratically oriented; we have democratic rules in our past, in ancient times we had, however small, many democratic republics."
He says that Bangladesh has many expectations that have so far remained unfulfilled in so far as the role of politicians is concerned and in most of the cases the politicians have not been able to deliver. "The democratic norms and values and rules of the game are not properly followed by the politicians," he says.
MK Anwar says emphasis must be put on making the parliament effective. "Parliament has been used for mudslinging and character assassinations, and if it goes on, it will cease to remain an effective institution," Anwar says. He considers establishment of rule of law an integral part of democracy and says, "A democratic society is always guided by rule of law, in our life it has remained absent. The Awami League government has politicised bureaucracy in 1995; we have our fair share of blame too. But this should not have been done…"
Professor Imtiaz says politicisation of bureaucracy has been so widespread that it is lobbying and allegiance to the ruling party only that decides who is going to be the Vice Chancellor of a university or who will be made an Officer with a Special Duty in a particular ministry. Along with getting rid of nepotism and sycophancy, MK Anwar thinks the ruling party must recognise the role of the opposition party and give it its due honour to make parliament functional. "Along with this, the administration must be depoliticised, judiciary needs to work in a free and transparent manner," he says.
Professor Imtiaz says the politicians need to rise up to the occasion to make democracy work. "If we don't do this," he says, "We will remain a 'different democracy', and in such a warped political form of government, dubious forces can always raise their head." So far the Awami League, in its third term in office, has taken some significant steps to fix the anomalies that our politics have been riddled with. It has brought in new faces to the cabinet, and has given the post of chairman of different parliamentary standing committees to the opposition lawmakers. But the power of money and muscle that has made democracy dysfunctional in the pre-2001 politics still remains a significant force. Both the major political parties need to get rid of criminal elements in its fold and make room for young leadership to emerge.
At the beginning of its tenure the Hasina government failed to reign in on some of its young members who indulged themselves in manipulating government tenders and extortion. It needed the Prime Minister's intervention to stop these Chhatra League leaders from their dastardly acts. The biggest challenge that the new government has faced in its one-year tenure is the crisis centring on the mutiny of some members of the Bangladesh Rifles in which 58 army officers were murdered. The trials of the mutineers have already started and are expected to be finished soon.
The biggest test for democracy to work will be to make parliament effective through meaningful participation. This means the practice of boycott must be boycotted. Opposition parties have traditionally indulged in this punitive strategy at the cost of valuable taxpayers’ money and thwarting the support of their loyal voters. The ruling party Chief and Leader of the Opposition have the greatest responsibility of all, by burying their personal bitterness towards each other and bringing in a new era of healthy competition and unity when it comes to issues of national interest. Unless our politicians practise what they preach, democracy has a long way to go before it leaves its infancy.
The new government, which has won an electoral landslide in the last elections, also promises to bring a digital Bangladesh free from corruption and nepotism by the end of the next decade. Whether it sticks to it promises and leads the country to a prosperous future only time can tell.