‘Finding the People’ in Bangladesh’s Democracy

By Palash Kamruzzaman

I was invited to join a panel discussion at the British House of Lords (28 October 2014) titled a ‘Discussion about democratic collapse as a result of unfair one sided national elections in Bangladesh’. The following summarises the main points I raised there.

Despite severe mistrust among the political parties, since 1990, Bangladesh has been governed by democratically elected governments under a ‘caretaker government’ system. Members of caretaker governments came from supposedly ‘non-political’ backgrounds. Those with some knowledge of Bangladesh would likely to agree that these elections have been more credible even though the ruling parties attempted to manipulate the system.

However, this system was nullified by a constitutional amendment prior to the last general election in January 2014. The opposition alliance argued that the election would not be fair and hence boycotted it. As a result 154 MPs (out of 300) were elected without any contest and a very low voter turnout for other seats- sceptics say 5%, while the election commission claim it was about 40% . The government insists that due to constitutional obligations an election had to take place, while on the other hand, former opposition alliance is still demanding for a fresh election under a caretaker system and claiming that this is now an illegitimate government

My concern was whether the general public’s views are being heard by the politicians especially when democracy is all about people (one can remember Lincon’s most cited statement ‘democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people) This topic is pertinent in a context where the Prime Minister (PM) along with a number of other ministers are arguing that international community have approved Bangladesh’s current government as a democratically elected one. On the other hand, leaders of the former opposition alliance are claiming that the international community has refused to acknowledge the present government and hence they have no right to remain in power and a fresh election is needed. Whose views matter most? The people of Bangladesh or the international community?

A trawl of online newspaper reports and the reactions to them reflects the concerns of citizens. In one case, the PM was quoted saying that Bangladesh is now being governed by an elected government which is being recognised all over the world. It will function according to its manifesto (Deshe ekhon nirbachito shorkar ebong eta shara bisshe shikrito. Ishtehar onujayee desh cholbe). It elicited the following comments:

You are being elected by whose vote? When and where did the public get the chance to cast their votes?”

“‘People have given you the mandate’ – why this needs to be told repeatedly both at home and abroad?”

What percentage of total population are you actually representing? Even though according to your manifesto your party intends to ensure the rights for vote and food (vote ebong bhat er odhikar)”.

The government’s claim for being democratically elected got further impetus when two Bangladeshi MPs were elected as Presidents of the Inter-Parliamentary Association (IPA), and Commonwealth Parliamentary Associations (CPA). Interesting comments were posted for this news (25 October 2014) too:

“How a country that does not have democracy for itself will lead the global democratic alliance?”

There is no need to be elected within the country. Certificates from international community or being elected in the international forums seem to be sufficient to claim to be democratic – funny indeed!”

In contrast to these comments it is also worth looking into what people were saying about the views coming from the opposition. On 23 October 2014, it was reported that the leader of the former opposition alliance claimed that the international community has not recognised the current government (Ei shorkarke bideshe keu shikriti dey ni). Here are some selected comments in response to this statement:

Why do you bring the issue of being ‘recognized’ by foreign governments? Bring forward what the people of Bangladesh want.

When you say this is an illegal government – it sounds contradictory. Did you not realise this matter when you decided to take part in local district (upazila) election under this very government?”

It does not matter if nobody recognizes this government. A country’s sovereignty may need to be recognized by the international community, but not the government of a sovereign state. Every country is maintaining a business as usual relationship with Bangladesh.”

Above comments highlight an elevated level of political awareness from a section of Bangladeshi people. Flagging up these comments from citizens , in my presentation I questioned the intention of organising such a seminar at the British House of Lords. It was organized by a Lord and a number of UK MPs, a British lawyer engaged in Bangladesh’s war crime tribunal, and foreign NGO workers working came to participate. Indeed apart from the Chairman of the organising body, I was the only Bangladeshi speaker to talk about its democracy!

The main debate involved the role of the international community how it can influence or broker a fresh election. I questioned whether the international community would force or even create pressure for a new election. International community can of course play a facilitating role, encouraging all major parties to sit on the discussion table to ensure that elections are convened timely and regularly in a politically neutral environment in order to avoid unnecessary loss of lives and properties in violent political programmes. My contention is that democracy has to be built from inside – not to be imposed or approved by external actors. In Bangladesh the later seems to be the case where major political parties need to be blessed by global/regional super powers and political leaders are more busy in convincing their foreign patrons instead of paying attention to public demand.

To illustrate, even there is a fresh election this hardly seems the vehicle for establishing real democracy in Bangladesh? What assurance is there that a fresh election will reflect the desire of country’s people? How do we know that some of the ongoing irregularities those are emphasised in this seminar (i.e. poor governance, extra judicial killings, lack of social justice, corruption, favouritism, nepotism, extortion etc. – indicating that these are happening because an ‘unfairly elected’ government) will not happen when a new government will be in the office? Do the political parties have specific policies to curb corruption, make country’s economy more people oriented, ensure people will get job according to their merit not because of their party allegiance or social and political networks? Will immigrants have any voice or role in country’s development while their remittance is the second biggest contributor of the national economy? What specific measures would be taken to make the educational institutions safe, prevent people from being burnt at the garment industries and during hartals? Are we aware of any concrete policies from major political parties on these issues? The answer is a simple NO. Bangladeshi voters are not persuaded by party policies. Instead, i) failure of past government and consequent frustration of people; and ii) empty rhetoric from the political parties those superficially tend to deal with the issues I have highlighted above seem to play key roles in determining who will get vote.

In my view it is only Bangladeshi’s themselves who can address this situation. Elections are not the solution…..Bangladesh alone has to walk the path. Knowing the path and walking the path are different – like rhetoric of democracy and having democracy are different. When people’s voices and desires are not part of the political parties’ agenda then a meaningful democracy seems more like a pipedream and unfortunately the public in Bangladesh do not play as big as a role they can play in consolidating its democracy. People’s voice matter most in democracy as it is clear from another comment posted by a reader in response to PM’s news:

In our country when one party get the assurance of being in power for long term members of that party do whatever they want in an autocratic manner. We may not have other rights, but we have to have the voting rights. Other rights are about services, but without voting rights our lives will be unbearable/intolerable.”

People are voicing their views clearly, but political leaders of Bangladesh are not listening?

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