A Westminster-type democracy?

Brig Gen (Retd) Shamsuddin Ahmed

Sadly enough, democracy has remained a far cry in this country. While political power has practically see-sawed between the BNP and the AL, the pattern of their rule has remained the same

  • How similar is our democracy to Great Britain’s?

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during her recent visit to the UK, said Bangladesh was following the Westminster type of democracy, ie the British model. She also said it was a difficult job following such a style of democracy, and that we were improving, but gradually. She made these observations at a reception at the office of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, UK Chapter, at the British parliament, on June 15.

Now, this sort of statement by our visiting prime minister may have gone down well with the people of Great Britain, who may not know exactly how democracy is functioning here in Bangladesh.

But can the democracy-loving people of Bangladesh take to heart what our prime minister had said?

True, soon after our independence in 1971, we opted for parliamentary democracy and the government, headed by Bangabandhu as prime minister, was something this nation was proud of. Here was the man we loved and admired for having led us to our freedom and independence. Here was the man who epitomised democracy and the democratic aspirations of our people. Here was the man who came back to freedom from captivity in Pakistan.

But the euphoria did not last long. Barely three years of democracy, and our leading players in politics grew wary of it. Ironically, it was Bangabandhu who soon got disenchanted with democracy and who drove the first nail in its coffin by introducing BAKSAL, a one-party rule. He became the most powerful individual in the country, with all the powers the state could bestow upon a ruler. Then followed a nightmarish and tragic interregnum.

Finally, with the fall of Lt Gen HM Ershad, the despicable autocrat and impostor, in December 1990, a new era of politics began, with parliamentary democracy being institutionalised once again in this country. It has been more than two decades now since our second journey on the road to democracy began.

But sadly enough, democracy has remained a far cry in this godforsaken country. While political power has practically see-sawed between the BNP and the AL — the pattern of their rule has remained the same.

While in power, both have preferred to rule the country like Ershad had done for nine long years. All sane voices of dissent have been systematically stifled. Both have demonstrated sheer arrogance of power and a pathological distaste for rule of law and functioning democratic institutions. They have politicised, by turn, the police, the civil bureaucracy, the Election Commission , the Public Service Commission, and even the judiciary.

While in power, both have tried to whittle down the opposition to the extent that it becomes so effete that it can never challenge the government, either in the parliament or on the streets. While out of power, both have gone flat out in destabilising the country through repeated hartals and agitations on the streets.

Both have sought to render the parliament dysfunctional by continuous boycott of parliamentary sessions for months and years, without forsaking their perks and privileges, including pay and allowances.

The present government is indeed a queer Westminster-type democracy that she has laboured hard to improve upon. It came into being following the January 5 parliamentary election in 2014, which was boycotted not only by the BNP-led alliance, but by all the opposition political parties.

In 153 constituencies in a 400-seat parliament, voters did not have to cast their votes to elect their representatives because the AL-led alliance had put up a single candidate in each of these constituencies, and they were declared elected, unopposed, by the EC. The magic figure of 153 MPs elected unopposed cannot but raise curiosity because a political party needs just about 151 MPs to form the government.

The election in the remaining constituencies was marred by various irregularities and a very low turnout of voters for obvious reasons. The election apart, the government has an array of unelected advisers enjoying status and privileges of cabinet ministers. Besides, the parliament puts forward the Jatiya Party as an opposition party, led by Ershad, sharing power with the government.

While Rowshan Ershad enjoys the status of the leader of the opposition in the parliament, three Jatiya Party MPs are cabinet ministers.

Ershad himself is a special envoy of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, enjoying the status and privileges of a cabinet minister. The Jatiya Party is reportedly clamouring for more seats in the cabinet.

It is indeed a queer version of democracy.

Source: Dhaka Tribune


  1. A very candid statement no doubt. A very well written piece, thanks to the author.

    But honestly, do we (ordinary people/voters ) have a choice ? Is there a way out for the better ?? I have my doubts.

  2. Dhaka tribune readers & the author will find fol attached article interesting :

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015

    by F R Chowdhury

    All his life, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman fought for the rights of his
    people. He spent many years in jail. So much so that after futile
    negotiation with General Yahiya Khan, he was arrested and sent to jail
    in West Pakistan. The people of Bangladesh initiated the war of
    liberation as soon as the Pakistan Army started with their operation
    “search light” to kill and terrorise the people into submission.
    Eventually truth prevailed and Bangladesh won its independence on 16th
    December, 1971 when about one hundred Pakistani troops surrendered.

    On 10th January 1972 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to independent
    Bangladesh to become its first President. To play a more active role,
    he soon became the prime minister. Then he again became the president
    with all executive powers. He was never directly elected by the people
    as executive president. This was certainly not in conformity with
    democratic system and procedures. Soon people came to know other side
    of Sheikh Mujib that he could not tolerate any dissent. The man who
    fought all his life for democracy suddenly killed democracy by
    introducing one-party system. Anyone who opposed him or had different
    views was put behind bars. All news papers were banned except four
    controlled by the government. Those papers were full of praise for him
    and he was surrounded by cronies who also shielded him from the real
    world. By then Mr. Tajuddin, under whose leadership the nation fought
    the war of independence and Gen. Osmani, the Commander of Bangladesh
    Forces were both sidelined. When people were dying on the streets, he
    travelled to Canada for Commonwealth Conference with live “Koi” fish
    in water jars.

    It all came to an abrupt end when he was killed with most of the
    family members on August 15, 1975. Two daughters Hasina and Rehana
    survived because they were abroad. Since then Bangladesh politics
    witnessed so many turns and twists. President Ziaur Rahman restored
    multi-party democracy. On his request Dr. Kamal Hussein and Abdur
    Razzak went to India to convince Hasina that it was safe for her to
    return Bangladesh. She returned and was immediately made the party
    chief. President Ziaur Rahman was mysteriously murdered by a group of
    army officers soon after Hasina and Ershad both returned from India.
    Sheikh Mujib’s daughter Hasina eventually again (second time) became
    prime minister in 2009 following a long period of emergency rule by
    military backed civilian care-taker government.

    She started with her father’s unfinished job in a planned manner.
    First and foremost was to remove the provision of care-taker
    government so that all future elections would be under her control. In
    the mean time she concentrated all her energy to control and dominate
    the civil administration and judiciary so that she can use them to
    manipulate all future elections. The independent minded officials were
    made OSD (Officer on special duties) with no duties or functions and
    then retired. Officials loyal to the party were promoted. New
    recruitments were also confined to party loyal. All cases against BAL
    party officials and workers were withdrawn on the plea of being
    politically motivated. Most of those connected with the killing of
    Sheikh Mujib were hanged. Popular leaders of Jamat-e-Islami have been
    charged with war crimes and a few have already been hanged. Thousands
    of cases have been filed against BNP (Bangladesh Nationalists’ Party)
    leaders’ right up to Upozilla level. Hundreds of BNP leaders and
    workers have been taken into police custody. BNP offices have been
    locked and police posted outside. The judiciary is not far behind to
    claim their position as high court judges have been issued with show
    cause notice by Supreme Court because of their remarks on certain
    judgements and verdicts. There is no discipline in any quarter.

    Prime Minister Hasina conducted 2014 general election under her own
    control which was boycotted by most of the political parties including
    BNP. 153 BAL candidates were elected unopposed. The BAL achieved their
    planned majority even before a single vote was cast. In the remaining
    seats, not even 10% votes were cast. This was the greatest mockery of
    democracy where an illegal government was installed in power in the
    name of democracy. The BAL government presented the biggest surprise
    by having a leader of the opposition from a party whose members are
    also serving the government as cabinet ministers. These are new
    definitions of parliamentary democracy.

    On the first anniversary of the disgraced election when the opposition
    parties were planning public demonstration to demand fresh election
    under a care-taker government, the government clamped down on
    opposition activities in a very harsh manner. The government never
    gave permission to opposition parties for public meeting or rally when
    the government party BAL were openly on the streets with sticks and
    banners to show their strength. More BNP leaders were arrested and
    involved in imaginary cases. BAL thugs were involved in burning and
    looting including use of petrol bombs to blame BNP. They tried to
    create a situation as if Bangladesh was also under terrorists attack.
    The diplomats at Dhaka knew very well that the drama was orchestrated
    by BAL to foil the movement for democracy. The conveyed the real
    picture back to their countries.

    Eventually the government was forced to declare city elections in
    Dhaka and Chittagong. They had to lift the blockade on Khaleda and BNP
    offices. However, when Khaleda went to campaign in support of their
    candidate, she came under attack by BAL criminals. She narrowly
    escaped death or injury though several vehicles were badly damaged.
    She was advised by the Election Commission not to go for election
    campaign with motorcade but very next day the BAL supported candidate
    had a bigger rally of motors. It was double standards in every sense.

    The present government has been using police, civil administration and
    judiciary to achieve their political goals. Loyal servicemen are
    suitably rewarded. They got a students’ wing whose main function is to
    convert the students to their line of thinking that is to sing and
    praise the Awami League and Sheikh family. They also got a labour wing
    whose function it is to ensure that proper trade union for the cause
    of working people can never flourish in Bangladesh. The Chatra League
    and Sramik League work together to terrorise the peaceful people of
    Bangladesh with the full support of police and other law enforcement

    Recently during the Bengali New Year celebrations, a number of young
    ladies were molested near to the Dhaka University campus by hooligans.
    Video clips were shown on TV screens. Pictures were published in
    newspapers. People in Bangladesh and even those abroad have seen
    evidence of those disgraceful crimes. Yet, one Mr. Monirul, Deputy
    Commissioner of Metropolitan Police said he was not aware of any such
    incident. He had to say so because the criminals were members of the
    Chatra League, the pride product of BAL. When the pressmen asked the
    Deputy Home Minister about the brutal attack on Khaleda’s motorcade,
    he said that he was waiting for a report. The prime minister gave a
    better justification by saying that people were taking revenge as if
    it was not government’s responsibility to control mob violence and
    provide security. She is caught in her own words. It was about the
    same time that robbers killed eight persons while looting a bank. So
    is the law and order situation. Police are now busy establishing the
    link between the robbers and terrorists. We shall not be surprised to
    see another case against Khaleda. An alleged injured robber was lying
    in hospital bed and was being questioned by journalists – what a
    mockery of justice! And our Chief Justice had nothing to say.

    Apart from BNP, Hasina is also busy on another front. The Nobel
    Committee did not recognise her good work and instead awarded the
    peace prize to Dr. Yunus. His theory of micro-credit and self-reliance
    has gained huge popularity all over the world. He is now a better
    known Bangladeshi than anyone else. This is not acceptable to Hasina.
    She has engaged all agencies at her disposal to find some irregularity
    to disgrace Professor Yunus. All officials eager to find her favour
    are now busy to find something against him. Finally they may succeed
    in creating something in their laboratory. Whatever they do, Dr. Yunus
    and Sir Fazle Hassan Abed will remain the pride of Bangladesh.

    Dhaka and Chittagong city polls proved once for all that no free and
    fair election can be held under the present BAL government headed by
    Hasina. The Chief Election Commissioner whom people used to consider
    as a silent supporter of BAL also got disgusted with BAL hooliganism
    and told the pressmen to write the truth. The US Ambassador at Dhaka
    deplored the way voting stations were occupied by BAL activists. Now
    everybody realises how justified Khaleda was to boycott the 2014
    election. Human right, justice, good governance and democracy can be
    restored in Bangladesh only through a free and fair election
    participated by all parties under a non-party care-taker government.

    The present BAL government can claim many achievements – BDR massacre,
    Corruption and WB withdrawal from Padma Bridge Project, Kalo Biral’s
    car full of money, disappearance of Ilyas Ali, Salahuddin and a few
    others, death of journalists Sagar-Runi, killing of seven persons in
    Narayanganj, killing of innocent Biswajit by Chatra League, election
    without voters and finally taking control of voting stations by party
    workers. Every road, bridge and building has been named after members
    of one family. Enough is enough. Please go and give the country back
    to its people.

    London, 28-April-2015


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