Democracy in Bangladesh: Prospects and problems

Professor Emajuddin Ahamed

In Bangladesh appeal for democratic values has always been great. Democratic ideals have always inspired the people of Bangladesh and democratic political system has been their cherished goal. But unfortunately that exists, even today, more in their hope than in reality. They have not yet had the cherished goal achieved, not to speak of its full flowering in society.

Liberal democracy functions in the West mainly on two fundamental assumptions. First, the authority the government exercises is a trust, exercised on behalf of society, in a manner approved by it. It implies that there is a consensus in society in regard to the nature of political authority, nature of those who exercise it, mode of its application and so on.

Law must safeguard people’s interests
Second, it is law that safeguards the interests of all classes of people, and law is obeyed (even if it is a bad law) until it is changed. Only the representatives of people are entitled to make or change a law. In the environment of liberal democracy it is the force of argument and not the argument of force that reigns and a spirit of compromise, not of confrontation, prevails in society.
Liberal democracy has succeeded principally because of two reasons. First, the social terrain, which is the fountain of democratic ethos, is marked more by egalitarianism than oppressive hierarchy. Economic gains of society, which constitute the lifeblood of contentment for all classes of people, are distributed in such a fashion that every group or class is assured of a minimum level of living.
The key to success of this system lies in the willingness of those with grievances to submit to law and seek a remedy through orderly discussion. The conditions for the success of democracy, from that standpoint, are related more to social norms than to political activities and institutional support. In fact democracy emerged in the West as a social system and when it attained a workable form, and then it turned into a political arrangement.
Democracy and egalitarianism
In Bangladesh democracy has been imposed on a highly inegalitarian society, marked by all kinds of discriminations and inequities, where social ethos is yet to be democratic. Political prudence demands therefore a creative and dynamic political leadership which can prepare a fertile ground for the luxuriant growth of democratic values.
The ruling elite in Bangladesh has however not yet been prepared for this crucial role. Most often the gems of democratic values have been grossly ignored by them. They have treated political authority not as a trust but as a source of limitless privileges and opportunities. They have abused and handled it without any accountability. Once they assume political power, they try to perpetuate it by means fair or foul. Those who oppose the incumbents and try to be on the saddle of power do not also hesitate to adopt any means right or wrong. This has been the practice in Bangladesh since its birth and every political party during the last three decades has been found to indulge in such extravaganza while wielding state power, most often violating democratic norms and constitutional practices.
For the effective working of democratic system in Bangladesh political leaders must realise the subtleties of the system, go extra miles, take additional responsibilities, develop sound judgment, generate positive synergy, achieve brilliance and must be soaked with democratic ethos. In this era of knowledge-societies there are no shortcuts. The political leaders have to be properly dressed up for handling these problems. They have to learn a lot and unlearn a lot more. They have to raise themselves much above the petty foibles of partisanship, narrow interests of groups and parties and look to the sky for being useful to the people, whose hopes and aspirations they are supposed to represent and realise. The general people of Bangladesh, who have always been in the forefront of democratic movements, look for bright sunny days and a better future, and much of all that depends on the creative role of the political leaders.
Rule of law and basic liberties
Democracy implies a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers and protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property. Historically, two streams of philosophical tradition have made the soil fertile for the growth and development of democracy as a system of governance. It has thus two faces: It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain of the Greek scholastics, emphasising individual liberty and popular involvement. It is constitutional because it rests on the Roman tradition emphasising the rule of law and protection of basic human rights. These two philosophical strains, fused together with innate human cravings for self-fulfillment, have brought forth the ideal of self-rule. And self-rule has become the cherished goal for many nations, who began to put hands on both the traditions with varying degrees of emphasis.

Britain, which was “in some ways the most democratic European nation,” became constitutional and election-oriented all at the same time. It began to adopt constitutional liberalism by emphasising the rule of law, protection of basic human rights, separation of powers and so on. Elections were held, but franchise rights were limited. In 1830 only 2 per cent of the British population voted for the House of Commons. It rose to 7 per cent after 1867 and 40 per cent in the 1880s. Britain became full-fledged elective democracy only since the 1930s. Other European nations, especially the Scandinavian countries, imitated Britain in this area and became full-fledged democracies simultaneously through the golden gates of constitutional liberalism and elections.
Imbalance between rights, responsibilities
In the post-colonial countries like ours the political elite however wanted to gatecrash the democratic world through the iron gate of election, ignoring the tenets of constitutional liberalism. But in most cases they fumbled, faltered and ultimately failed because of heavy strains at the societal level, arising out of imbalance between rights and responsibilities, demands and legal norms, order and violence, expectation and performance. Since elections have turned out to be the summum bonum, a win or loss becomes the moot point for the political elite. They never care to think that it’s practically half-done. They have to go for institutionalising the processes of decision-making at all levels in the system.
They are to concentrate on protecting the rights of the people, especially those of free speech, assembly, religion, property. For safeguarding these rights they have to go for a balanced system of governance with proper checks and balance in the polity.
Moreover, the political elite themselves must be accountable to the populace and ensure accountability of all state functionaries for their actions and policies. They have to see that their policies are transparent. They are to make all the citizens participant citizens. This is how the democratic dispensation all over the democratic world has been conceived of. In Bangladesh, it was nothing more than panoply of power proposition, and the people, for all that, are constantly trampled on and grounded under the cruel feet of democratic juggernaut.
Abiding seats of personalised power
In Bangladesh, the institutional framework for democratic order has already been built, but no heart is heard ticking. No blood is circulating through these skeletal structures. Instead of giving life blood to democratic values, these structures have become the abiding seats of personalised power. Election only accords a recognition to a kind of autocratic orientation. These must change.
It has been evident on many occasions that Bangladesh has an innate inclination for democratic order. It started its political journey with the Westminster-type parliamentary democracy since 1972. It could not sustain it for long, however. Slowly but steadily it degenerated into an authoritarian system in the mid-1970s, and became locked up in a one-party BKSAL monolith. It was followed by a period of uncertainty. A series of coup and counter-coup rocked the polity and Bangladesh had to groan under the heavy pressure of martial law for quite some time till the major political parties of the country fought successfully for the restoration of democracy and succeeded in early 1990s. The parliamentary system of government was finally re-introduced in 1991. Many observers expected that democratic order would at last stabilise in Bangladesh. That was not to be, unfortunately.
Democratic culture, which helps build consensus among the politically relevant social sectors including the political parties, has not yet got off the ground. Tolerance among the political activists has remained conspicuous by its absence. The consensual approach involving mutual give and take, being respectful to one another’s views and the overriding concern of the majority party to work together with the minor ones has yet to be effective. The party in power has always ignored the opposition.  Politics, in consequence, has turned out to be confrontational and the social forces divided and fragmented.  Since the Jatiya Sangsad has failed to absorb the demands of the opposition political parties, politics comes down to the stormy streets in the form of processions and demonstrations.
Elections are held, though not regularly in all cases, and quite often these are rigged. The political leaders, instead of competing for people’s votes, try either to purchase them with their black money or cajole them to vote for them through questionable means. In some cases they use their muscle power, often with hired goons, to force the recalcitrant voters either to abstain from voting or to vote for them, for getting themselves elected. They take election as the veritable gateway to political power and win they must, by means fair or foul. If they win, everything is fine. When they lose, they go on discovering conspiracies all around.
The seventh and eighth Jatiya Sangsad were elected under the supervision of the non-party Caretaker Government. It is true, however, that some areas need to be straightened in the interest of fair poll. The evil influence of black money must be checked. The ominous role of the muscle power must be brought to a halt. The EC must be independent and strengthened so that it can effectively exercise its supervisory role. The law and order situation must be normal. Everyone in society would be happy to see these fault lines rectified.
Beside all these, there are some areas where ingenuity and creativity of the political leaders should be reflected. Such constitutional bodies as the Election Commission (EC), Public Service Commission (PSC), Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Human Rights Commission (HRC) must be strengthened so much so that they can act independently and autonomously without the least interference from the government. The promise of the elected government for ushering in a new leaf in democratic system, vaunted so much by the top brasses of the ruling party and their fellow travellers before and after the general elections of December 2008 miserably fell through: rather the post-election activities of the leaders, especially the vitriolic vituperation against the opposition leaders both in the Jatiya Sangsad and outside made the situation worse. The parliamentary system, which demands in practice a bipartisan framework and a cooperative mindset of the leaders in matters of day-to-day administration have been conspicuous by their absence: the general elections of 2008 have rather authorized the ruling party and its leaders personalised authorities to do or undo anything they like.
Wrangling of fronts
Some members of such subsidiary front organisations of the ruling party as the Youth League and Students League seem to have gone beyond the ambit of law by now and quite often their internal wrangling, tender tampering, arson, forcible seizure of other’s property and armed attacks in broad daylight in Dhaka and elsewhere, that often hit the headlines of print and electronic media of the country, have made the entire ambience alarming.
Some leaders have had the abominable daring to instruct publicly employers of some segments of public service to appoint only those who belong to those subsidiaries of the ruling party. The promise of establishing the rule of law in the country, which was preached so forcefully during the election campaign, has been ignobly forgotten.
Bureaucracy’s  partisan orientation
The bureaucracy has lost its esprit de corps and effectiveness mainly because of the partisan orientation of the ruling party, especially for selecting party followers in the services and putting them in crucial positions despite their inefficiency and incompetence. The law and order situation has in consequence deteriorated beyond measure.
The cases of unusual death in police custody and through cross fires have had a phenomenal growth. The Jatiya Sangsad has already been ineffective. The culture of denial i.e “We are not responsible for the shortage of such essentials as electricity, gas, water or price hike of such daily necessaries as rice, pulse, sugar, edible oil” and shifting the onus over to the former government have made the conditions of the poor and disadvantaged miserable.
The ruling party seems to be interested more in perpetuating its rule in the country and darkening the image of the opposition rather than in carving new ways for full flowering of democracy in the society. The chairmen and vice chairmen of the Upazila have already been elected but the Upazila system have not yet been functional. Thousands of leaders and workers of the opposition have been incarcerated on flimsy grounds. The political situation, in consequence, has been quite uncertain and volatile.
The people of Bangladesh by and large love democratic order and they are prepared to fight for it as they did it in the past. Some such essentials as the freedom of the media, a vibrant civil society, and independence of judiciary are gaining ground day by day. Much, however, depends on the positive attitude of the political leaders. We only wait for it with our fingers crossed.
[Dr. Emajuddin Ahamed is a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dhaka. At present he is the VC of the University of Development Alternative (UDA).]
Source: Weekly Holiday


    • What a stupid way to respond to such a scholarly article. Unfortunately some of us are so blinded by our narrow political orientations that we, despite our best of education, behave the most unthinking way. When this happens to a nation, any nation, it is doomed.

  1. We can be so called educated and have a title like dr. But we r still away of truth that sometimes we see in a poor villagers who has not done anything against nation. So try to follow a countrymen from whom you can learn a lot and don’t say like an idiot to divide the nation all the ages

  2. Thank you very much for your write-up. It is true that the democracy in our country is missing neither in Parliament or in the public. We do not know when democracy will come back again.

  3. Professor Emajuddin Ahamed is a respectable man and wrote a scholarly and appropriate article. Maligning him a disrespect and our nation should go above that. Perhaps Dr. Faiz Elahi should apologize and realize his mistake. If you do not respect your opposition, you are not a democracy. You are having an autocratic nation.

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