Democratic challenge in Bangladesh


Bangladesh is currently in the midst of a deadly political crisis. Since the onset of the crisis in January, the economy has been in dire straits. According to newspaper reports, more than one hundred lives (and counting) have been lost, and thousands wounded. Schools and colleges have remained virtually closed. The tempo of business activities, including agricultural production, has been severely disrupted. New investments, both foreign and local, have mostly evaporated. Exports of manpower and garments, the lifeline of the Bangladesh economy, have suffered serious blows, and millions of dollars’ worth of properties have been damaged and destroyed.

If one follows the old UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) rule of thumb that political blockades cost the country 0.3 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product)  per day, then the country may have already lost more than 17 per cent of its annual income-exceeding 30 billion dollars. This is a staggering sum, worth 15 years’ foreign aid funding.

When Bangladesh was born some forty-plus years ago, it was generally thought that the Achilles heel of this newly-minted country would be its economy. History has proved this theory wrong. After a difficult start, the nation has done well in its economic development. The economy has grown at about six per cent over the last two decades. Additionally, its social indicators have improved significantly-even exceeding those of its neighbour, India, on many important counts. With some social stability, Bangladesh is on its way to joining the ranks of middle-income countries.

This economic success notwithstanding, politics-in particular, getting the seeds of democracy to sprout-has proved daunting. In a careful comparative analysis, The Quality of Democracy: Assessing India and Bangladesh, Indiana University democracy expert Professor Sumit Ganguly concludes that while the quality of democracy has improved in India over the years, it has “regressed” in Bangladesh.

That is odd because Bangladesh is a country that emerged out of a bloody political struggle to establish the democratic rights of the people. It prides itself on its ethnic and linguistic homogeneity. Additionally, it is well known that political progress generally accompanies economic success.

Though the proximate cause of this current political crisis is the controversial parliamentary election of 2014 and the legitimacy of the incumbent government, its history dates back to the birth of the country. Some experts suggest that the original sin of Bangladesh democracy was its hurriedly drafted constitution in 1972. It assigned extravagant powers to the office of prime minister, a position to be assumed by its much-revered father of the nation.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the country went through a tumultuous period of experimentation with the presidential form of government. This type of rule has often been a cover-up for authoritarian regimes-both civil and military. After a popular movement in the 1990s, the parliamentary form of government was re-established. The arc of power shifted from the president to the prime minister, who was anointed with what used to be the unbridled power of the autocratic president. Those powers were further augmented by successive governments, which went on stifling various civil, political and human rights-allowing arbitrary arrests, unlawful deprivation of life, regulation of speech, and weak working and labour rights. With few checks and balances in the government, what emerged was an incredibly shrunken democracy with an “imperial” prime minister.

Since 1991, the government has become a duopoly of two major parties-the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).The position of prime minister of the country has rotated between Khaleda Zia, and Sheikh Hasina. Some argue that their personal backgrounds-once housewives, later accidental leaders-and the way they inherited the mantle of leadership-through dynastic inheritance, rather than political competition-explicates the dynamics of the post-1990 politics in Bangladesh. Both parties are run as a family business. The debates between parties have devolved into issues of political legacies rather than important economic and social questions of the time.

There has been a coarsening of the political culture over the years. The debasement has been so deep and wide that even major political figures now routinely speak of “termination” and “annihilation” of opponents-or, trash talk about foreign diplomats they disfavour. In such an environment, it is a no-brainer why politics has attracted-except for some hardened risk-takers-few of the best and the brightest of recent generations.

On the other hand, this stultifying political culture, in conjunction with the lack of governmental accountability, has produced a large horde of political cronies. This is true on both sides. They thrive on economic rents extracted through discriminatory access to-or even flat-out thievery of-state resources.

Not surprisingly, when in power, both parties have proved inept at governance, and corrupt in administration. Under both parties, Bangladesh ranked near the top in the league of corrupt nations. In 2012, international donors, under the leadership of the World Bank, cancelled a mega-loan to Bangladesh to build its longest bridge, citing concerns over corruption in the project.

When in power, both parties did their best to manipulate elections and exclude the other from power. To avert this, Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections had been conducted by an interim neutral administration since 1996. This brought an element of accountability in a system of otherwise “appalling quality,” suggests Professor Ganguly. However, this system was abolished with an amendment to the constitution in June 2011.

In the absence of a neutral caretaker administration, the opposition BNP and its allied parties apprehended widespread rigging, and decided not to participate in the 2014 parliamentary elections. In a country so besotted with polls and politics, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the elections had little voter participation. Out of 300 seats, more than half-154-were unchallenged.

The opposition leader Khaleda Zia, has vowed that her party and its allies will continue the ongoing blockade until the government agrees to hold a free and fair early election.

Even if the government succeeds in crushing this current political turmoil, it does not spell the end of the crisis. The crisis will fester, as the opposition commands at least as much political support from the people as the government. If, however, the government acquiesces to the demands of the opposition, it will bring only a temporary relief to the current crisis. They do not address the country’s fundamental democratic deficits that have metastasized over the years.

Designing a neutral institutional mechanism for holding elections, ensuring the smooth transfer of power, and establishing intra-party democracy-these are the obvious first steps for a procedural democracy. They will extinguish the immediate fire, but do not address the root cause of the recurrent democratic crises in the country-the absence of an infrastructure for a viable, liberal democracy.

A liberal democracy needs to be built on the foundation of a capable state, rule of law, and government accountability, writes Francis Fukuyama, Stanford Political Scientist and a world-class expert on the problems of weak and failed states, in his magisterial work, The Origins of Political Order. To build such an institutional infrastructure in Bangladesh, there must be reforms to ensure the true independence of the judiciary, to nurture a non-politicised, merit-based bureaucracy, and to rollback the much-abused emergency powers of the executive. Constitutional bodies like the Election Commission and the Anti-corruption Commission need to be independent, rather than being the handmaiden of the party in power. Independent international watchdog organisations routinely report on the chilling acts of human rights violations of the security forces of the country. They need to be brought under a strict legal framework and their human-rights violations should be independently investigated.

All this is a tall order, but fundamental to an effort to overcome the country’s yawning democratic deficits. It is not known how or whether such reforms can be-or would be-achieved in the current vile, hyper-partisan political environment. However, what is known are the options and the associated payoffs for the country.

If the current political crisis continues, it will be a lose-lose for all. If it spirals out of control into anarchy (if it already hasn’t), it will inflict untold misery on the people-as well as the economy. Even if one party prevails over the other by force, that victory would be only pyrrhic and transitory. Given the voter calculus, the crisis will fester.

However, like any other crisis, this can be turned into an opportunity: it can be made a win-win for all if government and the opposition decide to engage in sincere collaboration and serious dialogue for deep reforms of democratic institutions. Such reforms, which are essential for the country’s long-term political stability, can spare the nation of the periodic bouts of mayhem that have impeded its pace of economic and social progress. In addition, this will set the two leaders free, who themselves are invisible prisoners of an illiberal system. They will be able to gracefully recede into the golden sunset-when they choose to-without being concerned about their political legacy or their personal safety.

M.G. Quibria, a former Senior Adviser, Asian Development Bank Institute, is Professor of International Development at Morgan State University and Distinguished Fellow at the Policy Research

Institute, Bangladesh.

Source: The Financial Express


  1. I congratulate Dr. M. G. Quibria for writing this incisive, insightful and indeed a very forward looking piece.

    He mentions several reforms such as devolution of power of the ‘royal’ PM, greater transparency and accountability in public governance, autonomy of the judiciary and the election commission, empowered corruption commission etc. etc. are key to country’s long term cure while observing that “All this is a tall order, but fundamental to an effort to overcome the country’s yawning democratic deficits.” Quibria however cautions that the alternatives are too perilous to fathom and thus his final words to the two feuding leaders that have made the country a hostage to their narrow political squabbles who he thinks are themselves “invisible prisoners of an illiberal system” must act so that “They ….gracefully recede into the golden sunset-when they choose to-without being concerned about their political legacy or their personal safety”.

    I hope someone out there relays these messages to our horn-locked leaders!


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