Politics in Bangladesh is trudging though a tough course especially ahead of the coming parliamentary election due to be held in December this year or in early 2019 as provided by the constitution, to mark the end of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s second consecutive five-year term in power.
The incumbent PM has already completed four years in her second term and is vying for a third five-year tenure through the polls so her government can finish many unfinished development and infrastructural project to suit the requirements of a middle income country Bangladesh aspires to achieve by 2021.
We are happy to note that the march towards that end is so far successfully on under able leadership of the Prime Minister. But it could be faster if her government was totally corruption free. Unfortunately, corruption sweeps the country at every level of the administration and society.
The 11th parliamentary election is crucial for both the ruling Awami League and the people of Bangladesh as a whole because many fear if the polls results go against the AL, the new entrants in power could withhold or scrap several mega and medium uplift projects taken up by the present government. That would push Bangladesh a 100 years back, something which no one in Bangladesh wants under any pretext.
It’s good and satisfying that PM Sheikh Hasina is firmly driving the country forward while improving its international image needed to attract foreign investments for development. But politics may become somewhat vulnerable as the election gets closer with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) likely to disrupt the vote unless it’s held according to their terms and conditions which are mostly undemocratic, including BNP chief Khaleda Zia’s demand for holding the polls under a neutral supervisory authority instead of under the government of Sheikh Hasina.
However, the silver line in the electoral process, as laid down by the constitution, is that the independent Election Commission holds the entire responsibility for holding elections in the country and so far it is performing well.
BNP and its allies boycotted the last parliamentary election held in January 2014 and still apprehend the coming polls will not be free, fair and impartial as the EC, they say, would likely be influenced by the government. But it is just a wild guess as the PM and the EC both promised the vote will not be biased or tampered in any way.
Bangladesh, being a democratic country, is supposed to provide the citizens the opportunity to elect their representatives or leaders. But yet this is not an unquestionable reality. Doubts are there whether the EC will follow due election process and unlike in the past the polls will be uncontroversial.
Both the ruling party and the opposition are actively trying to retain or regain power of the government but unfortunately democracy has become a neglected concept in this context.
In democratic governance, people’s participation is surely required in all facets starting from the election to the critical decision regarding the nation. Democratic government always attaches importance to public opinion focusing on the demand and need of the citizens.
But if we look back, hardly we find an example where the people’s opinions have been honoured or even heeded to.
We started our journey as an independent country in 1971 under the magnificent leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
He took bold and timely steps to shift the government system of Bangladesh from a presidential one to a parliamentary one. He introduced democracy in our country with intent to establish a more efficient and effective government system to enrich the future of his fellow countrymen. But due to his brutal killing in 1975, we, even after 47 years of independence, are yet to establish complete democracy in our country.
After Bangabandhu’s assassination we entered an era of autocratic military governance. Bangladesh again entered the Presidential format that prevailed until 1991. Through the fall of Ershad government and 1991’s general election, democracy was restored in Bangladesh when the BNP formed the first democratic government after 15 years.
From 1991 till now we have seen the power of the government shifting between BNP and the current ruling party Bangladesh Awami League. Still we are to experience the taste of proper democracy.
Though almost uncontroversial democratic election was held in 1991, 1996 (June), 2001 and 2008, that did not ensure people’s democratic rights. If the democratic government runs as an autocratic one, then people’s welfare is uncertain.
After these elections, we have seen huge corruption, bribery in government offices, violence and lack of security which completely violates democratic rights. Here, we are only practicing democracy on the voting day while we elect a government for 5 years or 1,825 days.
Except the Election Day, democratic rights were violated in the rest 1,824 days. There is no point in such democracy where people have to live in fear and despair. We are actually practicing ‘Voting Day Democracy’ only.
The next election is a crucial test for AL and BNP as they both will deploy their full strength to win people’s hearts and the votes but BNP is in rather shambles at the moment due to internal feuds and lack of trust on most leaders, especially at the grassroots.
On the contrary, AL is thriving on PM Sheikh Hasina’s growing popularity among the citizens that will prove surely an added edge to the ruling party in the polls.
Democracy requires effective utilization of people’s voting rights to elect their representatives who will work for the welfare of the people, the society and the nation. Citizens need to know the importance of electing a good leader to ensure the future of their next generations. But our countrymen are not much aware on these issues.
To describe the reasons for democracy to fail, legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, it is important that, the voters act aware when they cast their votes. Former US President Franklin D Roosevelt emphasized the requirement of education of the citizens to protect democracy as he said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
Hence, there is no alternative of providing proper education to our people. Compared to that, we are still far behind but perhaps can close the gap if we can choose good leaders not only at the centre of power but at every level throughout the country.
In that the political parties must play their role appropriately or else the EC alone cannot guarantee a free and fair vote and an acceptable and credible government. Most importantly, these parties need to practice democracy both inside and outside the party. If they are not letting leadership rise from the root level, they cannot protect democracy in the national level.
The electoral system and Election Commission is very vital for democratic governance as ensuring free, fair and credible national elections depends mostly on them. The electoral system has changed in every election as our political parties devote their time and works to manipulate the electoral system and election commission to create a field in their favour. In this process, they forget to integrate the people with their movement.
In democracy, people must participate in all movements to ensure their rights. As our leaders are often reluctant to allow public participation in decision making that goes against them, democracy is still limping and we are deprived from the results.
In our neighbouring countries and most of the developed countries including both democratic and socialist government, there is almost no debate over the electoral system for decades, For example, there was no such debates for last six decades in India while all public issues like; transport price hike or utility price hike was dealt with such strong resistance that on several occasion the minister of the relevant ministry had to resign. Same is the case in most democratic countries and also in socialist countries like Russia and China.
It is irrelevant to talk about establishing good democratic practice in Bangladesh while we still lack the basics. Democracy is completely missing in Bangladesh as only voting for the rogue leaders in the election does not establish democracy. It is regretful that, even after 47 years of independence, we stand at zero in terms of sustainable democracy for which Bangabandhu took initiatives 45 years back.
To achieve our development goals especially those of Vision 2021 and 2041, we must ensure good democratic practice in our country. For that, along with the government, opposition, leaders, election commission and judiciary, people must act proactively to play their roles. We must not forget that, people’s opinion matters in Democracy.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA) and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Centre (DRC)