Electoral system and democratic governance in Bangladesh

Published : Tuesday, 9 January, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Mir Mosharref Hossain Pakbir
Mir Mosharref Hossain Pakbir

A free, fair and credible election in a democracy requires an electoral system creating level playing field for all political parties while promoting people’s participation in the polls. Bangladesh since its independence has gone through several changes in its electoral systems as it started as a parliamentary form of government, then switched over to presidential system and again shifted back to parliamentary system in 1991.

After independence, there have been 10 national elections under different electoral systems and democracy has been under continuous threat from changing patterns of the elections.

After the country’s liberation in 1971, seven out of 10 national elections were held under democratic practice. Other three elections were held under autocratic regimes. The elections under democratic regimes were held under different structures of electoral systems and most of them were criticized for lacking many factors of good democratic governance.

Hence, the stability of election process has never been there considering the vulnerable political contexts of Bangladesh and rather makes it difficult to establish a proper democratic practice in Bangladesh.

In January 1972 Bangladesh elected an interim government based on the outcome of 1970 elections in undivided Pakistan with Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury as President and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Prime Minister of the new born country.

Released from Pakistani prison, Bangabandhu returned to his independent homeland on January 10, 1972, amid a tumultuous emotional welcome by his fellow countrymen. He took office as the Prime Minister and formed the new constitution of Bangladesh, which provided for a strong executive prime minister, a largely ceremonial presidency, an independent judiciary and a unicameral legislature on a modified Westminster model with emphasis on protecting the sovereignty of the nation. The constitution also adopted nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy as the four state principles.

The election of March 1973, a start of democratic practice in Bangladesh, was the first to be held under the 1972 constitution enabling people to elect their government. The election was held under the government and the same party retained power, but in that vote no party challenged the popularity, charisma and acceptance of Sheikh Mujib among Bangladeshis. The election was a free, fair and credible one in a sense though without competition.

In spite of his sheer willingness to establish democratic practices, Sheikh Mujib was forced to establish a one-party system, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) in December 1974 confronting economic deterioration and growing civil disorder which required to be handled with strong measures.

Though BAKSAL is known as one of the greatest mistakes of Bangabandhu, it is still a matter of debate if BAKSAL was an effective measure to handle the intolerable insurgencies, affecting the economy negatively, throughout the new born Bangladesh.

After Mujib’s assassination, the power of the government rotated between hands and finally settled in the hands of the then Chief of Army Staff General Ziaur Rahman. He declared martial law and became the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA). Later Zia achieved a 5-year term as President in an election in June 1978, but through several restrictions he kept other political parties away from the election in an undemocratic process.

Zia removed the restrictions of martial law as February 1979 election was held with 30 parties’ participation known as Zia’s transformation of Bangladeshi government from the MLA to a democratic, elected and constitutional one.

He formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which has been led by his widow Khaleda Zia since his death. Though his autocratic practices and working as head of state during the election influenced its outcome and was far away from the democratic governance. Zia’s regime ended with his assassination in May 1981 and after some instability, Army Chief of Staff Lt Gen H M Ershad came into power through a bloodless coup in March 1982.

Ershad, controversially the most autocratic leader Bangladesh ever had, suspended the constitution and declared martial law. He assumed the presidency retaining his position as army chief and chief martial law administrator. Later he formed Jatiya Party and moved from martial law to party based electoral system. Despite BNP’s boycott, the third national election was held in May 1986 and Jatiya Party came into power by voting fraud.

Facing huge protests and nationwide strikes for arresting the opposition activists pushed Ershad to declare state of emergency. Dissolving the parliament, he scheduled national elections on March 1988.  Major opposition parties boycotted the election feeling the government was incapable of holding a fair election.
The 1988 national election brought Ershad back into power in absence of competition and recorded another autocratic election rejecting the idea of democratic governance. Afterwards political scenario got very vulnerable as frequent strikes, campus protests, public rallies and violent clashes with law enforcers became a common scene and eventually Ershad stepped down in December 1990.

According to the proposed framework of all political parties, an interim government was formed and after only two months, country’s first democratic election after 1973 election was held on February 1991 and BNP assumed the power. The parliamentary system was restored as the governing power returned to the prime minister. The interim government was successful to ensure free, fair and credible election.

But the BNP tried to regain power after their usual 5-year term through a rigged election in February 1996. Despite their landslide victory, BNP could not keep hold of power under continuous political turmoil. A neutral caretaker government was formed under the leadership of Chief Advisor and parliamentary election was held in June 1996, won by the Awami League leading Sheikh Hasina to become the prime minister.

Sheikh Hasina government successfully concluded 5 year term though BNP kept walking out of parliamentary sessions repeatedly alleging police and AL activists to be involved in large scale harassment and jailing of opposition activists.

Considering opposition demand, a caretaker government was formed and AL stepped down from the power. In October 2001, BNP led alliance came into power with landslide victory and formed government.

BNP completed their 5 year term but tried to form a biased caretaker government approaching national election by the end of 2006. Huge protests were staged by AL and bloody clashes flooded the streets leading formation of a new caretaker government with Fakhruddin Ahmed, former World Bank economist and Bangladesh Bank Governor, as Chief Advisor.

This caretaker government was to hold election within three months but being controlled by the army, they stayed in power for two years eyeing on restructuring the political parties with new leadership. They charged both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia with several corruption charges and arrested almost 200,000 political activists. The caretaker government and army tried to bring in two new parties under the leadership of Dr Muhammad Younus and Ferdous Qureishi and planned on creating puppet government and eventually capturing the power as Zia and Ershad.

But under huge protest of the people along with international pressure and both local and international economic depression, they had to move away and national election was held on December 2008 and AL came into power. This caretaker government created distrust among the political parties regarding caretaker government to be an option for holding free, fair and credible election.

In January 2014, AL regained power for consecutively the second term in the face of huge protest from BNP. Despite BNP-led alliance’s boycott, the election was held under the AL government eliminating the idea of the caretaker government. BNP tried to pressurize the government through violent strikes but failed to create any force on the government.

The 11th national election is knocking on the door. BNP and its allies are demanding neutral interim government but ruling party is non-compliant to that. In developed and developing countries, the elections are held under the government and no concept of interim or caretaker government is in practice. But, the mistrust among political parties in Bangladesh makes it very difficult to stabilize the electoral system.

In our neighbouring country India, for example, the electoral system is fixed as the elections are conducted under the government as a long time practice. Huge conflict lies among political parties, but election commission independently conducts and controls elections and almost no debate rises over the electoral process. But in Bangladesh among 10 national elections, we have seen the electoral system to change even for a little bit every time.

Our political parties failed to establish a solid electoral system to ensure free, fair and credible elections though mandatory for democratic governance. Rather they manipulated with that. But they need to trust each other to stabilize the political scenario and the electoral system. Otherwise, our democratic practice will stay immature.

To attain the development goals and improve on our economic performance, sustainable democracy, with democratic elections and stable electoral system, is a must. We hope our government and the opposition parties would now focus on that.

The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA) and Vice Chairman of Democracy Research Center (DRC)

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