After 30 years of autocracy’s demise, democracy still remains a distant dream

To the question, “how democracy is faring in Bangladesh”, a ruling party’s answer has always been “we are a global example” and that of the opposition “we are the pits”. Since we have had the same ruling party in power for the last 12 years at a stretch, the narrative of democracy’s success has been unrelenting, and whatever little voice the real opposition has been allowed, “we are the pits” story continues.

But what say “WE, the PEOPLE”? Well, to the extent we are allowed to or safely can.

One method of gauging democracy’s health would be to look at the institutions that embody it in a country like Bangladesh: the judiciary, the legislative and the executive branches of the state.

As for the judiciary, its battle for independence from the executive is best exemplified by the Greek mythology of Sisyphus who is forever condemned to roll a stone up a slope which, near the top, slips from his hand, and rolls down compelling him to start all over again.

Such has been the travail of our judiciary, taking steps forward through its judgements and suffering severe setbacks through executive chicanery and contrived entanglements. Appointment of judges and control over its budget remain the door through which the executive branch enters the world of judiciary and is able to exert substantial and, according to some, decisive influence.

A landmark event of 1999, popularly called the Masdar Hossain judgement passed by the Appellate Division gave a clear directive to the government to take all steps to ensure the judiciary’s independence from the executive. As can be expected, this gave birth to an epic tussle between the two, with bureaucratic notes thickening the files and drafts of laws climbing up and down the stairs of the various ministries and going back and forth from the secretariat and the Supreme Court offices, literally rivalling the mileage recorded by a famous Bangladeshi traveller, a former foreign minister.

All these activities, to paraphrase an expression of Shakespeare, was full of sound and fury signifying nothing, practically.

Even after endless extensions, hearings and a plethora of notices, the BNP government did not move on the issue. It took the caretaker government to establish the Judicial Services Commission in 2007. The present government is yet to finalise the service rules regarding promotion, posting and disciplinary action. On the contrary it has filed a Review Petition regarding the implementation of the Directives given in the Masdar Hossain judgement.

Hence, till now—21 years after the original judgment—the service rules for the judicial officers concerned have not yet been finalised and, as such, bureaucratic control over judicial officials continue.

 As for the Supreme Court, articles 95(2)(c) of the Constitution contemplates enacting of a law for the qualification of judges for appointments. It has not yet been enacted. This lack of rules allows the government to have a big say in the appointment of judges.

Recently the legislative branch has been dragged into this time-old tussle between the executive and the judicial branches of the state by the 16th Amendment to the Constitution empowering the parliament to remove judges of the Supreme Court abolishing the provision of the Supreme Judicial Council which was empowered to perform this task. This amendment was later thrown out by the full bench of the Supreme Court creating tension between the highest court and the parliament and further clouding the path of judiciary’s independence.

To put it simply, the formation of an independent judiciary that guarantees all fundamental rights of all citizens, strengthens all institutions of accountability—like the Human Rights Commission, Anti-corruption Commission, etc.—throws out all repressive laws that curtail rights guaranteed by the Constitution, uphold vigorously all laws that guarantee and protect the basic rights of the people, further expand the fundamental freedoms that give pride of place to multiplicity of views is a work in progress with a far greater part of the road remaining untraversed compared to how much we have come. Perhaps, a metaphor for our democracy’s journey.

If “work in progress” is what we say for our judiciary, about our parliament, we can say “work in regress”. For, the parliaments from 1991 to 2006 were far more boisterous (not necessarily substantive) and exchanges on the floors of the House far more contested (not necessarily constructive) compared to what we have now. The opposition today is neither equipped nor politically motivated and appears to lack the energy to play its constitutionally prescribed role. Today’s parliament is virtually without any opposition.

Is it good for democracy? It is good for Sheikh Hasina’s government? Is it good for Bangladesh’s future? We wonder.

In my view the finest hour of the post-Ershad parliament was when it started. Many may have forgotten that the parliament, which later became a sorry example of itself because of frequent boycotts and suicidal resignations, was the very institution that saw a magnificent example of working together of the treasury and the opposition benches. They worked together to bring back the parliamentary form of government which was turned into a presidential one with the promulgation of BAKSAL and later continued by the military governments of General Zia and General Ershad.

Very rarely in the history of parliamentary democracy does a majority party (BNP) accept an amendment proposed by the opposition (AL). This is exactly what happened within the first few months of our first parliament following the restoration of democracy. It was a brilliant example of foresight, political compromise, and working together of our two major parties that came together, along with many other opposition parties, to topple autocracy in the late eighties.

What followed this hopeful start was a gradual widening of the gulf between our two major parties that ended with political rivals becoming bitter enemies and finally into mortal combatants. And with it dimmed our chances of real and functional democracy.

There were many clear signs that our democracy was heading towards an abyss with political leaders blissfully unaware of the dangers that their own actions were posing.

Nobody knew, save the conspirators, that the worst was yet to come.

Nothing damaged the prospect of democracy as deeply and fundamentally as the attempt on Sheikh Hasina’s life on August 21, 2004. With the exploding grenades that nearly killed today’s prime minister, whose survival was nothing short of a miracle, the future of parliamentary democracy lay splinter ridden like many who survived that tragedy. In Sheikh Hasina’s mind Khaleda Zia was no longer a political opponent, albeit bitter one, but a potential murderer who would not be averse to assassination to consolidate herself in power.

For those who may have doubted the BNP chief’s direct involvement with this dastardly act found themselves totally betrayed by the way this national tragedy was handled in which 24 citizens were killed, including Ivy Rahman, chief of AL’s women’s wing and the wife of Zillur Rahman, a highly respected veteran political leader, later to become president. Practically no attempt was made to hold a credible investigation—strengthening suspicion of the government’s involvement—and what we heard on the floor of the parliament dominated by BNP at that time, was both contemptuous of truth and disrespectful of public intelligence, foreshadowing the shameful “Joge Mia” incident and the farcical  judicial inquiry that were to follow.

This event, in my view, killed whatever little prospect there was left for a consolidation of a two-party democratic system for Bangladesh. From now on, it was truly “winner take all” and, literally, let death befall the loser.

A tragic fallout of the intensification of rivalry between Awami League and the BNP was that parliament never emerged as the centre of politics. It was always the streets of the country, especially those of Dhaka, where political battles were fought and the future of the country determined. The focus was not the finer arguments of a policy debate on the floor of the parliament but on the coarseness of slogans shouted at pitched volumes on the streets by people who neither understood the depth of its meanings nor cared for the consequences of their actions. All this was accompanied by police violence against demonstrators whose bitterness grew along with the force of the batons. I think it was Shakespeare who said, “Mischief, thou art afoot”, and so it was. Nothing but violence mattered, and with each bitter conflict it further intensified, drowning out reason in the cacophony of claims and counter claims.

So in the last thirty years, our parliament—a most vital component of a functioning democracy—that should have become the most vital institution of debate, oversight, law making and defender of people’s rights, transformed itself into an institution with no vision of its tasks and no intention of representing the ” will of the people”, abandoning the voters to the mercy and caprices of the executive.

So, if democracy is to be measured by the work of a parliament, we do not seem much to write home about.

The moral edifice of the executive branch emanates from the fact that it is elected by the people through a free and fair voting process that is beyond question. It is the free and fair nature of an election, that lies at the heart of any government’s legal and moral authority. More the election becomes a contrived affair, more the legitimacy of the government comes into question. 

Unfortunately we never took the need for authentic elections seriously. It was always like a game played by the major parties who would utter pious words of public benefit and adopt the most unethical means possible for private “win”.  Elections were only free and fair if we won it and never remotely so if we lost. No amount of transparency, accountability and proof of precautionary measures would convince us about the fairness of an election if, god forbid, we happen to lose it. The focus was always on capturing power and never on credibility of the process. Thus buying or intimidating voters, influencing officials and in the end even staffing ballot boxes were never too immoral for us to adopt which, in its present incarnation, gives pride of place to the police who seems to have emerged as the “deciding factor”.

We never concentrated on perfecting the electoral system but always on manipulating it. Starting with influencing the selection of members of the Election Commission to the appointment of staff of its secretariat, everything was a fair game if it could assure “victory”. This resulted in election commissions always being vilified by the opposition no matter how hard it tried to hold elections of an acceptable standard, preventing the growth of powerful and truly independent election commissions like in India. 

Today one can say without hesitation—or should one say with a lot of it—that we have an enormously powerful, perhaps disproportionately so, executive branch in comparison to the other two pillars as discussed above. The historically tested idea of balance of power between the three pillars of a democratic state stands imperilled in Bangladesh with unforeseen consequences for the country.

The executive branch is far more centralised than it has been ever before and has enormous amount of tax money at its disposal to buy its way into or out of anything. Combining populism with arbitrary power and being able to use the coercive power of the state in an unbridled manner has added to the oppressive nature of the executive branch and has greatly enhanced its ability to goad public opinion towards a prescribed end.

Global disrepute of previous champions of democracy has paved the way for the emergence of authoritarian governments. Fake news, post-truth and irresponsible use of social media have given a life time opportunity to dictators to question the credibility of independent and professional media. Sadly, governments today are able to ignore the pledges they make to their people and through diversionary populists slogans that changes the focus of public scrutiny away from the government and into issues of race, colour, ethnicity and  religion.

With a judiciary still in the process of getting out of the stranglehold of bureaucracy, and too weak to question boldly why its independence is being delayed; with a parliament that seems to have lost its way and full of self-doubt about its place in the Constitution; and with an executive branch that is too eager to circumvent laws for its own gain, too disregardful of rights of the public, too dismissive of the abuse of power by state agencies, too taken up by its own rhetoric of success, too eager to ignore corruption, too oblivious of the need for accountability for its own good, too contemptuous to allow dissent, democracy in Bangladesh continues to remain a distant dream.


Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.

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