Published in Dhaka Tribune on Tuesday, 29 December 2015
25 years after we became democratic
When a people’s movement toppled military dictator HM Ershad’s rule in December 1990, Bangladesh entered the club of what is popularly known as “Third Wave” democracies. Similar to the experiences of many of these new democracies, the country’s democratic journey has not been smooth.
Instead of consolidating or deepening democracy, Bangladesh has been facing persistent challenges of institutionalising the basic foundations of democracy.
Bangladesh periodically wanders off the democratic path when the country is not even classified as a “democracy” by international organisations.
This happened during 2007-2008, when we were not able to hold the scheduled parliamentary election and the country was ruled by a military-backed civilian government for two years.
In 2015, again, Bangladesh had been classified as a “party free” country by the Freedom House.
When international organisations or global surveys question our democratic status, many of us in turn start questioning the quality of the democracy of many of our critics.
Instead of countering the arguments of our critics and raising questions about the democratic deficits of other countries, we should first try to assess whether we have been able to live up to the standards we ourselves had set for us in 1990.
In November 1990, three major political alliances of Bangladesh — one led by AL, another by the BNP, and the third by five leftist parties — agreed on a framework to guide the democratic transition of the country from military rule.
We should begin by exploring how far our political leaders have implemented the pledges they made to the nation when they signed the three-alliance agreement in 1990.
Through the three-alliance agreement, the political leaders pledged their commitment to several key elements of a democratic system.First, they promised to organise free and fair elections through which people’s representatives would derive their mandate to govern the state.
Second, they pledged to establish a sovereign parliament which would hold the executive accountable. Third, they promised to uphold the fundamental rights of citizens, independence and neutrality of the judiciary, freedom of the media, and the rule of law to ensure the sustenance of the democratic order.
And finally, they promised to follow a democratic code of conduct to guide their actions, particularly in relation to each other. Twenty-five years later, it is pertinent to ask: What is the record of performance of these leaders who signed the agreement?
The leaders of two of the alliances, Sheikh Hasina of the AL and Khaleda Zia of the BNP, have taken their turns in ruling the country since 1991. How have they followed up on their commitments?
Free and fair elections
The three-alliance agreement noted the many undemocratic electoral practices perpetuated by the military rulers, more specifically the practice of engineering elections by the incumbent government to serve its interests.
The agreement identified the system of non-party caretaker government as a more appropriate mechanism to organise free and fair parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.
The the 1991 parliamentary election, organised by a non-party caretaker government, which was widely recognised as the most free and fair election held so far in independent Bangladesh, brought the BNP to state power.
Regrettably, the BNP-led regime abdicated from its commitment to the original tripartite agreement and decided to hold the next election under its own incumbency.
Following the flawed by-elections in Mirpur and Magura, the AL-led opposition started a mass movement in 1994 to institutionalise the non-party caretaker system as the poll-time government.
The non-party caretaker government system was eventually institutionalised through a constitutional amendment in February 1996.
Three parliamentary elections (in June 1996, October 2001, and December 2008) were organised under a non-party caretaker government system which resulted in a relatively peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box, where the incumbent political party/alliance invariably lost the election.
But, despite this regular rotation of power, the two major political forces of the country could not come to an agreement about a mutually acceptable arrangement to organise a credible parliamentary election.
After each election, the losing party/alliance initially rejected the election results, but eventually accepted it and agreed to take their seats in parliament. However, the ruling parties tried to manipulate the non-party caretaker system to their advantage.
Finally the AL-led government, using its overwhelming parliamentary majority, abolished the caretaker system in 2011.
It is ironic that it was the AL who led a two year-long mass movement during 1994 to 1996 to institutionalise the non-party caretaker government system.
Since 2011, the two major political forces have failed to agree on the framework of a poll-time government. We witnessed a one-sided parliamentary election in 2014 where the majority of parliamentarians were “elected” unopposed.
We also witnessed unprecedented violence in the name of movements to “save democracy” led by the political opposition.
The political leadership of the two major alliances, who signed the agreement of 1990 to initiate our democratic transition, have now assumed an inflexible, uncompromising attitude of “my way or the highway,” which has created uncertainties about the organisation of future credible parliamentary elections at present. This imperils our democratic future.
25 years after the democratic transition
As the three alliances could not agree on the restoration of a parliamentary system of government, the agreement promised a “sovereign” parliament to hold the government accountable. However, the parliamentary system was later restored through a rare bi-partisan agreement between the AL and the BNP. We now do have a “sovereign” parliament, but it does not function as an effective, accountable institution which was the intention of the 1990 agreement.
Since 1994, the opposition (no matter the party) started the practice of boycotting parliamentary sessions, choosing instead street agitations to voice their criticisms or register their protests. As a result, the parliament came under the monopoly control of the ruling party/alliance without effective scrutiny of the parliament. The executive branch of the government became all powerful. Successive governments started passing laws and constitutional amendments without serious debate in parliament.
And now we have an opposition in parliament which does not agitate on the streets or boycott parliamentary sittings, but they are not perceived as opposition, because some of their members are also members of the government and the opposition members in parliament have not yet demonstrated a capacity to seriously critique the government or propagate alternative policies/positions.
So, our political leaders who pledged a “sovereign” parliament have established an institution in form, but they made it ineffective and, sometimes, dysfunctional.
Rule of law, fundamental rights, independence of judiciary, freedom of media
The critical failing of our successive elected governments since 1991 has been in establishing the rule of law. Various global assessments have persistently given Bangladesh a low score in establishing the rule of law. The media has frequently reported on many cases of violation of law by ruling party leaders and workers (no matter which party is in power) and the pervasive culture of impunity.
Though fundamental rights are enshrined in laws, in practice, their violations cannot be redressed. Again, over the years, the media has frequently reported on violation of citizens’ rights by the state authorities as well as non-state actors. The vulnerable groups, especially women and religious and ethnic minorities, continue to be always at risk.
The demand for ensuring the neutrality and independence of the judiciary still continues, underscoring the lack of implementation of this particular pledge by successive governments. The promise of making the state-owned media autonomous has also not been implemented.
However, thanks to the growth of privately owned media and the courageous and independent role of some of them, there has been a progress in the citizen’s voice. All the state of democracy assessments indicate a steady progress in the “voice” indicator in Bangladesh, which is a bright and positive spot amongst many negative trends.
Code of conduct
Today, when we read the detailed eight-point code of conduct the three alliance leaders pledged to the nation in 1990 to facilitate organisation of a free and fair election, we are immediately struck by two thoughts: First, how relevant these codes of conduct still are for sustaining a democratic culture. Second, how far our leaders have deviated from these promises!
The eight-point code of conduct promised, among other things, that political parties will respect and tolerate each others’ differences, permit peaceful party and campaign activities, not indulge in attempts to partisanise civil administration and law enforcement agencies, refrain from unethical campaign tactics such as questioning patriotism or religious faith of opposition members or use of communalism, adhere to electoral guidelines including campaign expenditure ceiling, and finally, accept the results of the election.
We all know by now that the signatories of the three alliance agreement started violating almost all the points of this code of conduct from the time of the 1991 election. Over the years, the violations have become even more gross and repugnant.
Since 2011, there has been much public discussion about the need for another agreement amongst the major political players to establish a common framework to guide our democratic journey. While the need is generally recognised, it is not clear how and when we will be able to reach such an agreement.
There is a significant difference in the relative strength of the major stakeholders between 1990 and 2015. In 1990, there were groups who could exert influence on or mediate between the AL-led and the BNP-led political forces. In 1990, the students played an important role putting pressure on all parties to come to an agreement. Civil society was united in pressing for democracy.
The leftist party alliance played an important mediating role. But now, students have lost their autonomous voice. All student organisations are firmly affiliated with one or other political force and have no autonomous voice. Civil society organisations are no longer united and many are perceived as partisan supporters of one or other political force. The leftist parties have lost their strength, and some have joined the AL-led political force.
In the last few years, the BNP-led alliance also appears to have been significantly weakened. They are no longer in a position to put any real pressure on the AL-led forces to come to any accommodation. In such a situation, an agreement can come about only if the AL leader Sheikh Hasina is convinced that accommodating some of the demands of the BNP will serve her enlightened self-interest. At this stage, she holds all the cards.
The question is whether she wants to be recognised as a leader who finally takes initiatives to institutionalise democracy in the country. Is she going to take pro-active steps to start the process of bringing together all mainstream political forces to again make a fresh pledge to institutionalise democratic processes and culture in Bangladesh, or has she given up the path of dialogue, negotiation, and inclusion, the essential principles on which a liberal democratic order is founded?