Bangladesh's Shaky Democracy


By Prime Minister's Office, via Wikimedia Commons On October 26th 2013, the two most powerful politicians in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the ruling Awami League, and Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh National Party and former Prime Minister, had a phone conversation after many years. Zia had called to complain about arrangements for the general election due in January 2014.  The usual procedure before an election in Bangladesh is to install a caretaker government to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. However, this time around, Hasina claimed that there was no need for a caretaker government, arguing that democratic institutions were strong enough. The phone call was a chance to overcome their past differences and come together in a spirit of compromise. However, all the two leaders did was bicker and squabble. Surely enough, the election held on January 5th, 2014 was nothing short of a farce as the BNP boycotted the election and some constituencies saw no voting at all. As a result, the future of democracy in Bangladesh is on very shaky ground.

The heated phone conversation symbolizes the confrontational brand of politics that has punctuated Bangladesh’s experiment with democracy over the past twenty years. The need for a caretaker government with the military in the background before an election indicates the lack of trust the people have with the electoral process. With constant political posturing and bickering before an election, the people’s faith in the idea of democracy weakens further and the prospect of military rule ‘in the name of stability’ or worse still an increasingly influential Jamaat-e-Islami party becomes more plausible as the people look to the extremes for salvation. The threat of Islamic extremism and military rule makes it vital for the leaders of the two main political parties to work together post-election and ensure the Bangladeshi people do not lose faith in the democratic project altogether.

The personal rivalry between Hasina and Khaleda and the inability of their respective parties to work together in parliament is partly due to the majoritarian electoral system that is used in Bangladesh. In SMDP (single-member district plurality) elections between parties of equal electoral strength, as is the case with Bangladesh, small differences in the vote share can lead to large differences in seat share. The SMDP system gives the mistaken notion of overwhelming power to the ruling party in Parliament that does not reflect political reality on the ground. The majority party, whether it is the BNP or the AL, has taken advantage of its supposed power in Parliament to deny equitable time-sharing with the opposition both in Parliament as well as over the official electronic media. They do not consult the opposition when enacting policy or even constitutional amendments. The opposition in turn reacts by boycotting Parliament, claiming that they should be consulted more often when legislation is passed since they still have significant support of the electorate. The dysfunctional parliament has forced whichever party is in opposition to get their voice heard through hartals (protests) instead of parliament. Therefore, the majoritarian system has contributed to the atmosphere of confrontation and personal bickering. It has led to a vicious cycle in which the ruling party does not consult opposition MP’s which forces the opposition to invoke hartals instead of participating in parliamentary debate. The end result is that the AL and the BNP do not recognize each other as legitimate political parties in parliament and even demand that they vacate office eve though they have managed to secure a legislative majority. It is this fundamental distrust that the parties and their leaders have for each other that prompts the call for a caretaker government before every election.

Moreover, Bangladesh as a nation has been unable to move away from its past. This is partly because both Hasina and Zia’s lives have been so deeply imbricated with the nation’s history. Hasina’s decision to put together a war crimes tribunal that charged several Jamaat leaders for atrocities committed during the war of liberation has only led to more strikes being called by the Islamist party. However, trying to neutralize the threat of Islamism and bolstering her secular image by hastily convicting Jamaat leaders for their role in the 1971 only serves to embolden them further. These strikes by the opposition and the Jamaat-e-Islami have only managed to damage the economy and disrupt the functioning of the garment factories. Continued political uncertainty will weaken the confidence of domestic and international investors and Bangladesh’s economic potential might remained unfulfilled, leaving the people more disillusioned. This inability of the political establishment to forget the past and work together to meet the economic aspirations of the people will set the stage for a military takeover. The influence the army had with the caretaker government of 2007 proves the military sees itself as a stabilizing factor during the election period. If the two ‘supreme’ do not put the past behind them and work together, then the political certainty will worsen and this time round, the military’s stabilizing role might become more permanent.

By Mohammed Tawsif Salam (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Pakistan has had an even longer experience of military rule. The army has dominated state institutions and has historically played a large role in the economy. Moreover, Pakistan’s civil society has not whole-heartedly supported the idea of democracy. The urban middle class and members of the intelligentsia already have access to state resources and have no interest in shaking up the status quo. Therefore, the future of democracy seems as uncertain as it is in Bangladesh. However, the election of May 2013 signals a decisive break from the past. It was the first time that a democratically elected government handed over power to the newly elected government. The elections were free and fair for the most part and there was no military interference or oversight. This experience of democracy involving a largely transparent election as well as a peaceful transfer of power will be vital in changing the attitudes the people of Pakistan towards democracy. It is this experience that Bangladesh so desperately needs. Unfortunately for the country, that is not what they got on January 5th.

India’s experience with democracy has almost been uninterrupted and has been much more satisfying. Moreover, the era of coalition politics has meant that political parties have to work together and comprise to come to a consensus when formulating policy. Although, the compulsions of coalition politics might have slowed down the policy making process and stalled the economic reform process in the last few years, it has increased India’s democratic stability. More importantly perhaps, the respect and independence given to the Election Commission as well as its ability to hold free, fair and credible elections illustrates the fact that democracy in India is safe for the foreseeable future despite the extreme economic and social inequalities that still plague the country.

The ritualistic bickering between the two leaders in Bangladesh as well as the invocation of hartals before an election will eventually alienate the public, especially at a time when Bangladesh, with its growing textile industry, has the potential to make rapid economic strides. Pakistan’s experience with military rule and unstable democracy did not prevent them from holding a free and fair election in 2013 which involved a smooth transfer of power. The ‘two ladies’ must learn from the recent Pakistan election and move on from the past. A shift to a proportional representation electoral system might also force the two parties to work together. It will also allow other parties like Jamaat and the Bangladesh Worker’s Party to gain greater representation in Parliament, enabling them to air their grievances in Parliament rather than on the streets. The experience of coalition politics in India that has led to an increase in democratic durability and stability suggests that shifting to a proportional representation system is an idea worth experimenting with.