Towards democracy: role of civil society

by Md Mostafizur Rahaman

civil-society01Democracy, as defined in Wikipedia, in its ideal sense is the notion that ‘the people’ should have control of the government ruling over them. This ideal is pursued by implementing a system of voting such that the majority of people rule, either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. Democracies may be ‘liberal’, where fundamental rights of individuals in the minority are protected by law, or they may be ‘illiberal’ where they are not. Democracy is often implemented as a form of government in which policy is decided by the preference of the real majority in a decision-making process, usually elections or referendums open to all.
Democracy is a system of government where institutions and procedures through which citizens can express effective preferences about alternative policies at the national level and there are institutionalised constraints on the exercise of power by the executive (competition) and exists inclusive suffrage and a right of participation in the selection of national leaders and policies.
Democracy encompasses not only a civilian, constitutional, multi-party regime with regular, free and fair elections and universal suffrage, but also organisational and informational pluralism, extensive civil liberties (freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom to form and join organisations), effective power for elected officials, and functional autonomy for the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.
So, in a democratic system, politics and political institutions do promote human development and safeguard the freedom and dignity of all people, the rule and law is everywhere and the political power is handed over through election. Democracy as a set of values and governance is a process of interaction among three sets of actors, from the state, civil society and the private sector, which implies a governance based fundamental and universally accepted principles, including participation, accountability, transparency, the rule of law, the separation of powers, access, subsidiarity, equality and freedom of the press.
Civil society is a vital component of governance and decentralisation; it is the component that is supposed to vigilantly hold those in power accountable and to promote democracy. Simply put, civil society is that sphere of action independent of the state, within the realm of private sector and civil organisations, capable of stimulating resistance to and change in undemocratic regimes. Civil society is one place where citizens can engage one another in the kind of personal dialogue and deliberation that is the essence not only of community building but of democracy itself. Civil society is the realm of organised social life that is voluntary, self-generating, self-supporting, autonomous from the state and bound by a legal or shared set of rules.
civil-society02 Civil society organisations include non-governmental organisations, professional and private sector associations and trade unions. They also include families, churches, neighbourhood groups, social groups and work groups. Indeed, the capability and strength of civil society depend on the operation of such organisations. Civil society organisations take on various roles and responsibilities, among them supplementing the functions normally performed by political parties such as interest articulation and popular mobilisation, recruiting and training new political leaders and disseminating information and holding governments accountable.
In a recent publication, civil society organizations are seen as capable ofperforming various functions, among them, generating a democratic transition byaltering the balance of power between society and State, organizing oppositionagainst the State, articulating interests of groups in society, recruiting leaders whoare prepared to overthrow the non-democratic regime and providing information,which may inspire citizens to protest against the regime.
The civil society of Bangladesh has a rich history from the liberation to democratization through a free and fair election in 1991. After independence of Bangladesh the civil society plays a vital role of its socio-economic and political development. The caretaker government system was the achievement both political and civil society movement. In even, the civil society played an important role in all caretaker governments from 1996 to 2008.
After 1975 era, the civil society groups were involved more socio-economic development through in institutionalize form and that time a number of NGOs developed and got registration from government. In 1980s most of the NGOs were involved with service related activities and it is continuing till days. Only a limited number of NGOs take on an advocacy role and that is advocating for human rights, inclusiveness, social justice, clean politics, transparency and accountability. Many of these organizations are also partisans. A large number of service delivery NGOs, on the other hand, engage in micro-credit, thus playing the role of bankers. Many other service delivery NGOs function like mercenaries and initiate activities based on the availability of funding instead of pursuing their own priorities. Such NGOs are neither self-generating nor even partially self-sustaining, and they generally shy away from taking positions critical of public authorities – even at the cost of sacrificing public interest. Many of them are also either aligned with political parties or are direct creations of political forces. Our largest NGOs are largely corporate entities. Thus, including most of the NGOs of Bangladesh into the civil society fold is problematic. They could at best be characterized as a kind of “benign” civil society, as opposed to the “pro-active” type. So, the civil society could not perform their desired role. And even they are involved with different types of controversial issues. As a result the democracy in Bangladesh is passing a crucial moment.
The constitution of Bangladesh provides most of the essential elements for democracy although the country is yet to fully develop right policies, environment, institutions, capacity and practice of democracy. Despite a return to parliamentary democracy following a mass movement for democracy in 1990, and subsequent free and fair elections under neutral, interim governments was established, democratic norms and practices have not been smooth in the country. Democratic governance which alone can safeguard the constitutional rights and interests of the citizens and ensure better performance of the state functionaries is still missing.
In the past decade, Bangladesh has gone through major changes which are conducive to the development of transparent, accountable governance — well-organised and transparent general elections were held in October 2001 and December 2008 with the highest ever voter turnout, the emergence of an independent role for the Election Commission, particularly ATM Shamsul Huda commission (2007–2012), adequate access of all candidates to the media during election campaigns, and the decision of government to activate the parliamentary standing committees and to the broadcast part of the proceedings of the parliament to promote accountability.
Despite the above achievements, Bangladesh continues to face major problems in democratic governance for sustainable growth and equity. There is no elected local government of district councils and the administrator of district councils are not elected; they are appointed by the government. The upazila council is not functioning and its elected body (chairman and vice-chairman) have no adequate scope for involvement in local development interventions. Although members of parliament are policy-makers, they are involved in local development process instead of policy-making in parliament and it is a violation of rules. Other immediate issues of governance that require a government response include the need to enhance the capacity and independence of the judicial system, to improve access to the electronic media, to eradicate corruption and to develop a coherent policy formulation process to enable the involvement of all segments of society, leading to consensus-building on major issues of national concern.
Bangladesh accomplished a great deal in the past few decades, against all odds and ordeals. There have been striking reductions in fertility and infant mortality rates. Gone are the days of routine famines, with the rise in agricultural productivity and more efficient food production. Gone too are the days of massive causalities to cyclones and floods. More girls are educated, and a great deal close to 100 per cent of children are enrolled in primary schools although high dropout is still a big challenge. More children are immunised, and diseases such as polio are banished. We even see a steady pace of economic growth and a downward trend in poverty. The poor people of Bangladesh have surely benefited from these gains.
In Bangladesh, democracy as an institution is new and still frail. For lack of political will, the country could not make any development in relation for democracy and good governance. And even in some cases, the country went behind by reducing the power of the Anti-Corruption Commission, reducing the liberty of the press through a broadcasting policy and also some judicial changes.
Although I am not a supporter of the caretaker government system, doing away with it through the 15th amendment to the constitution it is not acceptable. My argument is that the traditional election system fails to win efficient candidates who take the leadership to make Bangladesh a democratic and self-sufficient country. So, we should introduce the proportionate voting system to ensure a proportional representation in the parliament.
Over the past four decades since independence, Bangladesh has witnessed several political hiccups including the assassination of two presidents, two army coups, one army-backed government and two major political movements that caused the downfall of political regimes. Bangladesh has had six general elections in the past 24 years (1991–2014); among these elections, four were generally free and fair and major political parties including oppositions boycotted the 6th and 10th parliament elections. Yet democracy of Bangladesh seems to be floundering.
The absence of transparency is a critical issue preventing a sound institutional democratic governance. Although access to information is deemed to be important and significant for transparency, the state has yet to open its necessary information in the public domains, a task which is essential for democracy and transparency.
Moreover, important stakeholders to whom institutions must be accountable are not aware of their responsibilities and rights in this respect. In the NGO sector, there is a general absence of accountability to beneficiaries and similarly in the business sector, there is a comparable poor degree of accountability both to shareholders and to clients and customers.
Both political and public officials are not accountable and the decision-making process is not transparent. The parliamentary government has been far away from satisfactory. The last four parliaments (1991–2013) were not effective because of a prolonged boycott by the main opposition and the running parliament has no opposition party — in true sense, all are part of the government. The decision-making processes are excessively centralised. Power politics influence decision-making in organisations and subvert established rules and policies and muscle power has an undue influence. Vested interests within organisations promote the will of government while people appointed politically serve higher benefactors rather than the interest of organisations.
Corruption is widespread. The World Bank has cancelled the funding for the Padma bridge project on the ground of corruption. As an important prerequisite to democratic governance, developing countries are introducing a lot of mechanisms to reduce corruption but in Bangladesh corruption is widespread. The Anti-Corruption Commission is now powerless and like a toothless tiger.
One of the aspirations of our people, and the major goals of our constitution, is to secure a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice — political, economic and social — will be secured for all citizens. By upholding the rule of law, the judiciary protects the rights of individuals to live, work and enjoy without fear or favour. The promotion of good governance through the judiciary depends on its independence to a great extent.
The rule of law situation is not good. Civil society is highlighting in particular its concerns regarding two specific laws that facilitate endemic human rights violations in Bangladesh — the Special Powers Act which allows arbitrary detention for long periods of time without charge and Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which facilitates torture in custody.
The overall rights situation in Bangladesh is alarming, amid continuous political violence. Forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and deaths in police custody is a common picture along with communal violence, harassment and killing of journalists, gender-based violence and the violation of worker rights. There were more than thousands victims of torture and 72 deaths by extrajudicial killings in the past year and twenty-six people were murdered, 84 tortured and 175 abducted by India’s Border Security Force. Besides, the past year was the year of political clashes when 507 people, including 15 police personnel and two BGB soldiers died; and approximately 22,407 people were injured.
It is recognised that civil society has an important role for democracy and democratisation. It needs to be autonomous and able to resist manipulation by the state and business interest groups. A strong and reliable civil society can represent the interest of people and the community and serve as a check on the use of power by the state.
Western diplomats in Dhaka also interacted with civil society actors to encourage their involvement in determining the polls-time system of government, especially regarding the caretaker issue, in the past year. Political analysts say that there is a pretext for third-party intervention. The same situation occurred in 2007. To resolve election-time uncertainties, the diplomats met politicians, editors and high-profile lawyers. Many believed that the emergence of a third forum would be a solution to the problem. But they could not resolve the problems in 2007 and 1013. Now why did it happen? Some political analysts informally discussed and agreed that it was the failure of the civil society.
NGO-driven civil society could not take proper stand for political reformation as well as against the anti-democratic and inhuman initiatives from both the state and political parties. Sometimes they became divided and debated for government or the opposition alliance in forums including television talk-shows. So, general people perceived and got a message that civil society was the intellectual groups of political parties, especially the two major alliances.
But for political reformation, it is necessary to ensure a combined effect of civil society. It needs to create spaces for debates and dialogues which are essential in reaching a compromise and a shared direction. An autonomous and moderate civil society group can help to bridge divides between the groups and work to build social and political consensus. Civil society must represent alternative methods for citizens to obtain a voice. Civil society must continue to educate the public about their rights and responsibilities, their government and its process. The civil society is yet to sit with leaders of both parties, the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and the leader of the BNP-led alliance, Khaleda Zia, to find out a solution. Civil society groups took a number of initiatives but could not produce any result because they were already co-opted and controlled by political actors. So, they can hardly act independently and stand against excesses of the state. Besides, the civil society group belongs to a certain block and ideology. They cannot represent the whole society that is composed of different views and ways of thinking.
Civil society organisations will be more active in stimulating the political awareness of the masses and encouraging their political participation to protect their own interests. Through these efforts, governments can become more accountable and responsive to people’s needs; and the elite and the mass public will be more committed to democracy. Hence, a democratic consolidation will be achieved. Instead of using a corporatist model to co-opt civil society and restrict its autonomy, states can provide assistance to civil society organisations to perform their functions more effectively. This assistance should be in the form of financial support and training of personnel. In addition, civil society’s autonomy should not be violated. The governments should not be afraid of a free civil society as it encourages governments to be more honest, accountable, transparent and responsive to the public demands, which will win the support of the people and strengthen their legitimacy. Strong civil society organisations in a transition can provide constructive channels for democratic participation. They can help to rebuild citizens’ trust in the government, promote their rights and interests, and encourage the inclusion of minorities and disenfranchised groups. Nevertheless, the potential or ability of civil society in Bangladesh towards democracy cannot make us optimistic unless they become free of the enchantment of political parties and actors as well as personal interests.

Md Mostafizur Rahaman is a development expert.

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