Terrifying trends for representative democracy

by Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley

terryfying-trendsIn that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman…
— TS Eliot, Four Quartets

Admittedly it is dangerous, or at least unadvisable, for one who wants to be even half a historian, not to speak of analyst of history, to be too close when in the ‘open field’ history is being made for posterity to ponder on. To a person standing ‘close by’ concrete details are likely to be more attractive than significant but less immediately perceptible historical trends and tendencies. A restricted canvas is all one is allowed to view. This is because one stands too close to the picture. Trees are quite likely to obscure the woods so far as a contemporary observer is concerned.
For the evolving present in Bangladesh the trees are frightening in themselves. The woods may not be, as Robert Frost envisioned, ‘lovely, dark and deep’ but terrifyingly wild and dangerous.
There is no question that representative democracy as the politically and economically developed countries know it has not been able to strike secure roots in Bangladesh. After 43 years of independence, the nation has travelled through a stormy political road.
Fledgling democracy in the restless social and economic atmosphere has been riddled by one crisis after another since the advent of Bangladesh in blood and fire.
The 1971 historic war of independence was, in essence, a struggle for democracy. It was the lack of democracy in the dictatorial state of Pakistan that principally led to the sanguinary struggle for emancipation of the Bengalis of Bangladesh. Despite this, the newly founded democratic order in post-independence Bangladesh collapsed in the war-ravaged country. The history of successive military rule and their re-civilianisation is well documented. It is not necessary or relevant now to recapitulate this part of our past. Resurrected parliamentary democracy has been with us since 1991. It is important that we focus on our relatively recent past. This may help identify the roots of the troubles that haunt our democracy.
terryfying-trends02From the very beginning of the season of its renewal, parliamentary democracy largely remained unable to regain the culture and reaffirm the practice of democracy. The failure was principally caused by the inadequacy of the political classes that emerged since the beginning of the 1990s. A closer look would, however, reveal that it was not only the leading political elements but also the elite that contributed to the continuing crises of democracy.
The politicians and the elite which serve as their catchment area and support base did not emerge all of a sudden. They were both produced by our eclectic political history. That history traced its way to multi-party and single-party order and military rule with their re-civilianisation and resurrection of parliamentary democracy. Every change of regime threw up a new set of elite who had no time to learn their social responsibilities. The political classes which were born in the wombs of these elite, therefore, could not get the opportunity and time for adequate social mobilisation.
The present crisis of the state threatens the very existence of representative democracy. Partisan politics has reached its zenith and an executive-dominated political system is gathering increasing strength. This has been so since 2009 when after the interregnum of a covert military regime of two years (2007–2008) the Awami league was elected to power with a massive victory in the polls. The trend became still stronger as the party return to power through what was widely regarded as a controversial and largely non-participatory parliamentary election of January 5, 2014.
As it is what emerged since the resurrection in 1991 was not a fully operational parliamentary cabinet system. But virtually a prime ministerial system with the executive as the predominant master. The prime minister as the chief executive of the government is also the leader of the house, that is the national legislature. As the leader of her political party, both within and outside the parliament, the leaders of both the major parties which alternated in power enjoy unchallenged authority. As with the Awami League, so with the BNP there is hardly any internal democracy. The respective top leaders are, therefore, in supreme command of unrestricted power and authority.
The prime ministerial system in Bangladesh has received tremendously powerful fillip after the 2014 elections. In these polls in which the BNP did not participate, the Awami League practically had a walkover. It has a more than overwhelming majority in the parliament as it had in the 9th Parliament (2009–2013).
Under the powerful leadership of the prime minister, who was also the leader of the house, that parliament passed the 15th amendment to the constitution. It changed the entire political equation existing since 1991. As it abolished the caretaker government system which had been consensually fabricated to conduct and oversee in a non-partisan and neutral manner free and fair national elections. This naturally enraged the opposition. It started countrywide agitation. The consequent political strife led to a three-month long turmoil in the country. The party in power did not relent. Instead, with the strong help of the coercive machinery of the state, it succeeded in thwarting the opposition move to resist the national elections. It had thus a smooth and unchallenged victory. The subsequent months since the elections of January 5 have been marked by apparent peace and tranquillity. The government party before the elections announced that it was for the sake of constitutional continuity that they held the virtually non-participatory election. But despite questions over the political legitimacy of the government born in such a hollow election, at home and abroad, it continued with business as usual. Not only that, but all talks of dialogue and a meaningful participatory election are now forgotten history. The ruling party is currently speaking of the elections of 2019 that is at the end of its normal tenure, about which dialogues with the opposition can take place. It is rightfully speaking of the need of peace and order for the sake of rapid development of the country. So far, so good. The question now is: how long will this peace last? The frittering law and order situation is clear to the people despite government insistence that murders, abductions, violent inter-party and intra-party clashes are only scattered incidents. Partisan administration and politicised and polarised intelligentsia are crying hoarse for good governance although its existence is scarcely seen.
Economically, there is an apparent flurry of mega development projects approved by the authorities in the government sector. They have long gestation for producing effective results. Meanwhile, the government in its current budget proposes to depend on hefty bank loans. The banks and financial institutions are overflowing with idle money ‘amounting to some [Tk] one hundred and fifty thousand crore.’ One wonders while workers abroad are remitting more than $14 billion a year and the RMG exports total nearly $20 billion. Why are domestic investors and entrepreneurs so shy? Why are not they coming forth with trade and industrial enterprises using the easily available loans from banks and financial institutions wallowing in excess liquidity? A similar, if not greater, reluctance is found in the field of foreign direct investment.
Answers to these questions many reveal the hollowness of the existing political tranquillity. Do the politico-economic doldrums signify a vacuum in which storms may suddenly generate? The party in power would do well to consider these issues with deep thought, wise foresight and great caution and care.
The powers that be will do well to remember that the political peace and administrative tranquillity in a truly democratic order is stronger and more enduring. Make-believe tranquillity is no substitute for that type of orderly peace. In a true democracy, opposition bashing to make mince meat of it is needless. That is the essence of the strength of a genuine democracy. It needs a respectable opposition. It requires two understanding partners to successfully dance the democratic tango. Such a harmonious peaceful dynamics can alone ensure sound people-oriented development of the nation.
The political parties may have other things in their minds: to stay in power or to obtain power. The supreme need of politics in democracy is, however, a national consensus on basic issues for the greater good of the people. As Shirley Bessay sang in her inimitable voice:

Please Mr Brown, take it easy
You’re spoiling my gown.
I know music brings out that yearning
But right now you’re learning the tango
Please Mr Jones, not so tight
You are crushing my bones
I’ll just bet you’re expert at wooing
But right now you are doing the tango.

The author, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, was a former teacher of political science in Dhaka University (1964–1967) and a former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967–1980) and a former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990).

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