Many miles to go for democracy

by Saifur Rahman Tapan

democracy01Bangladesh came into being in 1971 with the promise to be a Westminster-type democracy, a system of government in which almost all activities, involving either the government or the opposition camp, would centre round the parliament. Accordingly, a constitution defining the functions of all the three pillars of the state — the executive, legislature and the judiciary — and their inter-relations was adopted by the constituent assembly on November 4, 1972; the assembly overwhelmingly dominated by the Awami League as a result of the party’s landslide victory in the general and provincial assembly elections in 1970, the last elections in the undivided Pakistan. The constitution, despite some limitations, including the failure to recognise distinct identities of different ethnic minorities, as experts in general concluded, recognised almost all basic and democratic rights, including the one related to the freedom of thinking and speech, of the people like any other constitution deemed most liberal across the world. Not only that, with the general elections that were by and large held in a free and fair manner in 1973, barring the allegations of irregularities resorted to by the then ruling party men in a number of constituencies, the journey of the first democratic government of the country formally started well with much fanfare.
Regrettably, however, no sooner had two years or so of that journey of democracy passed, the constitution received a huge blow from none other than its creators when the highly controversial fourth amendment to the constitution was passed in the parliament, that too allowing little discussion by the members. In the first place, by introducing the presidential form of government, the then rulers forsook the much-vaunted Westminster system of rule. Besides, by curtailing, to a large extent, the authorities enjoyed by the parliament, on the one hand, and by allowing the president to appoint and dismiss judges at his will, on the other, the separation of power, which is crucial for a vibrant democracy, was virtually made non-existent. So was the condition of media with all but four media outlets run by the government being forced to close operation. In politics, a one party-system in place of a multi-party system was introduced. Simply put, authoritarianism instead of democratic rule was what the country was subjected to in 1975.
After the brutal killing of the founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members on August 15, 1975, although there was a change in the political scenario, the country did not see any significant change in the form of rule. Rather, the Pakistan syndrome, especially in view of a number of coups and counter-coups by different military men in the period, at least two of which ended up putting first General Ziaur Rahman and then General Ershad at the helm of the state, plagued the country for the next 15 years. The 5th, 7th and 8th amendments to the constitution, all of which lacked any legal basis though, put the final nail in the coffin of the constitution in the period. The 5th and 7th amendments were essentially intended to give a legal basis to the respective military regimes. Also, both the amendments, along with the 8th one, contributed a lot to the Islamisation of the constitution that initially took secularism as one of its fundamental principles.
True, the 5th amendment allowed the return of multi-party political system, but it, at the same time, retained the one-man show in the ruling system. Unlike Ershad, Zia enjoyed enormous popularity and the party — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that is — that he established proved effective so far in balancing the influence of the Awami League and thereby helped a lot the political system to stabilise. But it is also true that the situation was unable to rid the nation of the pseudo-military rule he introduced even after his party won two-thirds majority in the parliamentary polls in 1979.
There are many people who believe that since 1991, when following the overthrow of the Ershad regime by an almost nine-year-long mass movement involving all democratic and progressive forces, the first government led by Khaleda Zia assumed office after winning the parliamentary elections conducted by the Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed-led interim government, Bangladesh reintroduced the kind of Westminster democracy. They are at least partially right as the country indeed went back to the parliamentary form of government in 1991. In addition, the country had witnessed three parliamentary polls since then, which were participatory and accepted both nationally and internationally, some kind of election that is widely believed to be a prerequisite for laying the foundation of democracy in the country.
But they cannot deny that all those three elections were held under the caretaker government, a form of government that was hardly seen before in any country having a tradition of practising at least electoral democracy, and that they in no way fitted the constitution that refuses to allow any unelected government to rule the nation even for a single day. That apart, the provision of the caretaker government in the constitution, which was scrapped by the apex court in 2011 triggering public protests though, paved the way for the military-backed caretaker government that ruled the country without any public mandate from 2007 to 2008. The less said about the farcical January 5 election, based on which, the current government and parliament are functioning, the better.
By saying all this, what we suggest is that the nation lacked consistency in pursuing even an electoral democracy in the past two eras, some consistency pivotal in strengthening democratic institutions in a country. One can also refer to the fact that in the name of parliamentary democracy what the country pursues now is, in fact, something like prime ministerial dictatorship.
No doubt, it was the nation’s about 23-year-long struggle for democracy during the Pakistani rule, which resulted in the 1972 constitution. None can, however, deny either that the nation required something more to do to protect the rights stipulated there. If one looks back at the history of the nations known to be pursuing functional democracy for long, s/he will certainly find some stages at which those nations also faced similar chaos, political and social. More importantly, in most cases, democracy developed, particularly with the economy of the nation concerned getting stronger. It is important because a vibrant democracy requires a vibrant middle class that gives rise to a strong civil society that usually enjoys respect for its integrity and non-partisan attitude in particular in dealing with different issues involving public interest and plays a key role in mounting pressure on the government to build up and protect different democratic institutions a democratic system banks on. Such a civil society also becomes a uniting factor, when necessary, between different political parties having minimum commitment to democratic values. Needless to say, all this is still elusive for the country. There is undeniably a civil society in the country, but it lives largely like parasites, while the issues it usually deals with are mostly donor-driven. Worse still, while the major political parties in particular usually blame each other for what can be called the fragile democracy prevalent in the country, there is no dearth of people, including even those claiming to champion democratic culture, who suggest that some extra-political forces should take the helm of the state at least for a certain period to treat what they call sick politics!
It is time to understand the fact that merely blaming political parties, key to a political system, for all the problems the nation has been faced with since its inception cannot make any difference. What is essential is for political leadership and democratically-oriented sections to join hands and intensify and continue the struggle for democracy.

Saifur Rahman Tapan is an assistant editor at New Age.

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