Bangladesh: Democracy Stumbles

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Bangladesh: Democracy Stumbles

The country is once again in the grip of authoritarianism and political violence, the roots of which run deep.

Bangladesh: Democracy Stumbles

Opposition lawmakers protest

Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

The announcement of the schedule for elections to the tenth Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) on November 25 has stoked an already volatile political situation in Bangladesh. The ready reaction of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led opposition alliance to the chief election commissioner’s televised speech to the nation, during which he announced that the general elections will be held on January 5, 2014, came in the form of what was initially a 48-hour countrywide blockade of road, rail and water ways, subsequently extended to 71 hours, beginning from November 26. The blockade ended on November 30, but the BNP commenced another 72 hour countrywide blockade the next day, which was ultimately extended until the evening of December 5. The alliance has called for yet another blockade to begin on Saturday, December 7.

In the meantime, there has been widespread violence and vandalism: vehicles are torched, public and private property destroyed. The death toll as reported on December 4 had reached 40 and scores more have been wounded. Many of the casualties were caused by an explosion of crude bombs and arson attacks on public transport. According to Samanta Lal Sen, the coordinator of the burn and plastic surgery unit at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the premier public hospital in the country, several of the victims of political violence, admitted with severe burn injuries in the last one month, had died and quite a few are in a critical condition.

The BNP-led alliance has been engaged in street agitation for months now in its demand that Sheikh Hasina resign as prime minister, given that her Awami League government completed its term on October 25. The opposition alliance claims that polls conducted under the government will not be free, fair or transparent. While the two sides continue their finger-pointing over the ongoing political impasse and social disorder, arising out of the failure of the ruling and opposition political alliances to reach a consensus on election-time government, there have reportedly been informal contacts between the feuding camps, supposedly geared towards a dialogue. Still, publicly at least, the two camps have thus far produced only contradictory statements about what the media has dubbed as “clandestine” meetings between the general secretaries of the Awami League and the BNP.

A History of Acrimony

Mutual mistrust, acrimony and recrimination between the two major political parties have come to mark Bangladeshi national politics, especially since the ouster of HM Ershad’s military regime in 1990 and the subsequent restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991. In any case, intense political unrest has marked almost every election cycle in Bangladesh since the country won independence in 1971. For instance, during the 2001 elections, which the BNP won, approximately 400 people were reportedly killed and more than 17,000 injured, primarily in street clashes between members and supporters of competing political camps. The next election cycle in 2007 also resulted in several deaths and injuries, leading to an extra-constitutional takeover by a military-backed interim government. The elections to the ninth Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) were eventually held in December 2008, with a 14-party alliance led by the Awami League scoring an electoral landslide victory.

The seeds of the political unrest and uncertainty over the forthcoming general elections were planted in June 2012, when the Awami League-dominated parliament pushed through the Fifteenth Amendment to the constitution, scrapping the provision that parliamentary elections must be held under a non-partisan caretaker government, headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Ironically, in 1996, the Awami League and its opposition allies forced the then BNP-led government, through prolonged street agitation, to incorporate that particular provision in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment. Subsequently, two parliamentary elections, in 1996 and 2001, were held under caretaker governments.

After being elected in 2001, the BNP-led government increased the retirement age for the Supreme Court chief justice, apparently to have a person perceived loyal to it as the head of the caretaker government for the next elections scheduled for 2007. Then the main opposition party, the Awami League refused to accept the former chief justice in question as the chief adviser to the caretaker government and took to the streets. Amidst the consequent political stalemate, marked by sustained violence across the country, scope was created for the military-backed interim government to take over and rule for two years unconstitutionally, after declaring a state of emergency.

Elections or no elections, violence has become a major feature of Bangladesh politics. Numerous political leaders and activists have been killed by rivals or by their own party colleagues. Data from different human rights organizations suggests that the total number of deaths resulting from political violence in 2013 is substantially higher than in recent years, according to a report published in New Age on November 7. Ain O Salish Kendra reported that political violence had claimed the lives of 289 people in the first nine months of the current year while the figure was 84 for the whole of 2012. According to a monthly report by rights organization Odhikar, at least 27 people were killed and 3,433 injured in political violence in October alone.

This political violence may very well have had its origins in the early days of independent Bangladesh. The Awami League, which had presided over the political struggle for the country’s liberation and come to embody the people’s democratic aspirations, proved autocratic in power. In 1975, its head and then president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman introduced BAKSAL, which banned all opposition parties and compelled the country to adopt a one-party system. President Ziaur Rahman, the military general-turned-politician and founder of the BNP, restored the multiparty system in the late 1970s.

Military Intervention

Meanwhile, the path for military intervention in the political process may have been paved during the rule of the post-independence AL government. Notes Professor Amena Mohsin of Dhaka University in her published research paper: “The Mukti Bahini (liberation forces), which formed the nucleus of the Bangladesh army in the immediate aftermath of the liberation war was divided along the regular Bengali forces of the then Pakistan army and those recruited by the Awami League. After the liberation of Bangladesh, Mujib paid little attention for rebuilding the armed forces; this was a cause of major discontent among the army.” The discontent deepened when Mujib created Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (National Defence Force). Rakkhi Bahini was generally viewed as a parallel institution and a threat to the interests of the army. The army was also apparently fed up with the discrimination, and disenchanted with the AL government’s unchecked rule, which had encouraged unbridled looting, illegal land grabbing and civil disorder. It was also carrying the legacy of the Pakistan army, which had its own track of deep engagement in politics. On August 15, 1975, Mujib was assassinated by a group of Bangladeshi military officers.

General Ziaur Rahman (popularly known as Zia) became president in 1977, following the resignation of the interim government president, Justice Sayem, on the grounds of illness. Many believed this was a Zia ploy to take control of the state with army backing. Although Sayem had promised early elections, Zia kept delaying them. The years of anarchy had left most of Bangladesh’s state institutions in a shambles, with constant threats of military coups amidst strikes and protests. Gaining total power, Zia banned political parties, censored the media, re-imposed martial law and commanded the army to arrest opposition forces. Ironically, Zia himself was assassinated in a military coup in 1981.

The country remained in the grip of military and quasi-military rule from 1975 till 1990, when Ershad’s regime, which had seized power through a military coup in 1982, was overthrown by a popular uprising. For the first time in the political history of Bangladesh, all major political parties joined forces to oust the rule, yet the role of the army in politics had become entrenched. The end of the autocratic regime and the election of the BNP in 1991 did not bring stability in the political arena and the military remained a major factor. Meanwhile, the student wings of the political parties have been encouraged to use arms, and continuous hartals (general strikes) emerged as a common phenomenon. Bangladesh politics became increasingly weaponized and street-centric.

A Hybrid Regime

In 2004, when the BNP was in power, AL president Sheikh Hasina was speaking at a rally in front of the party’s Bangabandhu Avenue office in Dhaka when grenades were hurled, in what was an apparent assassination attempt. Twenty people were killed and 300 injured. Since then, grenades have been found inside Dhaka Central Jail, Dhaka Medical College Hospital and at various cultural hubs. Disorder was rife during BNP’s last stint in power and the state was unable to protect the political rights and civil liberties of its citizens. The situation is unchanged, if not worse, during the Awami League-led government, which is characterized by negligible checks and balances. Not surprisingly, Bangladesh continues to be categorized under “hybrid regimes” in the Democracy Index by The Economist Intelligence Unit, meaning that democratic structures such as elections exist but the state has remained fundamentally authoritarian.

Clearly, the political system of Bangladesh needs a review. Can it transition to a full democracy or will it remain a hybrid regime? It is not easy to build a sturdy democracy. Even in established democratic states, the system can corrode if not nurtured and protected. The Global Corruption Barometer 2012, the largest worldwide survey on public views on corruption, says 50 per cent of Bangladeshis surveyed in 2010 considered the government’s measures effective in curbing corruption. After two years, that had declined to 26 per cent. According to the survey, Bangladeshis see the political parties and the police as the most corrupt institutions, followed by the judiciary, parliament and civil administration. People have reason to lose faith, given the extent of nepotism and graft. This erosion in faith persists with the two major political parties refusing to desert confrontational politics and work towards a transparent, accountable, and participatory democratic system.

Now, as the Awami League continues to evince no interest in accommodating the BNP’s demands by clinging to power beyond its tenure, while the opposition resorts to violent street agitation, there are fears of a repeat of the January 2007 intervention by the army. Were that to occur, Bangladesh would once again be going backwards on the path towards democratization.

Nisha Sharmeen Ali is a Dhaka-based journalist.