Bangladesh: Democracy Stumbles (Page 2 of 2)

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief