“It has been a terrible decade for democracy” scholars aver. “The world is now in the 13th consecutive year of a global democratic recession. Most troubling of all, democratic institutions have proved to be surprisingly brittle in countries where they once seemed stable and secure. On the other hand it has been good decade for dictatorship. The global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries has grown rapidly. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the cumulative GDP of autocracies now equals or exceeds that of Western liberal democracies.”
Regrettably, populism and ribald tribalism, propagating exclusivist politics have come to dominate liberal politics. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in, “How Democracy Dies”, answer the question themselves. Extrapolating the enabling conditions to situations in many regions and countries, may suggest that the prevailing condition are the precursor of the end of liberal democracy. President Putin struck an ominous note at the G-20 Summit in June last year when he uttered that “modern liberalism” has become “obsolete.”
On this day, a deep look at the state of our republic is ever more relevant, particularly at a time when the nation is observing the Centenary of the Father of the Nation, whose guiding principle in life had been democracy and all the important ingredients that make it a compound whole. As the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, so appropriately named by the framers of our constitution, it was the people who were to be the master of their own fate. Are they?
Democracy has had a bumpy ride in Bangladesh from the seminal stages of its emergence. The multi-party parliamentary form was replaced through a legislation that sought to subsume all other parties, disparate as they were wont to be, into one entity. But because of the violent change brought about by the brutal murder of Bangabandhu, a most tragic event in the nation’s life on 15 August, 1975, one cannot tell whether the political experiment would have been successful, if at all. But suffice it to say that the one party political dispensation, whatever may have been the motive behind its formulation, may not have reflected the psyche and political grain of the nation.
The military and pseudo military rule that followed the assassination of the Father of the Nation set the political clock back by several decades. No military rule can bring good for a nation. It destroys political institutions and changes the character of politics. New parties are floated, and fringe and religious elements are sponsored to combat the established political parties. In our case, a military ruler was replaced by another, violently too. And in both the situations, under Presidents Zia and Ershad, a new party was floated while in power that carried the elections and ruled the country.
It might surprise outside observers of Bangladesh politics to see the pseudo military regimes survive as long as they did, at least that of General Ershad, given the innate aversion of the Bengalis to military rule. The situation speaks volume about the fickle character of the current genre of our polity to whom principles, morality and values lose out to expediency and the urge to survive in politics.
Military rule was aided and abetted by the active support of a section of our politicians and some political parties. Dilating on the feature would consume more space than a newspaper’s page can afford. Suffice it to say that since the day when some politicians of the ruling party walked over the bloodstained body of the Father of the Nation and his family members, to join the cabinet of Mushtaque, military and supra political changeovers have had political acquiescence of sorts. Military rulers are encouraged when their illegal takeovers that topple an elected government are not met by vigorous opposition by the politicians. The 1986 elections under Ershad had not only given a lease of life to the Ershad regime but validated his political existence as well, and that would not have been possible, without participation in the election held under his auspices.
But be that as it may, the nation witnessed another watershed moment when Ershad was toppled by a popular movement. Parliamentary democracy reflecting the true spirit was resurrected after a hiatus of 16 long years in February 1991, but for most of the time till the caretaker-conducted elections in 2008, the parliament remained largely dysfunctional due to the opposition boycott of the parliament. Mutual distrust of political parties was so extreme that a new system, a caretaker system, had to be introduced to conduct the elections. Unfortunately, when the nation had hoped to have seen the end of military involvement in politics, the political turmoil in 2006-2007, gave an opportunity to the then Army Chief to intervene, albeit indirectly, to set up a caretaker government backseat driven by the military, under which the 9th Parliamentary election was held.
While in our country people have the luxury to enjoy democracy for only one day every five years, the day of election, even that was not accorded to them fully in 2014 and 2019. Since then, the parliament has been operating without a genuine parliamentary opposition. Post-2014 saw a unique arrangement of government when a few main opposition MPs were made a part of the ruling party cabinet, largesse for their role, and a happy arrangement with nobody to seriously hold the government to account.
The consequence has been the regression of democracy in the country as well as, sadly, erosion of the people’s trust in the process of election. The growing apathy of the public towards election has been admitted by an MP, once a minister of the current AL-led alliance government, and still part of it. People are now being offered a binary choice, between democracy and development, as if they are mutually exclusive. Our politicians may have forgotten, if ever they were aware of it, that, “democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.”
We are constrained to repeat what we have said many times in the past that in countries where members of parliament do not depend on popular mandate, people become irrelevant. Rules are framed and laws are enacted to benefit a coterie. It no longer remains participatory but becomes a “democracy” by the few and for the few. Our leaders have failed to deliver an egalitarian society to the people, where the interests of the greater majority of the poor and middle-class would not be sacrificed at the altar of the interests of the miniscule minority. The interests of the “great body” have been forfeited by the obligation to serve the interests of the few that command the major wealth of the country. That, one feels, would never have been possible if our democracy would not have been divested of its spirit.
It might be worth ending with a historical anecdote. At the conclusion of the US Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a lady whether America would be a monarchy or a republic. He had replied, “A republic… if you can keep it.”
Our founding fathers had given us a republic. There was a new dawn in February 1991 after fits and starts and the painful interregnum of around 15 years from August 1975. What is the health of our Republic given to us by the founders? That I leave to the readers to answer.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.