Rocky Road to Democ­racy

Pol­i­tics in Ban­gledesh have been hostage to po­lit­i­cal vendetta be­tween the two ‘Begums’ while a third force has not emerged to break the stand off.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Dr. Moo­nis Ah­mar

With only 30 seats in a house of 300, Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party (BNP) led by the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Khaleda Zia has al­most given the Awami League gov­ern­ment a free hand in pol­i­tics. With two-thirds’ ma­jor­ity, the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina feels con­fi­dent to have a smooth sail­ing in the re­main­ing three years of her regime. Does it mean that Bangladesh has been trans­formed as a demo­cratic dic­ta­tor­ship be­cause of a frag­ile op­po­si­tion or the un­pop­u­lar­ity of the Awami League gov­ern­ment in view of sharp price hike, se­ri­ous power short­ages and corruption will cause the surge of BNP in the com­ing elec­tions?

More than BNP, Awami League has been blamed of dic­ta­to­rial and au­thor­i­tar­ian prac­tices. The first gov­ern­ment of Awami League in the post-lib­er­a­tion pe­riod was blamed of re­sort­ing to worst form of po­lit­i­cal vic­tim­iza­tion. The regime of Sheikh Mub­jib not only de­clared Bangladesh as a one-party state in 1975 but also banned po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties. When the sec­ond Awami League Gov­ern­ment came to power in 1996 led by Sheikh Hasina, po­lit­i­cal con­fronta­tion with BNP deep­ened re­sult­ing into sharp schism be­tween the two ‘Begums.” Khaleda Zia, then the op­po­si­tion leader blamed Hasina of po­lit­i­cal vendetta and boy­cotted the pro­ceed­ings of par­lia­ment. This time also, one can ob­serve the hard­en­ing of rift in the Bangladeshi po­lit­i­cal scene with BNP blam­ing Awami League of mis­us­ing its two-thirds’ ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment by chang­ing the Is­lamic char­ac­ter of the coun­try and em­bark­ing on po­lit­i­cal vic­tim­iza­tion. But, it seems, this time, Awami League is play­ing its cards well. It has a long-term po­lit­i­cal agenda to keep the coun­try un­der its con­trol. Four things are sup­port­ing Awami League to ac­com­plish that agenda.

First, de­spite the un­pop­u­lar­ity of Sheikh Hasina in view of bad gov­er­nance, per­ceived tilt in fa­vor of In­dia and po­lit­i­cal vic­tim­iza­tion of op­po­si­tion, Awami League knows that the BNP is in po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness. With only 30 mem­bers in a house of 300, BNP has been re­duced to a po­lit­i­cal non-en­tity. Never be­fore in the post-Mu­jib era, has the op­po­si­tion in Bangladesh been so frag­ile. Tariq Zia, Khaleda’s son and a se­nior BNP leader, is in self-ex­ile in Bri­tain and her own party is in sham­bles. He was im­pli­cated in scores of corruption charges and was put be­hind the bar by the then mil­i­tary-backed care­taker

gov­ern­ment. Awami League is aware that if Tariq Zia, the po­lit­i­cal heir of Khaleda is un­able to re­ha­bil­i­tate him­self in the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal arena, there will be no tan­gi­ble po­lit­i­cal fig­ure to chal­lenge Awami League. The end of Zia’s dy­nasty will only ben­e­fit Awami League.

In or­der to take ad­van­tage of BNP’s pre­dictable po­lit­i­cal eclipse, Sa­jeeb Wazed Joy, the U.S. based en­gi­neer son of Bangladeshi Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina an­nounced join­ing the rul­ing Awami League as a pri­mary mem­ber in Fe­bru­ary 2010. Sec­ond, Sheikh Hasina has been able to shrewdly neu­tral­ize mil­i­tary, the per­ceived backer of Khaleda Zia. Since the coup of Au­gust 15, 1975 and the as­sas­si­na­tion of Sheikh Mu­jib by ju­nior Army of­fi­cers, Awami League and mil­i­tary de­vel­oped a deep sense of mis­trust and an­i­mos­ity. When last year the gov­ern­ment dis­placed Khaleda Zia from her house in Dhaka can­ton­ment where she had been liv­ing since the last 35 years, there was no protest from the side of the mil­i­tary. In fact, the chang­ing role of Bangladeshi mil­i­tary which since 1977 demon­strated a rel­a­tive tilt for BNP showed its neu­tral­ity in the win­ter of 2007 when it re­fused to sup­port the then Prime Min­is­ter Khaleda Zia in her bid to hold con­tro­ver­sial na­tional elec­tions. The mil­i­tary re­fused to bail out Khaleda Zia and her son Tariq Zia from the se­ri­ous charges of corruption. When the care­taker gov­ern­ment im­posed emer­gency and ar­rested Khaleda Zia and her son, no con­sid­er­a­tion was showed by the mil­i­tary. Sheikh Hasina ex­ploited the ap­par­ent cleav­age be­tween the mil­i­tary and Khaleda Zia in or­der to re­ha­bil­i­tate mis­trust be­tween Awami League and the mil­i­tary. How­ever, it is an­other mat­ter, how the lat­ter would re­act if the gov­ern­ment of Sheikh Hasina gets more close to In­dia?

Third, the Awami League gov­ern­ment has also been able to get the sup­port of ju­di­ciary in car­ry­ing out some of its mea­sures like evict­ing Khaleda Zia from her can­ton­ment house, restor­ing the sec­u­lar clauses of 1972 con­sti­tu­tion or launch­ing a trial against what it calls col­lab­o­ra­tors with Pak­istan Army dur­ing the lib­er­a­tion war of 1971. Fourth, Awami League has suc­ceeded in deep­en­ing po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion of BNP by im­pli­cat­ing the lead­er­ship of Jam­mat-i-Is­lami in the al­leged war crimes. In the last gov­ern­ment of BNP (2001-2006) Jam­mat was its ma­jor al­lay and by ar­rest­ing the key lead­ers of Jam­mat in charge of war crimes, the Awami League gov­ern­ment has been able to cause a ma­jor set­back for BNP. If the charges of war crimes are proved in a court of law against Jam­mat lead­ers, it will be quite dif­fi­cult for BNP to con­tinue its al­liance with that hard line re­li­gious po­lit­i­cal party. In the past also, BNP was blamed of cov­er­ing up what was charged as ‘no­to­ri­ous’ role played by Jam­mat dur­ing the 1971 lib­er­a­tion war by sid­ing with the Pak­istan army and col­lab­o­rat­ing in what they al­leged ‘geno­cide’ against the Bengali peo­ple of the then East Pak­istan.

Bangladesh’s road to democ­racy since its sep­a­ra­tion from Pak­istan has not been smooth. Po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of Awami League which launched a re­lent­less strug­gle against the West Pak­istani dom­i­nated regime against ex­ploita­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion and for democ­racy failed to meet the as­pi­ra­tions of its own peo­ple when it came to power in 1972. Awami League failed to ex­press po­lit­i­cal tol­er­ance vis-a-vis its op­po­nents which led to dras­tic mea­sures taken by Sheikh Mu­jib in 1975 by im­pos­ing a oneparty sys­tem. Fur­ther­more, of Awami League and BNP. The mil­i­tary backed care­taker gov­ern­ment (2007-2008) tried its best to cre­ate that force by en­cour­ag­ing split in Awami League and BNP but failed. It means the scope of democ­racy which can help re­solve crit­i­cal is­sues faced by Bangladesh is very lim­ited. If Awami League is able to fur­ther con­sol­i­date its po­si­tion and marginal­ize BNP, it would cer­tainly mean Bangladesh’s trans­for­ma­tion as a demo­cratic dic­ta­tor­ship state. That type of a sit­u­a­tion may prompt an­other phase of mil­i­tary or quasi-mil­i­tary rule be­cause de­spite its neu­tral pos­ture vis-a-vis Awami League’s gov­ern­ment, army gen­er­als may not like their coun­try to be ruled by a po­lit­i­cal party hav­ing close links with In­dia and pur­su­ing a ‘sec­u­lar’ agenda.

The ex­am­ple of Bangladesh as a mod­er­ate Mus­lim demo­cratic state is given by its lead­ers. But, there is a big ques­tion mark as far as main­tain­ing a Mus­lim and demo­cratic iden­tity of that coun­try is con­cerned. If the Awami League’s gov­ern­ment man­aged to change the Is­lamic com­plex­ion of Bangladesh and pur­sues its in­tol­er­ant pos­ture vis-a-vis BNP and Jam­mat, there is lit­tle like­li­hood of pre­vent­ing the threat of civil­ian dic­ta­tor­ship in that coun­try.

More than po­lit­i­cal par­ties and groups, who have made a mess of democ­racy while in power, one can hold peo­ple re­spon­si­ble as to why they keep on elect­ing par­ties hav­ing a dis­mal record of good gov­er­nance and the rule of law. Po­lit­i­cal ma­tu­rity is one thing but the right se­lec­tion of can­di­dates in elec­tions is an­other thing. What has hap­pened in the last four decades of the his­tory of Bangladesh is sim­ply the change of faces, rather than change in the poli­cies ben­e­fi­cial to the coun­try’s ma­jor­ity of pop­u­la­tion. As a re­sult, the qual­ity of life of peo­ple has not im­proved and Bangladesh is still not able to transform it­self from the least to less de­vel­op­ing coun­try. The writer is Vis­it­ing Re­search Fel­low, South Asia Pro­gram, Ra­jarathan In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity, Sin­ga­pore and Pro­fes­sor, Depart­ment of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions, Univer­sity of Karachi.

Does democ­racy prom­ise a sta­ble fu­ture to the peo­ple

of Bangladesh?

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