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.
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