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OP-ED: How the house of cards came crashing down

  • Published at 11:25 pm April 7th, 2021
time democracy

Four different factors explain the fault-lines in our democracy

It does not matter which indicators or reports we want to follow -- be it Polity IV, Freedom of the World Report, Liberal Democracy Index, or report of the Economic Intelligence Unit, the truth is that you would be hard pressed to find an impartial outside observer with much positive to say about the state of democracy in Bangladesh today. 

When we are celebrating 50 years of our independence, and have much to celebrate, one can at the same time make the gloomy assertion that we have not kept our promise of developing a democratic governance and polity. 

However, we actually had a good “reset” in 1991 after years of rule by the autocrats. In the early 90s, our institutions could speak truth to political power, and the government and opposition actually worked together to shape our democracy. 

But those days are long gone, and we are now living in a governing system that rewards loyalty over neutral competence, discourages speaking truth to power, has presided over the destruction of democratic institutions, and has facilitated the growth of a largely ideology-free or value-free political system. 

In my opinion, four different factors shaped our journey to this sorry state: Gradual destruction of the electoral accountability, successful effort to blunt the horizontal accountability mechanisms, an embrace of political confrontation at its fiercest form as the established political norm, and weakening of liberalism as a political idea. 

It is necessary to explore how these four factors emerged as they reveal the fault-lines of our democratic system. 

The seeds of destruction

In the early 1990s, the AL demand for establishing a caretaker government (CTG) did not initially gain popularity. Moreover, when the party won the Dhaka and Chittagong mayoral elections, it was considered a triumph of democracy. Institutions of accountability were delivering and looked like we were heading towards consolidation of an electoral democracy. 

And then Magura-2 happened. It was an AL safe seat and when the incumbent MP died, no one expected BNP to win. The election was rigged, the BNP candidate was declared the winner, and probably the most consequential event in our electoral history took place. 

The hitherto fringe demand of holding elections under non-elected actors gained legitimacy. That single incident derailed our democratic journey and led to a strong movement which resulted in the “Janatar Mancha” where the bureaucrats of the country openly declared their non-allegiance to a government. 

The final outcome was the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, the creation of the caretaker government, which opened the floodgate of politicizing the judiciary. 

Every democratic failure of our governing system has something to do with this particular fault-line. 

The pivot

In Bangladesh, since the very beginning of our democratic journey in 1991, efforts were taken to politicize the bureaucracy. However, undermining the horizontal accountability system and forcing institutions to function as they were told got new meaning during the period of 1996 and 2001. 

The decision to reward the bureaucrats who initiated and joined the “Janatar Mancha” sent a wrong message. Lessons learned from the bureaucracy’s action were applied to different institutions of accountability -- they were either designed to fail, or were politicized heavily so that they could only serve the executive. 

There is a possibility that the absence of democratic institutions that we are observing today is an outcome of miscalculation of the bureaucracy and the then government’s decision to reward that unacceptable display of discretion. 

There can be only one

It is true that the current regime has performed “remarkably well” in bringing an end to opposition politics. But in my opinion, the key incident that shaped current AL strategy and approach to opposition politics is the August 21 attack. 

Even if we consider that the BNP leadership were kept in the dark or did not provide a tacit approval for the attack, let us not forget that they actively participated in staging the “Joj Mia” drama. 

They were willing to hide the incident under the carpet and were more than happy to let it go unpunished. It is this approach, this strategy -- not only the incident -- that brought an end to any possibility of reconciliatory politics and initiated a cycle of violent politics.

The end of liberalism?

In a democracy, liberals had a specific role to play. Liberals should oppose oppression, fight hard for freedom of opinion and expression, and challenge the party in power in case it tries to violate democratic principles. 

In the context of Bangladesh, the liberals failed to play that role specifically in the post-2008 period. AL is essentially a big tent party that at least until the Shahbagh movement considered the liberals as a powerful ally and in 2009-10, the party did introduce some certain policies to appease the liberal wing. 

Shahbagh exposed the liberals’ weakness -- they are a group of individuals more than willing to sacrifice liberal principles, need the party (AL) more than the party needs them, prefer to conduct movement against the government while being under the protection of that government, and do not want to take risks. 

It did not take AL long to sacrifice these “liberals” in favour of coming to terms with the Hefazat Movement. And the decision to come to terms with this conservative force has not only made AL an essentially ideology-free party but also has made the liberals a fringe group. 

We are observing the end of liberalism in Bangladesh and probably waiting for the birth of a new liberal group. 

It is important to understand that the democratic deficit that we are observing has not happened all of a sudden or out of the blue. 

Our democratic backsliding has happened gradually, over time, where the successive regimes pushed the democratic norms away from our political culture. 

We need to keep that in mind as we plan our future. Having a free and fair election should be the starting point, but history teaches us that we cannot be complacent and instead should start thinking about designing democratic political institutions.

Asif M Shahan is Associate Professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka.

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