People protesting on the streets during the anti-Ershad movement. Photo: Dinu Alam
Bangladesh will be observing the eighth consecutive year of the present Awami League Government on January 5, 2017. In the last eight years, the country has witnessed impressive socio-economic development. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her cabinet have successfully enhanced the scope of the Bangladeshi economy whilst restoring Bangladesh’s soft-power image internationally. The statistics and data support this. Nevertheless, uncomfortable questions have arisen regarding the state of democracy in Bangladesh. If Bangladesh is to continue in its path towards becoming a middle-income economy, the values of democracy that have diminished over the past few years, requires a major revamp in the current year.
Begum Khaleda Zia may have flaws. But nobody can question her role in the anti Ershad struggle or her defiant character. In a public rant against the Awami League regime and state organisations, the erstwhile Leader of the Opposition questioned the audacity of the law-enforcement agencies in surrounding her residence without a warrant in December 2013. When Begum Zia strode out of her car and expressed her anger towards the Government, many believed she had the sympathy, if not support, of the public. The facts remain that the Awami League Government had harassed her, cordoned her house off with the notorious sand-trucks and arrested many senior leaders of her party, prior to the January elections.
And yet how the tables have turned! Does the Awami League Government enjoy nationwide support? Surveys give indifferent responses. Who knows, maybe people do not care anymore. But then does the public have an overarching support for the BNP? The answer is no. Neither the BNP nor the Awami League enjoy the levels of popularity that they had in the past. Social media and an ever-aware population do not succumb to the rhetoric of politicians.
To judge the January 5 election of 2014 as a simple matter of right versus wrong, is in itself erroneous. The Awami League is right when it says that the election was a constitutional requirement. The BNP is right when it suggests that the day was a dent to democracy. And General Ershad’s flip flopping on whether he would participate in the election or not, was in all honesty, a comical charade for the public. But what Sheikh Hasina, Begum Zia and General Ershad fail to realise is that this entire episode and its long term effects were consequences of a purely internal political issue. The public had nothing to do with it. We did not demand a scrapping of the caretaker government system neither have we been vociferously demanding its restoration. Our media did not promote a crisis. Our businessmen did not advise the leadership to go for destructive politics. Our political parties created and enhanced a crisis which had absolutely nothing to do with the average Bangladeshi, and this lack of realisation, is the biggest dent to our democratic values.
Going back to the confinement of Khaleda Zia, the former Prime Minister might have expected the public to storm into the streets of Dhaka in her support. But the backdrop of this day was mired by the paralysing hartals and violent agitations of the BNP and its allies. Mind you, it was not the BNP that invented the practice of violent agitations. Again, this was a trend set forth during the Ershad-era and carried on to the post 1991 period, a trend adopted by the Awami League and the BNP collectively. The means of violence may have changed from Logi Boithas to arson, but it is a trend whose architects are our two major political parties.
Analysing BNP’s brand of politics and its mistakes during the last nine years explains why the BNP is where it is today. Why should people support a party which continues to ally, for whatever reason, to a political entity, which as an organisation had opposed the very birth of our nation? Why should the public approve of a party which is seemingly losing its identity? Why should people support a party whose leader, a courageous woman and a former Prime Minister, celebrates her birthday on the death anniversary of her adversary’s father, the country’s founder? What democratic values have BNP adhered to in the last four years for us to support them in their quest towards restoring democracy? Yet almost paradoxically, we need democracy to be respected again.
The Awami League, on the other hand, has consolidated its supremacy during the course of its tenure in office. It has established an ever-growing political network throughout the country. The Awami League led the political struggle which led to the formation of independent Bangladesh. This notion has been well-established. Their political progress has been assisted by the good performance of Bangladesh on the socio-economic frontier. But at the same time, many of the Awami League’s actions have been detrimental to Bangladesh’s democracy. For one, the harassment of Khaleda Zia and her party leaders through legal instruments and not allowing any democratic space, have not only diminished the BNP but also the AL and at the same time diminished the possibilities of inter-party collaboration. The nature of the January 5 elections was largely undemocratic. An election for the sake of holding an election, that too where no opposition or the mass public participated, did more to hurt democracy than to protect it. The country is increasingly becoming divided into ideological groups. We call these groups secularists, populists, radicals etc. The moment these groups become powerful, Bangladesh will lose the hard-earned unity we have. The killings of bloggers, the increasing growth of radicalised youth and the international growth of right-wing nationalists, serve as a warning to our political establishment.
Those, like many in the Awami League leadership, who believe in the concept of development first, then democracy, are surely mistaken. Political scientists cite examples of Mahathir Mohammad’s Malaysia or Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, as being classic examples of how autocracies can work for developing economies. Yet we forget the cases of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, all of whom had also adhered to the notion of prioritising development over democracy. Sadly, short term economic growth was outweighed by abuse of power, over concentration of power in a few hands leading corruption, inequality and conflict. A weak, dysfunctional and depleted opposition such as the BNP, whose sole purpose is to get back to power, does not help either.
A systematic misuse of power over the last 25 years has resulted in the current state of Bangladeshi politics. It is no one party’s fault. We have seen our democratic values diminish even before they could be firmly established. We have observed silently as the Awami League and BNP selfishly took each other on for mere personal gains, ignoring the plight of the common man. Bangladesh is at the height of its economic progress, a process for which both the Awami League and BNP deserve credit. More than ever before, Bangladesh needs its political leadership to rise to the occasion. The initiation of electoral-related dialogue by President Abdul Hamid is a positive sign. Let us celebrate democracy, and the values it represents. If we do not, then Bangladesh’s developmental achievements may very well be overshadowed by the ever-increasing internal socio-political concerns, concerns which, if history is correct, will have grave, long term consequences.
The writer is a student of Economics and International Relations at the University of Toronto.
Courtesy Daily Star