by Mohit Musaddi 29/6/2018
Democracy has been considered to be the best form of governance. But is democracy in Bangladesh undergoing a reversal? Since gaining independence in 1971, the country has witnessed one-party dominance, flirted with a single party system, lived under military rule for more than 15 years and labored to a parliamentary representative democratic republic model of governance. This governance model has often been marred by violent protests, allegations of corruption, imprisonment of leaders and more recently a boycott of the general elections in 2014 by a national party. Promises of secularism have been lost to policies of appeasement in favor of Islamist factions, who once opposed the very formation of the country. Experiments with Non-Party Caretaker Governments (NPCG) to conduct the elections or with an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to try the perpetrators of war-crime and make them answerable in court have generated mixed reactions. The experiment with NPCG was short-lived and extinguished just when it had started to look promising. The role of external actors, particularly, United States of America, United Kingdom, Middle East and its immediate neighbor India have further complicated the situation.
The upcoming general elections of 2019 will put to the test the country’s politics as well as civil class – one that has witnessed the bloody independence first-hand – whether it is ready for a fair democratic system that is elected purely on merit. This paper conducts a thorough analysis of that test. It begins with a brief section on the history of the Bangladesh elections and its experiments with NPCG before scrutinizing more contemporary issues like the boycott of the 2014 general elections by the BNP and the imprisonment of its leader Khaleda Zia on corruption charges in February 2018. Finally, the problem of internal dissidence has been discussed with regards to the above analysis. The paper concludes that a merit-based democratic system is far from becoming a reality in the country. Instead, it seems that in the near future at least, the country will be moving back towards a dominant one-party system.
History of Bangladesh Elections
Bangladesh has adopted a parliamentary representative democratic republic style of governance, whereby the Prime Minister of the country is the head of the government and a multi-party system. The current multi-party system in Bangladesh has gone through many changes over the years.
It began as a one-party dominant state post-independence in 1971 when the Awami League (AL) won an overwhelming majority in the country’s first-ever parliamentary elections in 1973. However, in early 1975, the government transformed to a single party system in which the AL was dissolved, and a new party called the Bangladesh Krishak Shramik Awami League (BKSAL) or BAL was formed. All other political parties were disbanded too and were urged to join the BAL.
The experiment with the single party system was short-lived, and Bangladesh was soon to be engulfed by an emergency that stretched from November 1975 to December 1990. This period witnessed the ‘emergence of state-sponsored political parties who retained control of government power but allowed multiple political parties to operate in opposition.’ Jahan (2018), p. 6
Two major parties were formed during this period – the Major General Ziaur Rahman-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Muhammad Ershad’s Jatiya Party (JP). The BNP, in building political support, was ‘ideologically pragmatic appealing to both leftist and rightist political forces who were opposed to the AL.’ Ibid, p. 7
The JP, on the other hand, consisted of breakaway factions of the then existing political parties. After being accused of rigging elections leading to the boycott of consecutive parliamentary elections in 1986 and 1987, Muhammad Ershad had to resign as the head of the government in 1990, thus bringing the country’s 15-year long, emergency rule to an end.
From the time electoral democracy was restored in 1991, the next two decades witnessed a dominant two-party system with the Awami League (AL) and the BNP sharing power between each other. ‘A parliamentary election organized by the NPCG, held in February 1991, resulted in the transfer of power from the military to the elected political leaders.’ Ibid, p. 9
Since then, the country witnessed regular elections and power was shared by the two dominant parties – BNP, led by Khaleda Zia and the AL which is being driven by Sheikh Hasina. However, the 2014 elections witnessed a boycott of elections by the BNP when the AL government decided against holding the elections under an NPCG.
Experiment with the Non-Party Caretaker Governments
After the country got rid of the military rule in 1990, it was decided by the leaders that to facilitate free and fair elections; an NPCG would be formed. The NPCG would be headed by a Chief Advisor instead of a Prime Minister, and its principal function would be to help smoothen the election process in the country. The argument in favor of such an arrangement was that since the NPCG does not exercise any stake in the elections, it shall remain neutral.
However, the NPCG has been a mixed-bag at best, being marred by controversies and opposition by the political parties. Neutrality of the pseudo governments was often deliberated upon. Each election in Bangladesh has been subject to widespread political agitation against the sitting governments, and hence a significant task for the NPCG was the maintenance of law and order in the country. One such NPCG was also responsible for unrest when violence and agitation all over the country forced the then military government to form a caretaker government until the next parliamentary elections in 2008. Khan and Islam (2014), p. 29
The struggle between the public, who insist on an NPCG and the political parties – BNP and the AL – who either want a complete overhaul of it, tailored according to their preferences or want it to be scrapped altogether has led to internal dissidence in the country ever since its establishment. The 2008 elections were the last that were overseen by an NPCG. In 2011, Sheikh Hasina abolished the provision for a caretaker government by passing the 15th amendment to the constitution.
The abolishment of the NPCG in 2011 led to the boycott of the general elections in 2014 by the all major parties, except the ruling party, AL. This resulted in the AL winning 234 out of the 300 seats, thus remaining in power for a second consecutive term. However, the violence and opposition boycott meant that the voter turnout was only 22 percent. Ellen (2014), New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/world/asia/boycott-and-violence-mar-elections-in-bangladesh.html?_r=0
Also, at least 19 people were reported to have been killed in political violence, and 440 polling places were closed early because of security concerns. Ibid.
A boycott of 2014 General Elections
The 2014 General Elections turned out to be marred by the lowest voter turnout in the history of elections in the country and the one that had the worst electoral violence. The upshot to the boycott was the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment Act to the constitution which declared NPCG – that had previously conducted three fair elections since its inception in 1996 – unconstitutional.
This created an uproar in the opposition, and before the elections in 2014, BNP and the other parties ‘demanded the installation of a caretaker administration as a precondition for their participation’. Riaz (2014), p. 123
After that, the AL refused to comply and decided to push forward with the elections. This was also a time when the AL popularity ratings were dropping exponentially owing to allegations of large-scale corruption and its issues with India, despite having a generally good relationship with its neighbors. On the other hand, the BNP had won five midyear municipal elections and looked to be on the rise. However, the mood leading to the build-up of the elections was completely different which according to Riaz can be eloquently summed up as:
‘Even as the prime minister [Sheikh Hasina] and her allies called on the BNP to embrace the electoral process, they continued to persecute BNP leaders, impede opposition rallies, and even shut down BNP headquarters. There was a widespread perception that the AL leadership, while of course being too cagey to say so outright, was not sorry to see the BNP stay out of the election.’ Ibid.
Khaleda Zia’s Imprisonment
BNP’s hopes to coming back to power in 2019 had again dimmed when on February 8, 2018, Khaleda Zia along with three others was sentenced by a Dhaka Special Court for five and ten years respectively owing to their involvement in a corruption case for embezzlement of international funds donated to the Zia Orphanage Trust.
At the time of the arrest, it was alleged that the courts worked in tandem with the government and that the timing of the judgment would make it highly improbable for Zia to contest the 2019 elections. Article 66 (2) (d) of the Bangladesh constitution clearly states that if a person “has been, on conviction for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his or her release”, then the person shall be disqualified from participating in elections and from being a member of parliament. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Article 66 (2) (d), http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/sections_detail.php?id=367§ions_id=24620
The next in line to the BNP leadership is Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman who himself has been convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail in 2016 by a high court in a money laundering case. He is currently a fugitive in London from where he operates the party.
The problem of Internal Dissidence
“Since the birth of modern Bangladesh, politics here has often looked like a series of violent pendulum swings between the Awami League, which helped usher the country to independence from Pakistan in 1971 on a secular platform, and the increasingly pro-Muslim Bangladeshi Nationalist Party, which has defended various Islamist groups, including terrorist ones.” Ahmed (2017), New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/opinion/bangladesh-Islamists-secularists.html
And its politics have, on more occasions than one, succumbed to the problems of internal dissidence. Political leaders that fought and won its independence from Pakistan in 1971 on the grounds of a Bengali existential crisis in erstwhile East Pakistan found themselves crawling into coalitions with Islamic factions like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) who had earlier protested against the formation of a separate Bengali country. Over the years, both the AL and the BNP, in their bid to gain power, found it expedient to ignore the unresolved question of what these factions had done in 1971.
The involvement of the radical bloc in the country’s politics propelled the Awami League government to set up an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to make war-crime perpetrators answerable in court. The amendment in 2009 and the subsequent set up of the second tribunal in 2012 ensured that the party enjoyed considerable public support. Soon though, there were calls for the ICT to be scrapped after it was suspected of being politically motivated due to the prosecution of only those who belonged to the JI. Ibid, p. 124
Another example of the government succumbing to internal dissidence was when a statue of Lady Justice that had been installed in front of the Supreme Court had to be removed. There were objections from Islamist groups, particularly the Hefazat-e-Islam who claimed that the statue signified idol worship which was against Islam. ‘The sculpture, by the local artist Mrinal Haque, was installed in front of the court in December  and depicts a woman in sari clutching a sword and scales, similar to the traditional depiction of the Greek goddess Themis’. Safi (2017), The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/lady-justice-statue-bangladesh-removed-islamist-objections
The ruling AL, in a push to appease the conservative voters ahead of the 2019 elections summoned construction workers to take down Lady Justice. Instead, she was installed by putting up an annex in the court premises which made it out of the supplicants’ view. Ahmed (2017), New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/opinion/bangladesh-Islamists-secularists.html
Reversal to the One-Party Dominant State System
‘The Bangladeshi political system holds elections regularly but remains stubbornly beset by democratic deficiencies such as corruption, lack of press freedom, a politicized judiciary, poorly working checks and balances, and frequent opposition boycott of parliamentary sessions.’ Riaz (2014), p. 120
BNP is in a leadership crisis at a crucial juncture leading up to the next general elections in the country. That coupled with the policy of appeasement by the AL in the form of silent acquiescence to frivolous demands by extremist parties means that it is highly unlikely for the AL to have a serious contender. And if that is the case, Sheikh Hasina would be the Prime Minister of the country for the third term in a row. Where the political wheel spins from here on is uncertain, but a one-party dominant state system beckons the near future.