By Dhaka Tribune, December 28, 2015
When a people’s movement toppled military dictator HM Ershad’s rule in December 1990, Bangladesh entered the club of what is popularly known as “Third Wave” democracies. Similar to the experiences of many of these new democracies, the country’s democratic journey has not been smooth.
Instead of consolidating or deepening democracy, Bangladesh has been facing persistent challenges of institutionalising the basic foundations of democracy.
Bangladesh periodically wanders off the democratic path when the country is not even classified as a “democracy” by international organisations.
This happened during 2007-2008, when we were not able to hold the scheduled parliamentary election and the country was ruled by a military-backed civilian government for two years.
In 2015, again, Bangladesh had been classified as a “party free” country by the Freedom House.
When international organisations or global surveys question our democratic status, many of us in turn start questioning the quality of the democracy of many of our critics.
Instead of countering the arguments of our critics and raising questions about the democratic deficits of other countries, we should first try to assess whether we have been able to live up to the standards we ourselves had set for us in 1990.
In November 1990, three major political alliances of Bangladesh -- one led by AL, another by the BNP, and the third by five leftist parties -- agreed on a framework to guide the democratic transition of the country from military rule.
We should begin by exploring how far our political leaders have implemented the pledges they made to the nation when they signed the three-alliance agreement in 1990.
Through the three-alliance agreement, the political leaders pledged their commitment to several key elements of a democratic system.First, they promised to organise free and fair elections through which people’s representatives would derive their mandate to govern the state.
Second, they pledged to establish a sovereign parliament which would hold the executive accountable. Third, they promised to uphold the fundamental rights of citizens, independence and neutrality of the judiciary, freedom of the media, and the rule of law to ensure the sustenance of the democratic order.
And finally, they promised to follow a democratic code of conduct to guide their actions, particularly in relation to each other. Twenty-five years later, it is pertinent to ask: What is the record of performance of these leaders who signed the agreement?
The leaders of two of the alliances, Sheikh Hasina of the AL and Khaleda Zia of the BNP, have taken their turns in ruling the country since 1991. How have they followed up on their commitments?
Free and fair elections
The three-alliance agreement noted the many undemocratic electoral practices perpetuated by the military rulers, more specifically the practice of engineering elections by the incumbent government to serve its interests.
The agreement identified the system of non-party caretaker government as a more appropriate mechanism to organise free and fair parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.
The the 1991 parliamentary election, organised by a non-party caretaker government, which was widely recognised as the most free and fair election held so far in independent Bangladesh, brought the BNP to state power.
Regrettably, the BNP-led regime abdicated from its commitment to the original tripartite agreement and decided to hold the next election under its own incumbency.
Following the flawed by-elections in Mirpur and Magura, the AL-led opposition started a mass movement in 1994 to institutionalise the non-party caretaker system as the poll-time government.
The non-party caretaker government system was eventually institutionalised through a constitutional amendment in February 1996.
Three parliamentary elections (in June 1996, October 2001, and December 2008) were organised under a non-party caretaker government system which resulted in a relatively peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box, where the incumbent political party/alliance invariably lost the election.
But, despite this regular rotation of power, the two major political forces of the country could not come to an agreement about a mutually acceptable arrangement to organise a credible parliamentary election.
After each election, the losing party/alliance initially rejected the election results, but eventually accepted it and agreed to take their seats in parliament. However, the ruling parties tried to manipulate the non-party caretaker system to their advantage.
Finally the AL-led government, using its overwhelming parliamentary majority, abolished the caretaker system in 2011.
It is ironic that it was the AL who led a two year-long mass movement during 1994 to 1996 to institutionalise the non-party caretaker government system.
Since 2011, the two major political forces have failed to agree on the framework of a poll-time government. We witnessed a one-sided parliamentary election in 2014 where the majority of parliamentarians were “elected” unopposed.
We also witnessed unprecedented violence in the name of movements to “save democracy” led by the political opposition.
The political leadership of the two major alliances, who signed the agreement of 1990 to initiate our democratic transition, have now assumed an inflexible, uncompromising attitude of “my way or the highway,” which has created uncertainties about the organisation of future credible parliamentary elections at present. This imperils our democratic future.
- See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2015/dec/28/25-years-after-we-became-democratic#sthash.syi5gSdA.dpuf
Dhaka Tribune, December 28, 2015