A year and half in a five-year cycle is not a long time. As such, only eighteen months are there before going through the motion of holding the next general polls to form a new government in Bangladesh. Therefore, one can say broadly that the ‘countdown’ to this election isn’t far off, writes Enayet Rasul Bhuiyan
The last general election in Bangladesh was held on December 30, 2018 to fulfill the constitutionally mandated requirement to hold such elections after every five years to elect a 300-member assembly directly to form a government and govern the country.
Thus, around 18 months are there before going through the motion of holding the next general polls to form a new government for Bangladesh. A year and a half in a five-year cycle is not a long time. Therefore, one can say broadly that the ‘countdown’ to the election is slowly nearing. The present government will have completed nearly four-fifths of its tenure by next December.
With the coming nearer of the election date has also started the usual murmurings, crystal ball gazing and other issues that seem to crop up every time a general election becomes due in Bangladesh. Will it be held peacefully or not? Will it mean continuity and stability in governance with the vital forces that matter in Bangladesh accepting the results of it leading to peaceful transition of power or otherwise?
What would be the reaction of the main opposition party – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – to it? Will it change its stance any or cling to its usual characteristic, like always, that it must challenge the result of the election and work only for its rejection at the fastest and little or nothing else? Or, will we find anything refreshing and optimistic in its behaviour this time?
No less important would be the posture of the international community to this election when it goes through. It can be said with a high degree of certainty that important members of the international community meaning mainly the top Western countries who like to think that they have a duty to play the role of true votaries and custodians of democracy round the world, they will likely find negatives centring the election and raise some hue and cry.
But should our policymakers give inordinate attention to such naggings on the part of these countries or stiffen our spine and manifest to them that we are the sole arbiters of our destiny and would tremendously dislike any unwarranted interference in matters, which are essentially ours to decide. We must be able to tell them plainly, but firmly, that Bangladesh has had more than five decades of existence with a parliamentary form of governance.
Of course, it has had short-lived periods of military governance in these five decades; but the same did not last. For the much bigger part of the five decades Bangladesh has had an elected parliament and civilian rule along with other trappings of a democracy of the sort found in other countries of the world. Surely, Bangladeshi democracy had its peculiarities. But such peculiarities also are noted in other major democratic countries.
For example, India is supposed to be a model British Westminster type of democracy whereas we know how in real terms Indian democracy is much different from the Westminster model. The Indian Constitution so mangled, twisted, bent, adapted and changed the Westminster model that it is in reality anything but a true Westminster form of democracy today, say most well-versed political scientists on Indian affairs.
The fact is, there are many forms of democracy in the world stage and not one size fits all or even need to fit all. You can quite have your own indigenous form of democracy to be respected and recognized for its value. You don’t have to match the Westminster model or the American Presidential model absolutely or in toto to be regarded as a democratic entity. Democracy in today’s world has different brands each with its credibility and legitimately vying for attention and acceptance.
Let us not forget that Bangladesh as a fully recognized sovereign country is half a century old. But it is not a new country and can trace its civilised history back to at least five thousand years. Bangladesh flourished its own completely home-grown civilisation around the same time when humankinds were leaving footprints of a civilized existence in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Nile valley. From city-dwelling to trade and commerce and coins, Bangladeshis can trace back their history to at least five millennia.
Bangladeshis can today undisputedly claim to be among the earliest homo sapiens who lived on this planet of ours and were no less than the others in other parts of the world in having civilised and organised behaviour. If these two condition – civilisation and organization – are today considered as the founding requirements of a democratic way of life, ultimately and eventually, then Bangladesh was blessed with such conditions many centuries ago and hardly had anything to learn from say the Graeco-Roman civilisation, the Assyrian civilisation etc.
Let us also analyse the relatively recent past to infallibly see how democratic impulses are ingrained in the Bangladeshi character. We were the majority in erstwhile united Pakistan. It goes to the credit of the Bengali Muslim community of former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, that their political consciousness was far ahead of Muslims in other areas of the subcontinent.
It was this advanced consciousness that led to Bangladeshis under the East Pakistan framework, being at the forefront or leadership positions of the Pakistan movement. Let us not forget that the All India Muslim League was founded in Dhaka where Muslim leaders from other parts of the Indian subcontinent assembled to give a boost to their movement for Pakistan in British India.
It was also their political maturity that led to Muslims of Bangladesh envisioning several Muslim states in the Indian subcontinent after the departure of the British. See the Pakistan Resolution piloted by Bangladeshi leader Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Haque in 1940 that was the harbinger of multiple Musim majority entities in the Indian subcontinent after the British leaving of the area. That resolution was a clear pointer to the emergence of Bangladesh sometime in the future.
The first years of Bengalis under the framework of a federal and united Pakistan were disappointing for them from deprivation and neglect at the hands of their West Pakistan-based overlords that quickly heightened with the Language Movement of 1952 and related events. It was only symbolic of the democratic tradition of Bengalis under the East Pakistan that they patiently bore all the insults and injuries till 1971 before galvanising their independence struggle fully.
It was not a question of a minority recklessly seeking separation from a majority. Rather, it was a case of a majority finding no other option and back to the wall opting for its fully legitimate right to break away from the barbaric despotism of a minority that wanted to impose its undeserved rule on the majority or to subjugate it in perpetuity.
Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s tolerance and long drawn out struggle for realisation of independent nationhood was a classic in patience, legality and gradualism. He never showed that he wanted to force the pace, but allowed things to naturally come to their logical conclusion.
If reservations about our next general election comes, very likely the maximum reservations about it may come from the United States. But how much of such expressed reservations should we care. In 1971, USA was against the independence and nationhood of Bangladesh. If we were cowed down by such reservations, then there would be no Bangladesh today.
We did the right thing and we prevailed. Why should we care obsessively now when the world today is a far different place and despite possessing enormous politico-economic clout, USA is a far more reduced country in terms of nuances of power? Besides, Bangladesh today has considerable politico-military-economic powers of its own to be successful in withstanding arbitrary foreign pressures.
If following 1971, Bangladesh needed the economic and other forms of support of the US and the West in general, today it is in a far stronger position to play off one giant against the other in a very different global setting. In 1971, Bangladesh had no relations with China. In fact, China at that time opposed Bangladesh’s independence. Today, China is one of the staunchest friend, ally and partner of Bangladesh.
How profoundly things have changed! Bangladesh can now play its China card to keep itself free from excessive Indian and American influence while resting assured about getting Chinese supports of all types in difficult situations. Bangladesh is not a hopeless country feeding on American gains and charitable dollars and keeping a semblance of balance of payments and foreign trade.
Bangladesh is presently the cheapest sourcing country for garments for the US and also other products like pharmaceuticals and footwear. Bangladesh, which is poised to become the world’s 25th biggest economy less than a decade from now and possessing over $43 billion in unspent foreign currency reserve, is greatly attractive to American businesses and entrepreneurs. Thus, Bangladesh has much leverages it can use against mainly USA’s political pressures while sustaining in its overall independent-minded policies.
What is democracy in essence? Cornerstones of democracy include freedom of assembly, association and speech, freedom vitally including a free media that can freely express itself, consent of the governed, voting rights, freedom from unwarranted governmental deprivation of the right to life and liberty, and minority participation fully in national life.
If we analyse one by one, the state of affairs in relation to each of these features of a democratic way of life are all present in Bangladesh. Citizens enjoy unfettered rights to freely assemble and voice their opinion in a peaceful manner. If they do not break the law and unduly create turmoil in public life, then they have nothing to fear.
It is relevant to contrast here with the situation in the US. When angry mobs unhappy with the US Presidential election results attacked the Capitol Hill last year, did the police there remain mute spectators? No, they did their best to fight back the mob in the interest of public safety and law and order. If a government in USA can do this justifiably, why it would not be called undemocratic police bullying but the same would invite the infamy of people’s suppression if done in Bangladesh?
The number of regular publications from Bangladesh with news and views are extraordinarily large today and it speaks of a very vibrant and lively press. Dependence and listening to foreign news media have dwindled down largely in Bangladesh, which bear testimony to the existing freedom of the press in Bangladesh that is one of the biggest hallmarks of a functional democracy. The local press could wean away substantially readers and watchers from foreign papers and channels.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) is the global organisation of national parliaments. It is inching ever closer to universal membership, with 178 Member Parliaments out of the 193 countries in the world – from huge nations like China, India and
Indonesia, to the tiny States of Cape Verde (officially the Republic of Cabo Verde)), San Marino and Palau. The Members represent more than 6.5 billion of the world’s 7 billion people.
What is the role of IPU? Its primary purpose is to promote democratic governance, accountability, and cooperation among its members; other initiatives include advancing gender parity among legislatures, empowering youth participation in politics, and sustainable development. The IPU also facilitates the development of international law and institutions, including the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the United Nations. It also sponsors and takes part in international conferences and forums, and has permanent observer status at the United Nations General Assembly.
It should be noted that Bangladesh is a very prominent and valued member of the IPU. If it was not, then one of its parliament members could not be the elected President of the IPU for some years with a lot of success in leading this organisation. Under MP Saber Hossain Chowdhury from Bangladesh, the IPU hosted its global conference in Dhaka in 2020.
Bangladesh Parliament Speaker Shireen Sharmeen Chowdhury is presently an influential leader of IPU. She was also the Chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPU) between 2014 and 2017.
Needless to say, if Bangladesh’s democratic credentials are questioned, there can be no better answer than its past and present position in the IPU and CPU to dispel it. USA may scream all it can about Bangladesh’s doubtful democratic pedigree. But the rest of the world are most unlikely to heed or care given that Bangladesh is such a powerful member country of the IPU and CPU, the world’s biggest platforms of parliaments proudly boasting a democratic lineage.
Since its inception, Bangladesh has hardly missed any scheduled general election date or to elect a government with voters getting opportunities to freely vote for candidates of their choice. Losers in election have always complained about governmental or administrative suppression that interfered with free voting. But how much these complaints were tendentious and meant to excuse their failures, are matters of research.
For example, come December 2023, the main opposition BNP is projected to be a big loser but will it accept its defeat? Certainly not, if we go by its typical response to election results. It accepts results when it wins but never admits a defeat to keep the new elected government under a charge of illegitimacy to pave the way for subsequent agitation to cause its downfall. But it is almost a surety this time that BNP will find itself more massively rejected by the voters than before to which its response will be typically one of insisting that the incumbent government rigged the poll.
So what should the government do then? Meekly cancel the result of the poll or set the stage for repoll just to please the BNP? Certainly nobody – especially the electorate in general – will not want another election after having incurred huge expenses in holding the next one? They will want the next government to just ignore the whimpering of the BNP and carry on with the tasks of governance.
In all likelihood, the Awami League will win a thumping victory in the general election in December 2023. The BNP leadership will feign their abstention from this election basing on their allegation that conditions for free and fair voting have not been created. But the BNP would be putting candidates in disguise in most of the constituencies just to test their popularity or not.
The few of them that may win will not be initially owned or officially recognised by the BNP. But the BNP would not mind either when this small group of non Awami League members in the next parliament claim that they stand for BNP and its policies. So, it will likely be very much the continuation of the same past January 2024. The BNP will carry on with its hypocrisy of election rigging but participate by proxy nonetheless in the new parliament’s proceedings. The ruling Awami League will have no difficulty in tolerating this hypocrisy as long as it does not stand in the way of its effectively governing the country.
As for the people, they are unlikely to explode in anger over the BNP’s campaign of election rigging as they more and more find concrete proofs of massive developmental achievements by the Awami Leage government. In that case, there will be no wind in the sails of the BNP and they would have no choice but to give up.
Who says that democracy resting on the will of the people is the best form of government? Is it really? If the democratic system delivers the greatest good to people and country under all circumstances, then how monster Adolph Hitler came to power during the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s through such a system or what good that development did for the world? Some 40,000,000 to 50,000,000 people died from World War II and the costs of the war was roughly estimated at $4 trillion.
Adolph Hitler in the main was the initiator and sustainer of that worst senseless military conflict that the world had known. But Hitler was largely chosen by his people. After he came to power, he progressively turned against these very people and took away their powers to establish a very tough dictatorship. Thus, democratically chosen Hitler was not a blessing unto mankind but exactly the opposite.
This example alone amply illustrates that neither the freedom to choose a leader or leadership is something that is akin to a Holy Grail process nor a guarantee of doing good. A man or a party elected by vote and voting, they can turn perverted on getting power and unleash the worst tyrannies. On the other hand, a government may come to power drawing strength from elite groups and executing its policies forcefully knowing that they know what is best for their country and people. It may be like a benign dictatorship or authoritarian governance. But forces, internal and external, find it more sensible, which has the highest public weal in its mind. In that case, what higher purpose it serves to try to achieve the downfall of such a government through stoking public unrest and replacing the more preferable stability with anarchy and unrest?