South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Prothom Alo illustration
Prothom Alo illustration

So many things have changed during coronavirus times, but not politics, not even an iota. This is all very evident in the statements and speeches of the political leaders. Neither the ruling party nor the opposition seems to have the minimum intention of moving ahead.

The 11th Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) commemorated its second year on 30 December. Both sides spewed out the predicable rhetoric against each other, rather than coming up with any meaningful deliberations.

We are stepping into the 50th year of our independence. The economy has strengthened considerably and the ‘bottomless basket’ now has a durable bottom. The country, once faced with food shortage, is now self-sufficient in food. Coronavirus has paved the way for online businesses and transactions. But despite all these advances, there is one factor that continues to be a matter of consternation and concern, and that is the fragile state of democracy.

We may have made socioeconomic strides, but our democratic institutions had slid from being weak to even weaker. Those in the opposition who today are observing ‘Democracy Killing Day’, did not try to consolidate democracy when they were in power. And those in power who are celebrating the ‘Victory of Democracy,’ did not tolerate any such ‘victory’ when they were in the opposition.

Awami League claims that the 30 December elections served to maintain the continuity of democracy and have given impetus to development. Democracy can never survive in a country where the government imagines that democracy, development or independence cannot survive unless they are in power.

In a discussion organised to celebrate ‘Victory for Democracy Day’, Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader said, “No one can break BNP’s record for vote rigging.” That is quite a loaded statement. After all, our political parties and governments are hell bent on breaking each other’s records. Unfortunately more than for good deeds, this is all too often about forced disappearances, extrajudicial killing and curbing rights of the citizens and freedom of the media.

Speaking at the same event, presidium member of Awami League Jahangir Kabir Nanak said, “It doesn’t become those who killed democracy to now speak about democracy.” Even if we take his words to be true, what wrong did the people of the country do? Why could they not cast their votes? Elections are not just about Awami League and BNP. It is also about people’s voting rights. Can the Awami League leaders swear in all honesty that the results declared by the election commission were a true reflection of the scene at the polling centres? If not, then they must take the responsibility. Similarly, BNP must take the responsibility of the 1979 and the 1996 (15 February) elections, and Jatiya Party for the elections of 1986 and 1988.

BNP observed 30 December as ‘Democracy Killing Day.’ At discussions and meetings held on the occasion, the leaders called for the parliament to be dissolved and for mid-term elections to be held. A few other parties made the same demand. BNP failed to organise a massive rally in Dhaka on 30 December. But in the districts, despite police obstruction, their presence indicated the BNP has not become detached from the people at all.

While the ruling party and the opposition are busy slinging mud at each other, let us take a look at where Bangladesh’s democracy stands in the related global index. The Economist Intelligence Unit of EIU every year publishes a report based on the election system and multi-party state of various countries, citizens’ rights, how active are the governments, political participation and so on. The report hasn’t come out yet this year. In January last year, the indicators of 2019 showed that though Bangladesh advanced by eight places in the index, it has failed to emerge from hybrid regime. We have not even been able to enter into a flawed democracy, let alone full democracy. According to EIU, Bangladesh has been hovering for a decade between an authoritarian and flawed democratic state, in other words, a hybrid regime.

However, Bangladesh’s score in global democracy went up by 0.14 in 2018. So in 2017 where Bangladesh ranked at 92, in 2018 it went up to 88.

Based on the scores, the countries are placed in four categories: authoritarian regimes, hybrid regimes, flawed democracies and full democracies. To enter the ‘full democracy’ category, the score in the democracy index must be between 9 and 10. Countries with a score between 7 and 8 are called ‘flawed democracies’. Below this comes the ‘hybrid regimes’ with scores between 5 and 6. ‘Authoritarian regimes’ score between 0 and 4. Only 20 of 167 countries are in the democratic category, 55 in the flawed democracy category, 39 are hybrid regimes and 53 are in the authoritarian regime slot. In 2018 Bangladesh scored 5.57 and was placed in EIU’s hybrid regime category. (Source: EIU)

According to the EIU report, among the South Asian countries, ‘flawed democracy’ prevails in India and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan have ‘hybrid regimes.’ Afghanistan has an ‘authoritarian regime.’ EIU has been publishing these reports since 2006. BNP was in power in 2006 and Awami League in 2021. There has been no significant change in the index.

A country can’t be said to have democracy just because it has a free election. There were four more or less free and fair elections under caretaker governments in the country, as acknowledged at home and abroad. But the democratic system hasn’t been sustainable simply due to the stubborn and arrogant attitudes of the political leadership. The opposition has always sought for a solution on the streets, and the ruling party had wanted to capture and control all.

Two years has passed since the 2018 election and the opposition is calling for mid-term polls. According to the constitution, the election is to be held within 90 days from the end of the term. The parliament was dissolved before the end of term in 1988 and 1996. And in 2007, elections couldn’t be held even after the term was completed. Before the 10th parliamentary election, the Awami League termed it as an election for the sake of democratic continuity and gave assurances of another election to be held. That didn’t happen. The term of the 10th parliament completed and it is not yet time to talk about the term of the 11th.

Those who are calling for mid-term elections also realise that the government will not pay heed to their demand. And they do not have the capacity to use language that will force the government to oblige and comply. Whenever the elections may be held, if we fail to hold a free, fair and credible election even after 50 years of our independence, and if we remain stuck in a hybrid regime, what could be more painfully unfortunate?

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]. This article appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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