I believe that every statement of a prime minister contains substance and carries weight, more so when it has to do with politics and the opposition. Consequently, a recent statement of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina regarding the need for a strong and effective opposition to make democracy work for the people is too profound to be merely glossed over. This is what she said while addressing the inaugural ceremony of Programmes of Mujib Borsho on January 30. "For a democracy, a strong opposition party is a must as we want our democratic trend to continue". What she further said is equally important: "the present opposition parties in Parliament could not attain the confidence and trust of people at the desired level due to the lack of leadership". It cannot be lost on anyone that the state of the opposition describes the state of democracy in the country.
The PM's comments express clearly the current situation in so far as it relates to politics, parliament, democracy, opposition leadership and people's trust. It reveals the appalling deficit of democracy in the country in terms of the gaps in its principles and practice, between precepts and examples. The prime minister has struck the very root of the problem. It demands deep and serious examination into why the situation is what it is today. However, for any meaningful discourse on the state of democracy one should look at how and why democracy has come to such a state today in Bangladesh.
Politics and democracy in Bangladesh make a very interesting case study. If one takes the year 1972 as the datum year, the transformation of politics and the restyled form of democracy since then is as interesting as it is peculiar and unique. It is disappointing to see the current state of democracy in a nation whose raison d'etre was the establishment of the democratic rights and freedom of the people.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh's history of parliamentary politics paints a gloomy picture of the growth, role and performance of the opposition in Bangladesh. Opposition was tolerated not for the sake of democracy per se, but because the ruling party felt that it was indispensable since their presence in whatever size and character would lend validity to the parliament and the regime.
The first parliament elected through the election of March 7, 1973 was dominated by the Awami League with 293 of the 300 seats. Of the rest seven, five went to "Independents". There was officially no opposition in the first parliament. It is a peculiarity of parliamentary democracy that the five independent members garnered fewer votes collectively nationwide than several other parties who got fewer seats or no seats at all with more votes. One could argue that in the nascent state, the opposition did not get enough time to organise. While it is true that the state was in the seminal stage of its birth, politics or democratic practices was not new to the people of the newly-born state. Unfortunately, the first election was marred by irregularities and violence but for which, although the Awami League was riding the crest of popularity, the results might not have been so sweeping.
The very first blow to the growth of multiparty parliamentary democracy was dealt by the Fourth Constitutional Amendment which was introduced on January 25, 1975, as a one party presidential form of government curtailing fundamental rights, the powers of the parliament and the judiciary; the executive authority was vested in the hands of the president who would be assisted by a council of ministers, selected by him and responsible to him. The changes in the constitution were necessary to "bring about a democracy for the have-nots".
Bangabandhu's assassination and coming of the military into politics changed everything.
Post-1975 witnessed a potpourri of democracy under military rule. The 1986 election under martial law, boycotted by the BNP, validated a military ruler as born again avatar of democracy. The third parliament was short-lived, and the fourth, under Ershad for the first time saw a pliant domesticated opposition under a quasi-democratic dispensation. Post-1975 was an aberration till the fall of Ershad. Restoration of democracy in 1991 saw the presence of robust opposition in the parliament, till the seventh parliament. But a robust opposition did not necessarily make for a functional parliament. Regrettably, the size of the opposition started shrinking from 78 in the eighth parliament to 34 in the ninth. And there were good reasons for it.
The tenth and eleventh parliamentary elections were abnormalities one finds difficult to explain. In the January 2014 elections, half the seats were uncontested as a result of the opposition boycotting the parliament. There was massive crackdown on the opposition and violence preceding the elections. The estimate of participation of the voters was thought by some to be less than five percent. With the main opposition party BNP boycotting the poll, Ershad's JP was coerced to participate to accord validity to the elections. The manna from the ruling AL to JP was a few cabinet posts. What AL got in return was a pliant "opposition". In fact, the new arrangement was unique in parliamentary politics not only in Bangladesh but also in countries that have parliamentary democracy, where the party on the "other side of the aisle" is also represented on "this side of the aisle". The 2018 elections were no different. Both the tenth and eleventh parliamentary elections have lacked credibility, popular participation was prevented by dubious methods and active assistance from the agencies who are supposed to ensure free and fair voting. The sole purpose was to retain and perpetuate power. Although the elections have been validated in the court of law, they remain questionable in the court of public opinion.
In the meanwhile the major opposition party outside the parliament has been pushed into a corner with the political space shrinking gradually. Holding political rallies and organising political meetings by the opposition is a rarity. The common illogical plea is that BNP will likely create a law and order problem, citing the disturbances of 2013 during the months preceding the tenth parliamentary elections. Therefore, it is cynicism at its height when Obaidul Quader taunts the BNP saying that he is still waiting for it to launch a political movement. When a political party cannot hold rallies even locally due to avoidable impediments imposed by the administration, such derisive comments reflect the ruling party's anxiety and moral weakness rather than anything else.
The ruling party's weakness is also betrayed by its effort to suppress dissent and criticism. The dreaded and despicable Digital Security Act, as is being applied today would offend Bangabandhu were he alive today as he always stressed on the need for a free press. The role of the fawning media today, with a few exceptions, suggests the fear induced-milieu that it is working in. A free media, in the absence of a credible opposition, is the only guarantee of checks and balance, but not so in Bangladesh. What is the ruling party unsure of? To be so when it claims the great strides that Bangladesh has made in various sectors, and really so, betrays its weakness. If the ruling party really wants credible opposition, why should it prevent a marginal political party to cancel its programme recently?
A pliant subservient parliamentary opposition cannot supplant real political opposition. Suppressing it does no favour to any of the stakeholders, least of all the ruling party. If the opposition in the parliament has not gained the trust of the people, the same question may be put on the party in power? And an opposition that is psychologically a part of the ruling party cannot claim credibility from the public but scorn.
If the PM really means that "a strong opposition party is a must as we want our democratic trend to continue" then she must do more than express her wish. We would certainly not like to see the current "democratic trend to continue". Restrictions of freedom of speech should be removed; the EC should be freed of extraneous control, the agencies be made free of political influence and pressure. Leave the rest to the people by ensuring free and fair elections. May one make so bold as to suggest that the answer and the remedy for the ailment are in the prime minister's hands?
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.