Trailblazing democracy in Bangladesh

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Trailblazing democracy in Bangladesh

Saturday, 25 November 2023 | Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Trailblazing democracy in Bangladesh

As Hasina vies for a fifth term in the January elections in Bangladesh, she is concurrently curbing opposition political parties to ensure her victory

In the disconcerting theatre of global politics, the term "democratically elected" increasingly morphs into a mere façade, concealing leaders who, once in power, act more like autocrats than guardians of democratic principles. Free and fair elections, the very lifeblood of democracy, have become a tactical game for these leaders—a tool to adorn their public image while concealing a turbulent authoritarian mindset. Behind the scenes, they revel in personal indulgences such as nepotism, opulent lifestyles, and unchecked excesses. Critical thinking, constructive criticism, and nuanced approaches have given way to a culture of sycophancy, where dissent is stifled, and narratives are sculpted to please the incumbent leaders. In Bangladesh, as in many other nations, this erosion of democratic values paints a grim picture, particularly as the country grapples with the shadows of a brutal genocide and natural calamities.

The impending parliamentary election on January 7 in Bangladesh adds a critical chapter to this narrative. Sheikh Hasina, the nation's longest-serving prime minister, seeks a fifth term amidst deadly protests demanding her resignation for a fair election. The recent political upheaval, marked by the prosecution and sentencing of hundreds of members of the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), paints a vivid tableau of a political landscape manipulated to maintain incumbency. The staggering number of 112 alleged perpetrators sentenced in a single day reveals a judiciary suddenly efficient in delivering justice, yet the irony lies in the peculiarity of the proceedings. Some of those convicted were deceased, while others had been missing for years, underscoring the inadequacy of criminal investigators who failed to update cases with current data.

In a further twist, Khaleda Zia, a former Prime Minister, finds herself under house arrest, denied the freedom even for medical treatment. The legal machinery, now operating with fervour, has led to an estimated 10,000 BNP members arrested, with trials rushed and bail sparingly granted, extending pre-trial detentions indefinitely. Meanwhile, the ruling party enjoys a stark contrast, seemingly immune to prosecution or detention. Sheikh Hasina's assertion that Khaleda Zia must return to prison before seeking medical treatment abroad echoes a tone of authority that contradicts the democratic principles ostensibly upheld.

As Hasina vies for a fifth term, her previous declarations of not desiring prolonged power crumble in the face of her persistent tenure. The absolute power she wields becomes a troubling undercurrent, echoing the age-old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Consequently, the democratic fabric of Bangladesh hangs in the balance, caught between the staged theatrics of elections and the troubling realities of unchecked authority.

However, in the crucible of Bangladesh's political arena, Hasina's leadership serves as a noteworthy illustration of economic growth, social development, and transformative infrastructure projects. The Digital Bangladesh initiative, strides in women's empowerment, and adept diplomatic manoeuvring underscore the multifaceted approach she has championed. However, these accomplishments are juxtaposed against the backdrop of political polarisation and unrest, forcing a critical examination of the trajectory of Bangladesh's democracy.

The glaring irony unfolds on the international stage, where the United States, the primary buyer of Bangladesh's garments, vociferously advocates for the preservation of democracy while its historical actions unveil a stark contradiction. Henry Kissinger's damning characterization of Bangladesh as a "bottomless basket" during his tenure as US Secretary of State exposes the depth of this paradox. The US, ostensibly a champion of democracy and human rights, favoured Pakistan during critical junctures in Bangladesh's history, laying bare the diplomatic hypocrisy inherent in US foreign policy.

Two pivotal reasons underscore this diplomatic dissonance. Firstly, the US exhibited a myopic focus on the political affairs of its regional neighbours, allocating resources to intervene in countries like Chile, where it actively sought the overthrow of President Salvador Allende. The CIA's substantial investment in anti-Allende propaganda exemplifies this skewed priority. The second reason unveils a covert pact engineered by Kissinger with China, where geopolitical manoeuvring took precedence over ethical considerations. Pakistani leaders, beneficiaries of this clandestine alliance, placed unshakable trust in the United States. Despite full awareness of the genocide in East Pakistan, the US callously turned a blind eye, laying bare the cynical exploitation of human rights for political gains. The people of East Pakistan, devoid of alternatives, sought refuge in India and the Soviet Union. However, the United States, once indifferent to one of the gravest genocides since World War II, now, 52 years after the proclamation of Bangladesh, audaciously demands the restoration of democracy.

Compounding historical injustices is the enduring neglect of Bengali political aspirations, evident since the pre-1947 era. The consistent disregard for Bengali views set the stage for post-independence disillusionment, further exacerbated by Mujib's tragic death and years of military dictatorship. Despite attempts at course correction, under Hasina's leadership, Bangladesh's democratic trajectory has deviated from its hopeful origins.

Born out of a heroic struggle for liberation in 1971, the nation initially embraced principles of linguistic nationalism and democracy. However, the evolution since Hasina's ascent has cast shadows on this once-promising path toward democratic ideals. The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh birthed a Parliament with a peculiar status — a 'dominant executive and dormant legislature.' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, riding on unprecedented popularity, wielded absolute powers as the head of the party, parliament, and government. The absence of a formidable opposition accentuated this dominance, with only two opposition leaders in the parliament.

In a surprising turn in 1974, Mujibur relinquished the party chief position to AHM Qamaruzzaman. The parliament, under the overwhelming majority of the Awami League, voted for one-party rule through the 4th Amendment in January 1975. This constitutional change granted the president supremacy over the executive, judiciary, and legislature, consolidating an all-powerful presidency. Tragically, Mujibur was assassinated in August 1975, ushering in a prolonged period of military rule.

The 1991 national elections marked a shift, bringing the BNP to power and resurrecting the parliamentary form of government through the Twelfth Amendment. This restored executive powers to the prime minister, making the president the constitutional head. However, concerns arose about the unchecked powers of the prime minister, often labelled as an "autocrat" and "presidential prime minister."

The PM's office remains impervious to parliamentary committees, immune from scrutiny. Article 70 further discourages MPs from holding the PM accountable, creating a constraint on freedom of expression. This distortion of democratic principles has led to unchecked power accumulation with profound consequences. The once-envisioned purpose of a great Bangladesh, as articulated by Mujibur Rahman, has been overshadowed by the ironic reality of a ruler wielding unchecked power, far from the democratic ideals that were once aspired.

As Bangladesh stands at the precipice of another electoral outcome, the ramifications of a potential fifth term under Hasina's administration loom large. The nation, once a beacon of hope for democratic principles, now faces the daunting prospect of perpetuating a political landscape dominated by unchecked power. The election's outcome could cement a legacy marked by a concentration of authority, hindering the very democratic ideals that Bangladesh fought for in its arduous journey towards independence.

The road ahead is fraught with challenges that extend beyond the ballot box. The erosion of checks and balances, as witnessed in previous terms, threatens to deepen, casting shadows over the principles of democracy. The persistent curtailment of dissent, stifling of opposition voices, and the lack of institutional oversight have sown seeds of discontent among the populace. For Bangladesh to reclaim its democratic aspirations, there must be a concerted effort to restore balance, fostering an environment where diverse voices are not only heard but actively contribute to the nation's progress. The fifth term, if granted, carries the weight of history, presenting an opportunity for transformative change or a continuation of a trajectory that risks compromising the very essence of democratic governance.

(The writer is a Sri Lanka-born journalist and author. He was the editor of Sri Lanka Guardian and worked as a Communications Consultant for the Government of Sri Lanka; views are personal)

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