Foiled coup attempt: Consolidating democracy is the key | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 31, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 31, 2012

Foiled coup attempt: Consolidating democracy is the key

For the first time in our history, Bangladesh army talked openly on an issue that many consider "too sensitive." Some say that it was unnecessary for the army to go public as the matter could be addressed applying its internal mechanisms. They are also of the opinion that it could set a bad precedent for the future. But, many others believe that the bold step army has taken to expose the conspirators will actually help ease the tension as, in recent times, some quarters, including our main opposition party, deliberately spread rumours about sensitive military issues. However, without making a value judgment on the army's first public appearance, let us congratulate it for foiling such a heinous adventurism by some renegades.
We can extract a number of positives out of this unprecedented move. Objectively, it has to be acknowledged that the history of bloody coups and counter-coups within Bangladesh army has harmed its credibility as an institution, and it still has to carry that legacy. Following 1975, the army, on several occasions, had been used by many quarters to serve their purposes. And this was not necessarily confined only to the equation of domestic power games i.e., entertaining the power thirst of some officers or political leaders, rather there were elements, as is usual for many third world countries, of external influence.
The twentieth century witnessed many countries and nationalist leaders falling victims to the Cold War between the two superpowers. Therefore, before any element -- external or internal -- starts boiling inside, it is always better to dispel the rumours that may misguide the officers and staff of the institution and may cause panic in the people. Transparency is a natural deterrent against all conspiracies.
Secondly, democracy has many good sides as well as a few bad sides. It encourages an open society where people enjoy a set of freedoms including organisation and freedom of association. However, in weaker democracies, where the concept of liberal democracy is not well understood and where a large part of the society is riddled with corruption and illiteracy and poverty are widespread, coterie interests dominate the system. And to serve those coteries, infiltrations are high in every sphere of public life including civil administration, military, civil society and media. In these democracies, while the interests of the common people are often compromised, the loopholes that pave the way for external penetration could easily endanger the stability of the society and the nation. Given this bitter part of the weaker democracies, there are arguments all over the world on whether openness in these societies can sometimes prove counterproductive.
We have seen many strong nationalist leaders around the world, who came to power through democratic means but chose to throttle the openness of the society. Besides, the totalitarian leaders often make the excuse of infiltration or penetration to legitimise their repressions and to caulk their society. However, this is a different debate.
Ours is no better than a weaker democracy. Almost half of our populace is illiterate, more than 30% live below the poverty line and we have a society that is extremely vulnerable to corruption. With this degree of risk element, penetration into our system is highly likely. And the army, being the most organised force in this sort of disarraying society, is the primary instrument of any possibility of penetrable intervention.
To balance the risk factors, several measures can be adopted by the government to consolidate its grip over power. Going back to the polity, explaining the overall situation and asking them to rally behind it could be one of the best ways to diffuse the tensions and threats. Addressing threats like coup without informing and involving the people allows more room for rumours and propaganda. We saw recently that a newspaper ran a story based on speculations, which were later dismissed by the ISPR, and the main opposition also fuelled that debate. After the landmark press conference, it will be easier for every stakeholder to talk about and analyse the issue more objectively rather than fomenting speculations and rumours. This is the better side of the military going public.
Thirdly, we have understood from the press conference that the army has acknowledged its role, terming its past interventions harmful to its reputation, and showed commitment to democracy and the democratic government. These are very crucial words in the whole discussion, and it will be really good for the nation if the institution can indoctrinate the philosophy within its own rank and file. Because, if we extend the previous argument further, an illiberal and weak democracy like ours contains a plethora of internal socio-economic and political problems which are quite difficult to resolve overnight.
Now the best institutions which can soberly address problems of this magnitude are the political parties and a democratic system, howsoever illiberal it is. Because, the complexities surrounding weaker democracies' governance structures are too big for other institutions, including military, to manage, contain or offer better managerial solutions to these problems. The leverage democracy enjoys is that it allows maximum number of people to engage in the governance system and power exercise. The military cannot run something that they are not well trained in. However, in the past, they often crossed the red line and the entire nation as well as the institution itself paid a heavy price for it. I think this is a welcome sign that the institution is realising what should be its best role in a democratic society. The press conference was pumped up with that spirit.
Given the resource constraints, Bangladesh's problems are manifold and multi-dimensional (consider our high population density). No government or system can offer overnight solutions to all these problems. From the government's point of view, it has to understand that democracy is all about performance rating and it should concentrate on scoring as much as possible. Bulldozing dissenting voices will only subtract its hard earned points. It needs to exercise tolerance, and refute allegations with facts and figures and more transparency and openness, and not with use of force.
On the other hand, the opposition should realise that any inducement to oust the elected government may not bring a favourable outcome all the time, and they should stir rational and objective criticism rather than dismiss anything and everything the government is doing, and not say that the government is only doing harm rather than good.
While soliciting votes, politicians promise and offer a complete package of solutions to every problem, although they know about the scarcity of our resources. They treat their constituencies as consumers who are irrational and prone to buy any absurd and flashy exaggerations.
Now, when dissatisfaction looms everywhere because of non-fulfillment of expectations, it is the politicians who are to blame in the first place for creating unnecessary hype. Democratic reform is a gradual process and we need to pick the leaders who will be more interested in solving problems rather than offering bounties. One key method of such approach is to ensure social justice, for which we need to build and strengthen democratic institutions and let them function independently. That is the key to consolidating our nascent democracy. It is almost impossible for any adventurous person or group to even think of any move to overthrow a system that is functioning well. Consolidating democracy is the key.

The author is an analyst on strategic affairs and working at the Institute of Governance Studies. E-mail: zak_info@yahoo.co.uk.

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