Development up, democracy down
It is nothing but an air of optimism for the present and the future if the major development activities --both at planning stage and under implementation by the Awami League-led government are considered. But the state of democracy in the country tells of another tale, not so happy or bright.
One of the most courageous moves by the government has been the kicking off the construction of the long cherished Padma Bridge, the largest ever project to be implemented with the country's own resources.
The bridge will be connecting 21 Southern and Western districts with the capital, changing the lives of the people in those areas and boosting the national economy as well.
Three major power projects, the Rooppur nuclear power, and two conventional ones, one at Rampal and the other at Matarbari will contribute to new industrialisation and reduce people's suffering from load shedding.
The terrible traffic congestions should ease up following the implementation of the other mega projects like the Metro rail, the Maghbazar-Mouchak flyover, the Elevated Expressway, the Shantinagar to Keraniganj flyover in the city, expansion of Dhaka-Chittagong and Dhaka-Mymensingh highways, conversion of Dhaka-Chittagong rail line to double track and construction of the Karanaphuli tunnel in Chittagong.
The government deserves credit for these mega projects in addition to routine development activities-- both at planning stage and under implementation.
However, the other side—the state of democracy that largely determines people's satisfaction and happiness—does not look bright for various reasons. The government has taken little effort to put the wheels of democracy on the right track and to improve the quality of governance.
Electoral democracy has been roughshod over in the last two years, reducing people's right to choose their representatives in free and fair elections.
Crucial political institutions including the parliament, anti-corruption commission and human rights commission have been hobbled.
Police and bureaucracy have been politicised extensively and in many cases their partisan handling of issues have made things worse.
There is a severe deficiency of democracy in the major political parties, particularly the AL and BNP- the two archrivals that have been governing the country in turns since 1991.
Therefore, rule of law that ensures human rights and fundamental freedoms necessary for real democracy is getting weaker day by day.
Accountability of the government is absent to a large extent which is contradictory to democratic norms.
The overall situation also raises crucial questions over the transparency of the huge expenditures for major development works and apprehension about the sustainability of economic progress.
Yet, the economy is doing well. Bangladesh has become a lower middle income country through higher Gross National Income. This has made citizens optimistic. It makes them firmly believe that the country will soon be elevated to the status of a middle income country.
In spite of that, political uncertainty still remains a major obstacle to the restoration of investors' confidence discouraging fresh investment despite huge liquidity lying idle in the banks.
The just concluded year began with political turmoil. The BNP-led alliance enforced countrywide non-stop blockade from January 6 protesting the government's move to foil their programme to observe the first anniversary of the one-sided parliamentary election as a day of "democracy killing."
Widespread violence erupted around the country lasting for around three months during the blockade coupled with frequent hartals. More than one hundred people were killed; most of them were innocent and burnt alive due to fire-bombing of vehicles.
The law enforcement agencies took stern actions on the opposition alliance's leaders and activists. The movement failed to oust the government. The political arena remained calm for the rest of the year after the failure when the opposition called off the agitation program and did not wage any further movement.
But the law enforcement agencies were tough against dissenting voices.
Take some examples. In October, police attacked the Democratic Left Alliance leaders and activists who launched a three-day road march from the National Press Club towards Sundarbans protesting the construction of a coal-based power plant in the Sundarbans area. Police clubbed the marchers twice at Manikganj and at Magura city.
Last May cops used brute force to drive away demonstrators trying to encircle the Dhaka police headquarters over the police's failure to arrest suspects for molesting women at the Dhaka University campus on April 14. Police freely used clubs, rifle butts, water cannon, and teargas as protesters gathered near the DMP office.
In September, police attacked students who took to the streets protesting an alleged leak of question papers for medical college admission tests. They were demanding a fresh admission test. Police broke up their human chain and detained some students.
Private universities' students who waged a successful and peaceful protest last year against the government's decision to impose VAT on their tuition fees, faced police attacks at the beginning of their action.
One of the most important safeguards to democracy, freedom of the press, has faced very serious challenges this year.
Journalists came under attack and faced obstruction while on duty during the elections to three city corporations and municipalities.
The government has moved to control media by making registration mandatory for online newspapers in addition to the previous National Broadcasting Policy of 2014 which was designed to supervise and regulate programs and news of private television channels.
Free thinkers came under brutal attacks last year. Four bloggers and one publisher were brutally murdered, creating a chilling effect on free expression of opinions.
Many in the media as well as free thinkers now say they are working under self-censorship. Freedom of press and expression are facing new challenges due to the absence of a functional democracy.
Incidents of forced disappearance, extra-judicial killing and culture of impunity have also severely damaged human rights and good governance in the country.
BACKGROUND OF PRESENT SITUATION
A long period of collective failure to build institutions for a functional democracy has brought the country to this unhappy state.
The birth of Bangladesh was deeply rooted in the democratic aspirations of the Bangalis but the people have never experienced the essence of democracy.
In the past, most of the efforts were focused on only electoral democracy; meaning holding free and fair elections only. But holding only free and fair election is just one of the elements in democracy that make it functional.
A true democracy empowers ordinary citizens as according to political scientists, whether a democracy is effective or not is based on not only the extent to which civil and political rights exist on paper but also the degree to which those rights are respected.
After a devastating war, Bangladesh began its journey as a new nation. But within only three years, parliamentary democracy was discarded and one-party rule was introduced in January 1975.
Within a few months after that the country was put under martial law. Military and autocratic rulers were at the helm of the country until 1990. During this long period free elections were also completely absent. Institutions like the parliament, EC and professional bureaucracy and police that play significant roles in consolidating democracy were not allowed to grow. There were however many infrastructure development works under these regimes.
After the fall of the autocratic regime in December 1990, electoral democracy was restored with a free and fair parliamentary election in February 1991. But absence of democratic institutions and lack of efforts to build them afresh appeared as major obstacles to have a functional democracy in the country. Within five years, therefore, the electoral democracy collapsed resulting in a controversial election in February 1996.
The caretaker government was introduced in March 1996 following violent street agitations that sent a severe blow to the country's economy for months. Free and fair parliamentary elections were held in June 1996, 2001 and 2008.
But again electoral democracy took a hit with the holding of a one-sided election in January 2014. It was further damaged in subsequent elections in upazila parishads in 2014 and three city corporation polls in 2015 and in the latest municipality polls.
History shows it is easy to establish an electoral democracy and it has been proved in many countries. But in the absence of other democratic institutions to support and sustain the best form of government invented so far, electoral democracy cannot last long. Bangladesh has become an example of it.