This is a very interesting year for democratic governance in Bangladesh. The national parliamentary elections will be held at the end of 2018. The last national elections, in 2014, was mired in violence and was controversial in many sense.
Since then, bitter politics have continued to dominate the political landscape having wider ramifications on the country's democratic governance. The situation remains tense and volatile as major political parties are yet to come to any consensus as to the mechanism under which free, fair, and credible elections could be arranged.
Debates surrounding free and fair elections, however, indicate only part of the crisis. Bangladesh is now in its 28th year since its second democratic journey began in 1990—following the ouster of the then military regime. The democratic transition has stretched unusually longer than anyone anticipated as the country struggled to consolidate its democratic gains, if any, or to move forward from the procedural form of democracy (holding free elections) to its more substantive nature i.e., developing a well-functioning parliamentary culture, building impersonal political institutions (constitutional and statutory institutions of accountability), establishing solid rule of law regime, promoting stronger and vibrant media and civil society, and developing a service delivery mechanism that is fair, transparent and equitable (effective and efficient bureaucracy). Instead, many of the earlier democratic gains made in the first decade (1990s)—an evolving two-party system, somewhat competitive elections, moderate space for civic and political activism, emerging civil society—was squandered in the following decades (2000s and onwards). As a result, substantial gains the country achieved in the socio-economic frontier did not positively impact the country's political landscape or arrest it from drifting towards the impending democratic reversal.
Democracy's minimal conditions: In quest of free and fair elections
Since the start of the second-phase of democracy in 1991, Bangladesh's quest for a credible electoral mechanism has been never-ending. Political parties fought tooth and nail to tilt the electoral system to their benefits, at the cost of undermining existing institutions. Rather than giving democracy a chance, building solid institutions that can oversee the integrity of elections, the two major parties have prioritised every attempt to prolong their hold on power. Serious trust-deficits among political actors, a winner-takes-all approach, and violent repression of opposition parties are key contributing factors leading up to this development.
In this context, Bangladesh has had five parliamentary elections since 1991, experimenting with at least two models of electoral system: one, the Caretaker Government (CTG) system; and the other, more conventional. The CTG system (1996-2007) was a non-party caretaker government formed specially to hold general elections based on a loose social contract between key political actors. The contract was partly broken when the system was allegedly compromised in 2007.
But the 2008 election was just a precursor to the larger crisis looming. The appointment of the chief advisor to the government, who happened to be the last retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice, was a loose arrangement, hence, was vulnerable to political manipulation. That crack in the design was enough to destroy the whole CTG architecture. However, the return to the conventional electoral system—holding elections under the outgoing regime—in 2014 general elections was also contentious. The ruling party's heavy-handed treatment of opposition parties made things very uneven. The boycott of the elections by the major opposition party made the whole exercise incomplete.
In this landscape, Bangladesh certainly needs a stock-taking of what really worked that can be sustained and what did not work that could reasonably be fixed. One fundamental way to do that is to revisit key assumptions of the two electoral models tried by Bangladesh.
From minimalism to substance: The question of democratic consolidation
Over the last four decades of democratic transition, Bangladesh has had five general elections followed by five elected governments. Leaving the election of 2014 aside, all general elections since 1991 were arguably free, fair, and credible. The governments following those elections made promises, among others, to consolidate democracy by strengthening institutions, upholding rule of law and government integrity, providing civic and public spaces for a vibrant democratic culture, and offering better public service delivery to citizens. How much did they deliver in terms of building or rebuilding democratic institutions, delivering rule of law, and ensuring government integrity? In order to do some soul searching, we need to understand, by regimes, how much progress each regime had made to fulfil those promises. A solid and better reflection could pave the way for a sustained solution.
The path towards democratic consolidation is often constrained by its theoretical limits and evolving structural factors. Trust of citizens on politicians and political organisations that mobilise them is ebbing. How pro-people politics have been undermined by special interests has been a topic of interest among academia for some time. Even in our domain, the role of partyarchy, an overarching grip of partisan interests on every aspect of public life, has been studied by the BIGD, BRAC University (Hassan, Zakaria, and Islam 2014). As, in a democracy or any political system thereof, the ultimate focus of all institutional interactions lies in producing better public good, the role of special and vested interests in twisting policy choices and shaping policy outcome must be examined thoroughly, from all perspectives.
Democracy vs development: Old wine in new bottles?
Since the 2014 general elections, an old theoretical debate has resurfaced in Bangladeshi media and policy-circles: do we weigh development more than democracy? Does development interfere with democratic progress? Which one precedes, or has to precede, the other? With the breath-taking pace of economic development and poverty reduction in unique political dispensations like that in China and some East Asian nations, the question of inefficiency in democratic decision-making process (lack of consensus, legislative deadlocks, populism etc.) and its impact on public service delivery mechanism has been under immense scrutiny across democracies.
However, among new and transitional democracies, the question is even rudimentary: what happens to a new democracy when political settlements are fragile and more interests and actors are competing for fewer resources when cultural barriers are embedded in society? What happens when the notion of citizenship and democratic education are not deeply rooted while the top down approach to change that dynamics is absent or lacklustre? The debate on the relationship between democracy and development is nothing new. Modernisation theorists (Lipset 1959, Przeworski 1991, Acemoglu & Robinson 2006, 2007) have long been arguing that the progression of a society towards a consolidated democracy has to meet certain conditions, which include, inter alia, crossing a certain income threshold (USD 6,000), universal education, and a culture of democracy in the larger society. With a few exceptions, there are not many countries that defied this orthodoxy. This begs the all-important question for us: are we simply following the pattern? Or can we make a subtle difference and join among the exceptional few? In the coming years, Bangladesh has to find its own path when searching answers to these delicate questions.
Sultan Mohammed Zakaria is a senior research associate and assistant professor at BIGD, BRAC University. Email: email@example.com