How fares the opposition in Bangladesh?
The prime minister had made a very profound and significant remark at the beginning of this month on the state of the opposition in the country. She touched the nub of the issue—democracy, the parliament and the opposition. Unfortunately, her comments did not receive the attention that it deserved given the abject condition of democracy and its indispensable adjunct—politics—in Bangladesh. That speaks volume on the scant interest that politics holds for the public or for the major opposition political parties living in the umbra of the ruling coalition. One possible reason could be that the public has swallowed the Awami League mantra of "development before democracy" and would not like to go back to the status quo ante where political activities often impeded development process. Thus, discourse on politics has become less of a priority, indicating the sapping of public interest in politics.
What the prime minister had stated, and I paraphrase her statement, was that the opposition has not been able to gain credibility or garner the confidence of the people. This is not the first time that she had commented on the state of the opposition in Bangladesh. In fact, she had made similar comments last January while inaugurating the Mujib Borsho; it deserves to be quoted in full: "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."
Clearly the prime minister is concerned at the state of the opposition in parliament, as she should be, since an effective, functional and vibrant opposition lend credibility to democracy which the current opposition in the parliament is certainly not, and this has shorn the current parliament of the credibility that a properly elected parliament would beget through a free, fair and credible election. Needless to say, a country without a worthy political opposition is fraught with uncertain political consequences, since the vacuum that such a state of things creates, allows the opportunity for supra political elements, outside the parliament, to fill the void, masquerading as an alternative to the current political regime.
It is good to notice that the military has not been cited as the villain, as was the tradition for the political parties to do till recently. It has been 32 years since we saw the back of Khaki from politics and 52 years since the end of Pakistani domination. Thus, the PM's remarks assume more poignancy for the underlying message it contains.
The long and short of it is, why has the situation come to such a pass? Why has democracy and democratic institutions, freedom of speech and right to dissent become so constrained under the watch of a political party whose political cry was democracy and rule of the people? Should the ruling party not share a part of the blame for the situation that obtains today, a situation unique in parliamentary democracy, where the main opposition in parliament has been subsumed under the ruling party?
One is only too familiar with the tactics that the AL resorted to with Ershad and the Jatiya Party in the 2014 elections. It was about to be scuttled since all the opposition political party had decided to boycott the parliamentary elections. An opposition had to be found, since there could not be a parliament without an opposition, and Ershad was coerced to join. He was hospitalised, a handy euphemism for confinement, while his deputy was only too happy to participate in the polls, which validated the questionable elections that followed. His letter of withdrawal of nomination took several weeks to reach the election commission office from the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), only a few kilometres as the crow flies. Regrettably, AL replicated what Ershad did in 1988 with the fourth parliament. It must have cost the ruling party a pretty penny, apart from the queer arrangement where several JP(E) MPs were inducted in the cabinet. JP(E) came to be jocularly termed as JP(AL), and the democracy we got, as hybrid.
The 2019 elections were conducted in similar fashion. So, what kind of "opposition" could one expect from a domesticated opposition? With the BNP, the main opposition in the country out in the parliament, it was easy sailing for the ruling coalition. And was it not what the AL bargained for? So why rue about something that one is responsible for.
But democracy is not about the parliament and the parliamentary opposition only. There are enabling conditions that facilitate the practice of democracy and conduct of politics—for example, freedom of speech and freedom of association, assembly and right to dissent. Regrettably, space for practice of all the above ingredients have become increasingly constrained. The Digital Security Act (DSA) is like a Sword of Damocles, the worst sufferer is the media, which plays the role of the opposition in the absence of an opposition in the parliament. There can be no democracy, much less an effective opposition without free speech. The proposed new online laws are even more stringent. The recent Zila Parishad Act, which violates the constitution, has dealt a severe blow to the essence of local government, which under the constitution cannot be run by unelected persons. All these are being done, one fears, with an eye on the next parliamentary elections.
The PM's comment is a rueful admission that democracy in Bangladesh suffers from grave deficit. There is raft of issues, apart from an effective parliamentary opposition that need to be addressed. Addressing the questions and applying one's political will, and putting country above party is the only remedy to bring democracy in Bangladesh back on track.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is a former associate editor of The Daily Star.